The rush to fill the opening created by Rep. John Linder’s (R) surprise weekend retirement announcement was immediately overshadowed in Georgia political circles by Rep. Nathan Deal’s (R) unexpected decision to resign next week to run a full-time gubernatorial campaign.
But even as Deal was stealing headlines on Monday, the jockeying was already well under way in Linder’s safely Republican, suburban Atlanta 7th district.
With two months to go before the state filing deadline and less than five months to go before the primary, the 7th district race is going to be a sprint rather than a marathon and the ability to raise funds quickly will be crucial.
The first indicator of who will be a serious candidate will be the first-quarter Federal Election Commission reporting deadline on March 31. That gives candidates just more than four weeks to raise the six-figure totals that will be needed for their campaigns to be taken seriously.
State Sen. Don Balfour (R) was the first candidate to throw his hat into the race to replace Linder on Monday afternoon.
“I think many people in the country are looking for someone to go to Washington and work on one big issue, and that’s getting its budget in order, like families around the country are sitting around their tables and getting their budgets in order,” Balfour said in an interview Monday.
Balfour, who was first elected to his seat in 1992, is the longest-serving Republican in the state Senate. He currently serves on the Appropriations Committee and is chairman of the Rules Committee.
Balfour has already started putting together a campaign finance committee that he described as a “who’s who” of well-known individuals from Gwinnett County — which anchors the 7th district — and across Georgia. With it, and by putting in his own resources, Balfour said he expects to come up with the $1 million to $1.5 million he’ll need to beat the three or four other Republicans he expects to enter the race.
One of those other candidates will likely be state Rep. Clay Cox, who said Monday that his interest in the Congressional race is “extremely high.”
Cox said he has family and business concerns to tie up before he makes any formal announcement, but he said his final decision would come this week.
If he does run, it will not be Cox’s first Congressional campaign. He ran in 2002 in the 13th district, which was created after the 2000 Census. He lost the general election by 20 points to now-Rep. David Scott (D) in the Democratic-leaning district. Cox spent $640,000 in that contest, more than $150,000 of which came from his own pocket. He said that if he runs again, he’d be ready to put a large amount of his own money into the race.
Another state legislator who is also a prolific fundraiser and would join Balfour and Cox in the top-tier of contenders is state Sen. David Shafer (R).
Shafer is a former executive director of the Georgia GOP who earned his party’s nomination for secretary of state in 1996.
Shafer said in an interview Monday that he is keeping his options open.
“I’m talking with my family and I expect to have a decision shortly,” he said.
GOP State Reps. Tom Rice and Donna Sheldon have also been mentioned for the 7th district race, as have Gwinnett County Commissioner Mike Beaudreau (R) and Gwinnett County GOP Chairman Chuck Efstration.
Another name being floated is former Christian Coalition architect Ralph Reed.
One Georgia Republican insider said he expects Reed — a well-known conservative voice who lives in the district — to be a key figure in the race even if he doesn’t run.
Meanwhile, a few of the other Republicans whose names were thrown out as potential candidates over the weekend took themselves out of consideration on Monday.
A spokeswoman for Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway (R) said her boss would not be a candidate despite the development of a “draft Conway” movement on Facebook.
“The sheriff is not going to be running for that seat,” said Stacey Bourbonnais. “While he appreciates the support, he feels he can best serve the citizens of Gwinnett County and the needs of the county in the position he currently holds.”
And despite some speculation that he might switch races, Sandy Springs City Councilman Doug MacGinnitie is sticking with his secretary of state bid.
“Doug is honored to be considered along with all the other potential candidates, but he’s committed to winning the secretary of state’s race,” campaign manager Brandon Phillips said.
Famed Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz also quickly took his name off the table when he was contacted by local newspapers on Monday.
Democrats are not expected to contest the open-seat race, and therefore Linder’s successor will likely be determined in the primary — or more likely in the Aug. 10 runoff.
Meanwhile, in the 9th district, Deal’s resignation on March 8 seems likely to have little impact on the crowded GOP primary. The field is already set with state Sen. Lee Hawkins and state Rep. Tom Graves as the leading GOP candidates.
Deal’s early departure will set up an all-party special election in the 9th district.
The date of the election will be set by Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) after Deal officially resigns. The earliest it could take place would be mid-March, but insiders are already looking for the date to be set to coincide with the regularly scheduled July primaries.
“Holding one primary date saves money for everyone involved,” acknowledged Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley. “The only other date that would naturally stand out is if there is a local election already scheduled” in the 9th district between mid-March and July. “I don’t know of any right now.”
Both Graves’ and Hawkins’ campaigns said Monday that they are prepared to run in the special election as well as the primary.
Chip Lake, chief of staff to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R), said Deal’s decision to resign rather than leave at the end of his term was encouraged by leading Georgia Republicans, who are concerned that state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine may prevail in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
“Nathan simply acted on pressure by prominent Republican leaders to drastically recommit himself to winning out of growing concern that the insurance commissioner could win the Republican primary on name ID alone,” Lake said.
If that happened, then former Gov. Roy Barnes (D) would beat Oxendine “like a drum in November,” Lake said.