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A Look at Georgia

In a political version of “Extreme Makeover,” it is hard to point to any other state in the union that underwent a more drastic transformation last cycle than Georgia did.

Out went some of the last vestiges of Southern Democratic rule and in came a Republican tide — sweeping in the first GOP governor since Reconstruction and sweeping out a 28-year state House Speaker. [IMGCAP(1)]

While the win by now-Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), then an underfunded, underestimated state Senator, over Gov. Roy Barnes (D) was perhaps the biggest shocker of the 2002 elections, it was only a portion of what tipped the state’s political scales so heavily in favor of the GOP.

In addition to now-Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ (R) resounding defeat of Sen. Max Cleland (D), House Democrats suffered equal if not greater disappointment in what had been hailed as the party’s most promising territory at the beginning of the cycle.

Georgia picked up two House seats during the last round of reapportionment and, aided heavily by a Barnes-drawn map passed through the Democrat-controlled state Legislature, the party expected to pick up as many as four seats.

In the end Democrats picked up two seats and the new delegation makeup — nine Republicans and six Democrats — is a far cry from what Democrats had once predicted.

Adding insult to injury, several post-election party switchers gave Republicans control of the state Senate and, with newly redrawn legislative maps in place, Democrats are now fighting to hold control of the state House this November.

In 2003 and 2004, Peach State Democrats publicly and privately have sought to regain their footing.

Some of the most visible evidence of their struggle came in the wake of Sen. Zell Miller’s (D) retirement announcement in January 2003, as party leaders scrambled to convince a top-tier candidate to enter the race. Many were approached and some even came close to running. But in the end, all passed.

While the episode has been an ongoing embarrassment for national party recruiters, one needn’t look any further than the list of who decided to forgo the race to determine the list of ambitious up-and-comer Democrats who are positioned to help the party rebuild.

The top two contenders — Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox — both passed on a Senate bid in favor of seeking the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2006. Neither seem overly interested in coming to Washington, at least not at this point, preferring the prospect of a bloody primary battle over what would have been a relatively easy nomination.

But three of the state’s most prominent black officials are all considered possible candidates for Congress in the future: Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond.

Although she ultimately decided against the Senate race, Franklin is perhaps the most logical candidate to succeed 5th district Rep. John Lewis (D) whenever he vacates the seat. In the words of one Georgia Republican, the majority-black Atlanta-based district “would be hers for the taking” if she wanted it.

Thurmond, meanwhile, is most often mentioned as a possible candidate in the 12th district, a Democratic-leaning seat that includes the area from Augusta to Savannah, where Rep. Max Burns (R) was elected last cycle.

Thurmond, who would have to relinquish his state post to run, doesn’t appear interested in a Congressional run this cycle, but insiders warn not to count him out down the road.

While Democrats have continued to search for a viable — which has come to largely be defined as wealthy — Senate contender, several new names from outside conventional political circles have surfaced. Among them: Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D) and millionaire entrepreneur Cliff Oxford.

Oxford is set to decide this week whether he will enter the Senate race. He ran and lost a Congressional primary in1996, and has since made millions by selling his technology consulting firm. While he resides in the Atlanta area, he originally hails from Waycross, in Rep. Jack Kingston’s (R) southeastern 1st district.

Kingston, an Appropriations cardinal, passed on the Senate race and doesn’t appear likely to relinquish his safe GOP seat any time soon.

When he does, state House Minority Whip Jerry Keen (R), a former state chairman of the Christian Coalition, could run there.

Meanwhile, the open-seat race to succeed Rep. Denise Majette (D) in the DeKalb County-based 4th district, has also highlighted a number of up and comers in the party.

Majette, who ousted then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney in a nasty 2002 primary, shocked state and national party leaders late last month when she announced a Senate bid.

McKinney is now running to regain her old seat in a diverse primary field that is expected to grow even more crowded before Friday’s filing deadline.

Also running are Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, who is white and an open lesbian, and state Sens. Nadine Thomas and Connie Stokes, both of whom are black.

State Sen. Liane Levetan and state Rep. Doug Teper are also still seriously weighing bids.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the state have their fair share of contested primaries, with GOP Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins vacating their safe seats to run for Senate.

The state could see another hotly contested GOP primary in 2006, if Rep. Nathan Deal (R) retires. Deal was elected as a Democrat in 1992, switched parties in 1995, and is rumored to be eyeing an exit at the end of next Congress.

Among the possible candidates mentioned in his northern Georgia 10th district are former Rep. Bob Barr (R), who was soundly defeated by Rep. John Linder in a 2002 primary brought on by redistricting, state Senate Majority Leader Bill Stephens and state Rep. David Ralston.

Ralston narrowly lost to Baker in the 1998 attorney general race. Stephens, who does not live in Deal’s district even though he has long been rumored to have designs on it, was press secretary to then-Gov. Zell Miller, before switching parties to run for state Senate in 1998.

While the 6th district race to succeed Isakson is crowded with state legislators, there is one not-so-new up and comer with seemingly limitless future political aspirations in the 8th district fight to replace Collins.

Dylan Glenn, a career public servant who has worked for the Republican National Committee, in both Bush administrations and most recently for Perdue, faces an uphill primary fight against state Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R).

Glenn grew up in Columbus, Ga., but moved to the Washington, D.C. area in high school He has run for Congress twice before in Rep. Sanford Bishop’s (D) southwestern 2nd district, which includes Columbus.

In 1998, he lost the GOP primary and two years later took 47 percent of the vote against Bishop. The 2nd is a marginal district, even after it was made slightly more Democratic during redistricting, but Bishop appears likely to hold the seat as long as he wants it.

Glenn is one of three black Republicans waging Congressional bids this cycle in Georgia, and one of two who could still have political life left if they are unsuccessful.

In the Senate race, former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain’s self-funded campaign has been successful in taking some steam out of Collins’ attempt to paint himself as the conservative alternative to Isakson. Look for Cain, a motivational speaker who has won praise for his ability to move audiences on the stump, to become a player in state politics, and conservative circles, in the future.

Last cycle’s redistricting left the Peach State with four swing districts, three of which are currently represented by freshmen.

The 12th district race against Burns is expected to suck up most of the political oxygen in the state, as Democrats have made Burns a top target this cycle.

If Burns does win re-election, he can expect a fight to hold this seat each cycle and there will likely be no shortage of Democrats willing to gamble on taking out an incumbent in a seat that favors the party heavily.

One Democratic rising star with roots in the district is Atlanta attorney Lawton Jordan, the nephew of Hamilton Jordan, who was chief of staff for President Jimmy Carter.

Jordan, 32, grew up in Augusta and was one of the “40 Under 40” up and comers profiled last year by Georgia Trend magazine.

At age 23, he served as associate director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs during the Clinton administration and was Southern political director for the Gore-Lieberman campaign in 2000. He also co-founded Red Clay Democrats, a fundraising organization tasked with infusing the party with youthful energy and money.

“Smart as hell but unassuming” is how one law-school classmate described Jordan in the Georgia Trend profile.

Among the rising GOP stars in the 12th district is state Sen. Brian Kemp, a 38-year-old first-term legislator who represents a Democratic-leaning district. In 2002 Kemp beat state Sen. Doug Haines (D), who is now vying in the 12th district primary to take on Burns in November.

Other GOP rising stars who could look to make the jump from the state Legislature to Congress if presented with the opportunity are House Minority Leader Glenn Richardson, who hails from the 7th district currently represented by Linder, and 39-year-old state Sen. Preston Smith, who lives in freshman Rep. Phil Gingrey’s (R) district.

Although his district was drawn to help elect a Democrat, Gingrey appears on solid ground in his first re-election bid. He faces Polk County Chief Magistrate Judge Rick Crawford (D) in November.

EDITOR’S NOTE: With this column, “Down on the Farm,” which looked at rising political stars in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, draws to a close. Roll Call will reintroduce its “Under the Radar” column in the near future.

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