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Special House Election Looms

As politicians from Capitol Hill to Atlanta mourned the death of Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) on Tuesday, calculations and preparations already were under way for a special election to fill the vacancy in the Augusta-based 10th district.

Among the local GOP lawmakers considered most likely to run to succeed Norwood are state Rep. Barry Fleming and state Sens. Ralph Hudgens and Jim Whitehead.

Former state Sen. Brian Kemp (R) and state Rep. Ben Harbin (R) also have been mentioned as possible candidates. However, Harbin’s perch as chairman of the Appropriations Committee is a powerful incentive for him to stay put.

In Georgia, state lawmakers must resign their seats once they qualify to run in a special election — a requirement that could severely limit what otherwise would be a large field of candidates.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) now has 10 days to issue a writ of election, which will allow the Georgia secretary of state’s office to set the date for the special election. The contest, which must occur 30 days after the writ of election is issued, will be an all-party primary in which the first-place finisher must get more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

If a runoff is necessary, it will occur four weeks after the special election.

Although some Georgia municipalities are holding elections on March 20, neither of the 10th district’s largest cities has local elections already scheduled for that date.

One of the biggest questions that remains to be answered is whether Norwood, who had been hospitalized almost since the beginning of the year while he received cancer treatments, had a preferred successor in mind.

As his health deteriorated his refusal to relinquish the seat he had held for a dozen years had led to speculation that he may have been laying the groundwork for the candidate of his choice to succeed him.

There also has been quiet talk about whether the Congressman’s widow, Gloria Norwood, may play in role in the race to succeed her husband.

The 10th district covers the northeast corner of the state, anchored by the population centers of Augusta and Athens.

The district heavily favors Republicans, although slightly less so now than it did at the beginning of the previous Congress. When GOP state lawmakers redrew Congressional boundaries in 2005, they put Democratic-friendly Athens back in the district and also slightly increased the black population in an effort to make the neighboring 12th district more vulnerable to a Republican takeover.

About 16 percent of registered voters in the 10th district are black.

Hudgens, chairman of the state Senate Insurance and Labor Committee, said last week that he would run if there was a vacancy.

He has run for Congress several times before, with his most recent race being the 1994 GOP primary that he lost to Norwood.

Fleming, meanwhile, is viewed as one of the Legislature’s rising stars. First elected in 2002, he currently is House Majority Whip and is a former chairman of the Columbia County Commission. He introduced a resolution this week honoring Norwood.

Whitehead, a businessman who was elected to the state Senate in 2004, is well-respected and has personal wealth he could devote to a Congressional run.

Fleming and Whitehead both represent Norwood’s base in suburban Augusta, while Hudgens represents territory near Athens.

Kemp, meanwhile, also is from Athens and represented a swing state Senate district until the beginning of this year.

In 2006, he lost a primary bid for state agriculture commissioner, but he still is young and observers say his political career is far from over. He would appear to have the least to lose in gambling on a Congressional run because he doesn’t have a legislative seat that he would be forced to relinquish.

Former Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.), who represented the 12th district for a single term in Congress before being defeated in 2004, also has been mentioned as possibly interested in running for Norwood’s seat. Burns narrowly lost a rematch with Rep. John Barrow (D) in 2006. While his home is far outside of the 10th district boundaries, Burns did represent Athens and some of the territory in the current 10th district when he was in Congress.

Several Democrats have been mentioned as possible candidates in the race to succeed Norwood, although the strong Republican nature of the district and recent political trends in the state make it appear unlikely that the party could take control of the seat.

The list of Democrats mentioned include Athens Mayor Doc Eldridge, state Reps. Jeanette Jamieson and Alan Powell and former state Sen. Carol Jackson.

Tenth district Democratic Party Chairman Terry Holley, the nominee against Norwood in 2006, also is interested in running again.

Norwood won re-election to a seventh term in November with 67 percent of the vote.

If the GOP field is crowded and Democrats are able to coalesce behind a top candidate, it might be possible to force the leading Republican candidate into a runoff. But it would be an uphill battle for the Democrat to win in a two-person contest.

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