Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) announced Tuesday that he would retire in 2004, dealing Democrats a sharp blow in their quest to hold a seat in a Southern state that is trending Republican.
Democratic leaders immediately began searching for a top-flight candidate to replace the maverick Miller, calling prominent Georgia Democrats to gauge their interest. But one of the Democratic leadership’s top choices, outgoing Gov. Roy Barnes, said he is not interested in running for the open Senate seat next year.
“I said after I was defeated [for re-election in 2002], I think it is time for other people to have the stage and not me,” Barnes said in a telephone interview from his new office at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.
With Barnes out of the race, it would appear that former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) would be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. But a Democratic Senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said even if Cleland expressed interest it would not automatically result in the backing of the Democratic leadership.
“We would have to think that through,” the Senator said. Cleland was defeated by then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in the midterm elections. The former Senator could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Senate Democrats are also looking at state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Secretary of State Cathy Cox, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Reps. Sanford Bishop and John Lewis, a high-ranking source said.
In a statement released by his office, Miller said he would not back a candidate to succeed him.
“I will neither endorse nor campaign for any candidate seeking this seat, but I will resign within days after the November 2004 election so that my successor can begin to serve immediately and gain additional seniority,” he said.
Seeing an opening, Republicans began floating several names of potential contenders for the GOP nomination, including at least five current and past members of the Georgia Congressional delegation, including Reps. Mac Collins, Nathan Deal, Johnny Isakson, Jack Kingston and Charlie Norwood, as well as former Rep. Bob Barr. Top ranking Republican sources said Georgia Republican Party Chairman Ralph Reed might receive the backing of the White House should he decide to enter the race. Such a move would help to clear the field and prevent GOP infighting. Reed is close to Bush adviser Karl Rove, who is credited with helping define the field of candidates and winning strategies for many open Senate races in the 2002 election cycle.
A number of potential candidates released statements Wednesday or indicated through their spokesmen and back channels that they were seriously eyeing the race.
“In the past, he has considered this and looked at it carefully and weighed it,” said Dan Kidder, Collins’ spokesman. “Definitely, this would be something he will look at and consider.”
Isakson said in a statement that he would make his plans known next week. And a source close to Barr said Wednesday, “Serious steps took place today to make [a Senate bid] a reality.”
While Miller will not seek re-election, the colorful and outspoken Georgian vowed to continue fighting for the principles he believes in, even if they rub some in his party the wrong way.
“I realize some will call me a ‘lame duck,’ he said. “But those who know me know I will be the same ‘lame duck’ continuing to serve no single party but all the people of Georgia.”
Miller has proven to be both a hero and a headache for Senate Democrats since he was appointed and subsequently elected in 2000 to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.). Democrats relied on his vote to keep a razor-thin operating majority in the Senate for most of the 107th Congress, but at the same time he was supporting President Bush on signature issues such as the $1.35 trillion tax cut.
Most Democratic Senators said they were not surprised by Miller’s decision, but didn’t learn about his plans until a note was passed into a closed-door afternoon meeting. Miller did not attend the weekly Democratic strategy session.
“I was just told that he was retiring,” Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) said upon leaving the meeting. “I am disappointed. He is a valuable member of the Caucus and we regret the news. He has a lot of friends in our Caucus, and I am disappointed he will not be with us in the 109th.”
Several of Miller’s colleagues said they had strong indications as early as last fall and as recently as this week that the Georgia Senator was set to retire.
“I like Zell a lot and have had a terrific relationship with him, but based on what he has kind of said to me personally in the last days I am not surprised,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said. “I had a sense that he probably would not run for re-election.”
“He was brought into this last minute because of a tragedy, and I always felt that he reached a point in his life that he enjoyed retirement a lot,” added Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I think he made it clear to a lot of us that it was a tough assignment, and I am not surprised.”
As Democratic leaders declared their confidence that they would hold the seat, Republicans privately predicted Georgia would be an easy pickup for the GOP. Bush easily defeated then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000 in the Peach State, and both Barnes and Cleland were ousted last year.
Barnes, one of the strongest candidates on paper, said he believes his efforts to change the Confederate emblem on the Georgia flag led to his defeat in November.
“I think there are too many Confederate flags out there right now,” Barnes said. “And I just want it to die down.”
He added, “I know the flag beat me in this last election. I believe I will stay here at Legal Aid representing my clients.”