ATLANTA — A relatively small slice of the electorate will participate in Republican primaries in Georgia and Kentucky, despite international attention and eye-popping sums of money heaped on races that will help determine which party controls the Senate during the final two years of President Barack Obama’s tenure.
Candidates are making multiple campaign stops urging voters in both states to defy forecasts of abysmal participation in Tuesday’s elections. Turnout in primaries across the nation is notoriously low, but the dynamic stands out in a midterm election year defined by widespread antipathy toward the president and all of Congress.
“Voters feel very distrustful right now and voters are frustrated and angry right now,” said former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, one of the front-runners among seven Republicans who want to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
Another top contender, Rep. Jack Kingston, said Monday: “We’re trying to work as hard as we can for a reasonable turnout.”
Six states hold primaries Tuesday. Georgia, Kentucky and Oregon have closely watched Republican Senate races. Pennsylvania and Arkansas have feisty gubernatorial primaries. Idaho has a contested congressional primary.
Republican hopefuls in Georgia have spent more than $14 million combined so far trying to reach about 5 million active registered voters in a state with 10 million residents. Yet several candidates and their aides say they expect 600,000 or fewer ballots cast, with the top two vote getters advancing to a July 22 runoff. About 680,000 ballots were cast in a heated Republican primary for governor four years ago when there were 4.9 million active registered voters.
The eventual nominee is expected to face Democrat Michelle Nunn, former Sen. Sam Nunn’s daughter, in November.
Georgia voters don’t register by party and can choose either party’s primary ballot but not both.
In Kentucky, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is poised to dispatch challenger Matt Bevin after spending almost $10 million, but still with a tepid turnout among the 1.2 million registered Republicans eligible to vote in the closed primary. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who happens to be McConnell’s likely Democratic opponent in November, said she expects a maximum turnout of 30 percent for both party primaries.
Grimes said voters “are tired of the negativity that they see,” using her official forecast to jab McConnell.
Voter requests for absentee ballots are down this year in Kentucky. Early voting in Georgia actually exceeded 2010 totals, though it’s unclear whether to attribute that to increased interest or the campaigns’ emphasis on taking advantage of the opportunity.
The primary is two months earlier than usual after state Republican leaders moved the date in hopes of keeping a divisive primary from dragging into the summer. “Voters aren’t used to that change yet,” Kingston said.
Polls suggest Kingston, Handel and businessman David Perdue will contend for runoff spots, though Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey are within striking distance.
Kingston expressed optimism that several races for lower offices, including the House seats he, Broun and Gingrey are giving up for their Senate bids, will attract enough voters to exceed turnout expectations.
Voting sites open at 7 a.m. local time in Georgia and 6 a.m. local time in Kentucky.
Republicans need to gain a net of six seats to regain control of the Senate, and they can ill afford to lose in either state. Democrats view Grimes and Nunn as their best — and perhaps only — opportunities to swipe GOP-held seats.
Democrats could look to frame low Republican vote totals as a counter to polls that suggest GOP voters are more enthusiastic about the midterms. Republicans typically have an inherent advantage in midterms, given that older, more conservative voters dominate the electorate in years when Democrats struggle to turn out more casual voters that cast ballots only in presidential election years.
Associated Press reporters Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and Adam Beam in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.