Monday, June 29, 2009

Georgia Governor: Roy Barnes Hopes for a Successful Second Act

By Stuart Rothenberg

The last time I saw Roy Barnes was the day before Election Day in 2002. The Democrat was hobnobbing with CNN executives, reporters and producers in a hip Atlanta condo.

I’m not certain that Barnes, who was then governor of Georgia, knew that he was less than 24 hours from suffering a stunning re-election defeat. I know I was surprised, as were many others, including some Democrats who talked about Barnes as a presidential candidate in 2004.

Now, Barnes is ready to make another gubernatorial run, hoping that changed circumstances and a considerable dose of new-found humility will help him win a second term as Georgia’s chief executive.

Barnes’ defeat more than six years ago can be traced to his controversial decision to change the state flag, his alienation of state teachers and his inability to resolve the state’s transportation problems.

National Democratic strategists were euphoric at the news that Barnes wanted to make a comeback. The Democratic field without him was far from intimidating, and Barnes’ campaign skills and past fundraising success has most state political observers rating him the early favorite in the Democratic race. Polling substantiates that.

Also in the race is state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, state House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and Lt. Gen. David Poythress, a retired Georgia adjutant general who also served as secretary of state and state labor commissioner. But observers are skeptical that any of them can raise enough money to compete with the former governor.

Baker, who is black, would seem to be a formidable opponent in the primary. African-Americans, after all, account for more than 45 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, and Baker has not had a difficult race since he was appointed to his office in 1997 by then-Gov. Zell Miller (D).

But Baker has compiled a generally pro-business record, and he angered African- American leaders when he appealed a lower court decision that reduced the charge against and ordered the release of Genarlow Wilson, a 17-year-old high school athlete who was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation for having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a party. (The Georgia Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the 10-year sentence was “grossly disproportionate” and released Wilson.)

Unfortunately for Barnes, the primary is likely to be his easier challenge.

While the GOP field is not intimidating, the state has changed considerably since Barnes’ last campaign, and it is not to his advantage.

When Barnes was first elected governor, Democrats controlled both chambers of the state’s General Assembly and had won 14 of the previous 15 gubernatorial contests. But the GOP made considerable gains in the 2002 elections, and shortly after Election Day, a handful of Democrats switched parties to give the GOP a majority in the state Senate. Republicans won the Georgia House in 2004, the same year they captured a second U.S. Senate seat — putting two Republicans in the Senate for the first time since the passage of the 17th Amendment (which transferred Senators’ selection from the state legislatures to a popular election).

Georgia has now become a red state, with a Republican governor, two GOP Senators and solid Republican legislative majorities. Democrat Barack Obama drew 47 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential race.

Following the surprising exit of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle from the race, the frontrunners for the Republican nomination appear to be Rep. Nathan Deal and Secretary of State Karen Handel. State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine and state Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson are regarded as long shots. Oxendine, who was first elected to his office in 1994, leads in some polling but has been dogged with ethics controversies and isn’t seen as the likely GOP nominee.

Observers see Deal as a more formidable general election candidate, though they agree that his service in Washington, D.C., may not be an asset given Congress’ image.

Handel, who earned a GED and worked in the nation’s capital for Hallmark Cards and later in the Bush-Quayle White House before moving to Georgia and being elected to the Fulton County Commission, is regarded as less prepared to stand toe-to-toe with Barnes in a debate.

Democrats hope that, while partisan trends in the state have worked against Barnes, the state’s current problems will work to his advantage. They note that the state’s economy is an albatross around the GOP’s neck, and Georgia Republicans have failed to deliver on their promises to deal with the state’s transportation problems.

Republican legislators recently cut $3 billion in spending, and party leaders may need to call a special legislative session to cut another $1 billion from the state’s budget.

Barnes’ prospects will depend on both the strength of the Republican nominee and the quality of the former governor’s campaign. Some observers are concerned that while Barnes talks of having changed his approach (by listening more to others) and promises to run a very different campaign than he did in 2002, he is surrounding himself with many of the same people who served him as governor and who worked for him in his last race.

Veteran consultant Ray Strother, for example, will come out of retirement to consult, while Chris Carpenter, who was deputy chief of staff during Barnes’ term as governor, will serve as campaign manager.

The state’s Republican bent means that Barnes starts off as an underdog. But depending on who wins the GOP nomination, how the state’s finances look 15 months from now, and whether Barnes can control himself and not sneer at his adversaries, the former governor may find himself with an opportunity to prove he has learned his lessons.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on June 25, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.