11/7/2002 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Shortly after 9 o'clock Tuesday night, election returns from Gwinnett County, Ga. (30 miles northeast of Atlanta) pointed to a national Republican triumph and trouble for Democrats far into the future. The result validates George W. Bush's aggressive political strategy and signifies collapse of the Democratic southern remnant.
These returns showed Republicans running well in Gwinnett, which is usually carried by GOP candidates for president but not state office. The entire state of Georgia itself has been a stubborn holdout to Republican domination of Southern politics. The Democratic debacle in the region Tuesday followed relentless targeting by President Bush and his political high command.
The indication that Democratic Sen. Max Cleland was losing to Rep. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, coinciding with signals from New Hampshire that Republican Rep. John E. Sununu would win the Senate seat there, all but guaranteed that Republicans would regain control of the Senate. Beyond the 2002 election, Democrats face a dilemma. The mid-term defeat is likely to push the party more to the left, further eroding Southern support.
Georgia had shown more Democratic loyalty than any other Deep South state until Tuesday. While even Georgia voted Republican for president, it was the only state in the Union not to have elected a Republican governor in the 20th century and currently was represented by two Democratic U.S. senators. Autocratic House Speaker Tom Murphy, whose 42 years service made him the nation's senior state legislator, had crafted a gerrymander designed to produce four new Democratic congressmen. Instead, Republicans elected a governor, a senator and two of the new House members, also defeating Murphy for good measure.
It did not happen by accident. Georgia was a key element in the game plan of Karl Rove, Bush's political counselor, with multiple campaign visits from Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He worked closely with Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition president who was a Southern consultant for Bush's 2000 presidential election campaign and was elected chairman of the Georgia Republican Party last year. Reed launched an early mail campaign to demonstrate Cleland's liberal voting record in the Senate.
Chambliss came under withering attack from the national news media for contending that Cleland, a triple amputee from the Vietnam War, lacked the "courage" to buck employee union leaders on the homeland security bill. Rove and Reed are determined not to permit veteran Democratic office holders such as Max Cleland to masquerade as conservatives.
The result was nearly a Republican Southern sweep, broken only by Democrats winning governor races in Alabama and Tennessee and a Senate seat in Arkansas. South Carolina's Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, elected four years ago on a pro-gambling platform, was retired. Serious efforts at Senate seats in Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina fell far short.
The returns had hardly come in Tuesday night when Democratic activists were denouncing "accomodationist" candidates who were not tough enough on Bush. The House Democratic Caucus is likely to move left under the expected new leadership of San Francisco's Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Democrats cannot win a majority in either the Electoral College or Congress without the South. Under Pelosi-style leadership, Democrats in the House will rely ever more on African-American voters -- whose turnout was disappointing Tuesday.
Democratic prospects in the South -- and elsewhere -- have not been enhanced in the past two years by the party's national chairman, Washington dealmaker Terry McAuliffe. Hand-picked by Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe took office shouting that Bush stole the presidency, and he has waged a non-stop campaign against him. Georgia's other Democratic senator, the conservative and popular Zell Miller, sees McAuliffe as the party's problem and not the solution.
However, Democrats who oppose accommodation with Bush insist McAuliffe is the solution. His talking points mailed around Washington every day assail "Bush's tax cuts for the rich." Yet, the president's barnstorming through 15 states in the last five days before the election -- something not seen by a president in a mid-term election since Richard M. Nixon's much less successful effort in 1970 -- called at each stop for making his tax cuts permanent. That was well received by voters throughout the country, but especially in the Deep South, Georgia included this time.