In a landslide, Chuck Payne became the newest Georgia state senator Tuesday night.
Payne, a Republican, defeated Debby Peppers in a runoff, with 65 percent of 6,771 votes. He will immediately join the state Legislature, which began its session at the beginning of the week.
"I want to thank my family, friends, the voters of the 54th Senate District and those from across Georgia who believed in us and who stood with us," Payne said in a statement Tuesday night. "Our positive, inclusive message carried the day. I can't count the number of Democrats, Libertarians and Independent voters who told me that while they weren't from my political party, they knew that I would always treat them with respect."
Payne said he wants to stand up for "common sense, Conservative values" in Atlanta and plans to be accessible to his constituents.
The fight for the District 54 seat was a classic battle of party politics, a rarity in northwest Georgia, where most candidates compete between different brands of conservative values. Peppers ran as an independent in the non-partisan race, though she told voters that would caucus with Democrats in Atlanta if elected.
The senate seat covers Whitfield and Murray counties, as well as parts of Gordon and Pickens counties — areas where more than 70 percent of voters picked Donald Trump in the presidential election. Peppers said she was fiscally conservative while liberal on other issues, that she would provide an independent voice to the region.
Still, Payne and local Republicans said Peppers was a Democrat in hiding, looking to trick voters into picking someone who doesn't align with their ideals. A Whitfield County Republican Party advertisement showed a wolf wearing a dead sheep with the message "Debby Peppers is trying to mislead the voters."
"I'm grateful to all those who voted for me in a race which I knew would be an uphill battle," Peppers said in a statement. "I deeply appreciate my numerous volunteers and their tireless efforts. I'm grateful our campaign exceeded all expectations."
While running for office, Payne told voters he wanted to gut property and income taxes while increasing sales taxes. Peppers opposed the plan, saying it will put too much burden on the poor. Payne is against lottery tickets; Peppers was not.
Peppers said the state should help college students pay for textbooks. Payne said the state should emphasize technical colleges more. Payne is for the Religious Freedom Bill. Peppers said she would support the legislation if it doesn't include an element that "would have allowed taxpayer money to be used to discriminate against other taxpayers."
Payne received strong backing from established Republicans throughout the state. Of the $90,000 he received, according to campaign contribution reports, about $47,000 came from politicians. Another $19,700 came from political action committees.
Payne has been a member of the Whitfield County Republican Party since 1991. He chaired the organization twice, most recently resigning in 2015 to volunteer on Dr. Ben Carson's presidential campaign.
"Chuck Payne is one of the finest people I know in Georgia politics," said Justin Tomczak, his campaign's spokesman. "It was my honor to help him out as he has helped so many fine candidates in the past."
Payne, a retired juvenile court probation officer, said he could bring to the Senate his experience in criminal justice reform, a priority under Gov. Nathan Deal since 2011. Peppers is an attorney who has helped run multiple family businesses. She believed her legal and business experience qualified her to hold state office.
Peppers was also a Whitfield County commissioner in the 1990s.
The two were competing Tuesday for former state Sen. Charlie Bethel's seat. Deal appointed Bethel, R-Dalton, to the Georgia Court of Appeals in November. The state then held a special election in December, but nobody received more than 50 percent of the vote.
The two most popular candidates, Payne and Peppers, had to then compete in Tuesday's runoff.
Voter turnout was low in both races. In December, about 6.6 percent of registered voters went to the polls. On Tuesday, that rate was up to 9 percent.
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.