Another election season is coming to an end, and Georgia Democrats and Republicans alike are beginning to size up what's going to be and what could have been. Recent polls by various groups have shown much closer than expected contests for the Peach State's presidential electoral votes and for Republican Saxby Chambliss' Senate seat. You have to go back to 1996 to find Georgia contests this tight - when President Bill Clinton barely lost Georgia to Republican nominee Bob Dole, but Max Cleland won the Senate seat now held by Chambliss, in part because of a strong Democratic turnout for Clinton.
Could the same thing happen this year? It's still hard to believe that Democrat Jim Martin has a real shot at ousting Chambliss. Chambliss alienated some of his conservative base when he voted for the unpopular Wall Street bailout while airing a television spot bragging that he'd been in Washington for the last 14 years. That vote and that ad served to reinforce Martin's message that Chambliss is part of the problem in Washington. Now Saxby and his national Republican buddies are fighting back and trying to paint Martin into a corner, but it could be too little too late. If Martin can get the lion's share of Obama's new voters and convince some of the rural whites who pulled the lever for Democrats before 2002 to give him a chance, he could surprise on Election Day.
What about the down-ballot contests? Congressman John Barrow, D-Savannah, who had the smallest victory margin of all congressional Democrats in 2006, should win in a walk this year, presuming a surge in black voters. Congressman Jim Marshall, D-Macon, should also win for the same reason, although his race will be closer because of his tough, Republican-gerrymandered district. Marshall also benefits from the unexpectedly ineffective campaign of Rick Goddard.
Even though Goddard has disappointed Republicans, at least he's there. Dig deeper into the legislative level and you are hard-pressed to find many nonincumbents running on either side. Given the demographic changes in metro Atlanta and the projected African-American turnout surge, Democrats will pick up some seats in spite of their anemic candidate recruiting. That said, they left many opportunities on the table in what is likely to be the best Democratic environment in a generation.
Population changes will lead to the Democrats winning the seat of GOP moderate Rep. Bob Mumford of Conyers. His seat in eastern metro Atlanta is now almost majority black, which is likely why Mumford bailed on the race.
Some other metro seats are possible Democratic gains. Marietta features a repeat of 2004 with ex-Rep. Pat Dooley, the Democrat, taking on Rep. Thunder Tumlin, the Republican who beat her, in a seat with a growing minority population. In DeKalb County, Republican Rep. Jill Chambers faces a tough challenge from Democrat Chris Huttman, a young understudy of the old Roy Barnes machine. That race has taken a strange turn, with charges filed against Chambers with the State Ethics Commission, accusing her of taking illegal campaign contributions from a health-care company that would benefit from legislation she sponsored. Reports are that Chambers upped the ante by showing up at the home of the man who brought the matter to the Ethics Commission's attention to confront him.
Meanwhile, Republicans are playing defense in some surprising areas. Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn, is being propped up by Republican Party television advertising, even though his district gave Sonny Perdue more than 65 percent in 2006. His district, and that of Rep. John Heard, R-Lawrenceville, are at risk because of rapid demographic changes in Gwinnett County.
Republicans are lucky that Democrats failed to challenge numerous competitive seats, even as Hurricane Obama was obviously approaching. Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, is among the fortunate without a Democratic opponent. His district is 28 percent African American, Perdue barely received a majority there in 2006, and more than 3 percent of its early voters are black. Rep. Steve Davis, R-Stockbridge, also unopposed, represents a district with an exploding minority population. He could have certainly been swamped by a Democratic deluge.
While the Georgia GOP will likely lose a handful of seats, their fate could have been much worse. They are this year's proof that it is sometimes better to be lucky than good, and it's hard not to get lucky when you're opposed by Georgia Democrats.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Web address: billshipponline.com.