Monday, January 22, 2007

Why Georgia May Not Be on Democrats’ Minds

By Stuart Rothenberg

A couple of days after the midterm elections, I checked out the Senate class of 2008 and noticed that Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) is on the list. I wondered, could Democrats, who held both of Georgia’s Senate seats and the state’s governorship as recently as 1990, knock off Chambliss?

The wise answer is that it may be possible, but at this point it’s unlikely. The better answer may well be a resounding, “Are you nuts?”

While 49 states seemed to move toward the Democratic Party in November’s elections, Georgia, the state that gave the nation Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, continued its shift toward the GOP. In fact, Georgia was the only state in the nation where Republicans significantly improved their standing in the 2006 midterms.

Republicans retained their 34-22 majority in the state Senate and gained two more seats in the Georgia House, making Georgia one of the rare states where Democrats did not make state legislative gains. In addition, Republicans re-elected their governor handily and gained two statewide offices — lieutenant governor and secretary of state — that previously had been held by Democrats.

At the Congressional level, state Republicans held on to all of the seven seats that they had going into the midterms, and they came within a hair of picking up another district or two. Given what happened nationally, that was a notable result. In fact, Georgia was the only state with at least two Congressional districts where Republicans had more opportunities for House takeovers — Rep. Jim Marshall’s 8th district and Rep. John Barrow’s 12th district — than Democrats did.

Georgia was not one of the earliest Southern states to move away from the Democratic Party. South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and a number of other former states of the Confederacy moved to the Republican Party well before Georgia did, in part because Carter’s two presidential races kept Peach State Democrats loyal to their party.

But over the past six years, Georgia has been making up for lost time, moving toward the GOP column more vigorously than virtually any other state in the nation. As respected University of Georgia political science professor Charles S. Bullock III noted in a column of the online newsletter InsiderAdvantageGeorgia, Georgia has more white evangelicals, more Republicans and a higher percentage of Iraq War supporters than the country as a whole.

Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) clobbered the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, Democrat Mark Taylor, by almost 20 points, and Republican Casey Cagle, who won a bitter primary over Ralph Reed, won the open lieutenant governor’s office by almost a dozen points.

Yes, Democrats still hold three statewide offices — attorney general, state labor commissioner and agriculture commissioner — but all three of those Democrats have served for years, and state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, an African-American, isn’t exactly a liberal activist. He won an award last year from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for his work on legal reform and for his efforts to “broaden cooperation” between the business community and state attorneys general.

In recent years, a Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, and a Democratic Senator, Max Cleland, were ousted from office, even though both incumbents were at one time portrayed as invincible. And defeated gubernatorial hopeful Taylor was just the kind of Democratic good old boy who once easily won elections in Georgia.

The only high-profile Democrat who might have been able to carry the state recently was former Sen. Zell Miller (D), who not only voted more like a Republican than a Democrat but who actually gave the keynote address at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

More than anything else, the national political environment has defined Georgia Democrats, and that has strengthened the Republicans’ hand.

So far, the only name circulating as a possible challenger to Chambliss is DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones. But whatever Jones’ personal qualifications and appeal (I have not met him), it is very difficult to imagine a young, Democratic, African-American officeholder from Atlanta with some personal and legal baggage winning a Senate race next year — even one who has admitted voting for President Bush in 2004.

While 2006 was a bad year for Republicans almost everywhere, it was “less bad” in the South. The region is likely to be the GOP’s strongest area in 2008, and the presidential election guarantees that the two parties’ national images will be in the spotlight, making it difficult for Senate candidates to run purely “local” races.

None of this means that Saxby Chambliss is invulnerable in 2008. But it does mean that Democrats are likely to have far better Senate opportunities elsewhere than they will in increasingly Republican Georgia.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 18, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.