A tale of two incumbents in Georgia

Posted: Jan 23, 2006 1:57 PM

First, a history lesson. The Republican takeover of Georgia has been swift and decisive. Once one of the last bastions of the boll-weevil Democratic Party, the Georgia General Assembly, governorship, many U.S. House seats, and both Senate seats rested firmly in Democratic hands until the 21st century. 

It was the 2002 general election that proved to be the coming-out party for Georgia Republicans.
In 2002, Republicans took over the Georgia Senate (albeit as a result of party defections). A powerful Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, known to some as King Roy and mentioned on short lists for both offices on the 2004 presidential ticket, was shocked by a former state senator and virtually unknown entity, Sonny Perdue. Then Republican Congressmen Saxby Chambliss sent first-term U.S. Senator and disabled Vietnam veteran Max Cleland packing.

If the 2002 election was the coming-out party, then the 2004 election solidified the GOP’s institutional control of Georgia. Democratic US Senator Zell Miller (yes, he was more conservative than some GOP senators, but he was still a Democrat) retired and was replaced by Republican U.S. Congressman Johnny Isakson. However, the most important Republican takeover was that of the state House of Representatives. 

For years, the GOP has felt that it was under-represented in Georgia’s U.S. congressional delegation. In a state that voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush twice, the congressional districts had been gerrymandered by the Democratic General Assembly to provide more Democratic seats that demographics realistically allotted.

Let’s backtrack just a little bit here to see how this affects Georgia's 12th Congressional District. 

After the 2000 election, Georgia picked up two new Congressional seats. The 12th was drawn by the Democratic general assembly to grab the minority sections of Savannah and Chatham County; most of Augusta-Richmond County, excluding the wealthiest neighborhoods; and Athens-Clarke County, home of the University of Georgia and a liberal outpost in a conservative part of the state. In addition to these three urban areas, a large swath of rural Georgia, running from Savannah, up the South Carolina border to Augusta, and finally reaching to grab Athens-Clarke County completed the 12th. The district was drawn specifically to provide the Democrats with another seat. 

Unfortunately, the Democratic nominee in 2002 was ‘Champ’ Walker, son of now-former state Senate majority leader and convicted criminal Charles Walker. Walker was perhaps the only Democrat in Georgia who could have lost the 12th to a Republican. The Republican nominee, Georgia Southern professor Max Burns, won the seat handily. 

Burns knew that he would be a high-priority target in 2004 and so did the House Republican caucus. Congressman Burns was named president of the 2002 Freshman Class, partly a ploy to harvest national contributions to his 2004 campaign.

In 2004, Georgia’s 12th District garnered the distinction of being the Democratic National Committee’s number one target. The DNC searched exhaustively for a candidate who could defeat incumbent Burns and found their man in Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow. 

John Barrow is a University of Georgia graduate and Harvard-educated lawyer who parlayed his legal successes into a seat on the Clarke County Commission in 1990. In 2004, he waged a successful campaign against incumbent Max Burns to turn the 12th District seat over to the Democratic Caucus. 

Barrow immediately began to foster the image of a boll-weevil Democrat that would resonate with the constituents of the 12th District. He joined the Blue Dog Coalition, a once powerful group of conservative Democrats, mostly from Southern states that has lost its luster recently as Republicans have taken over the South. He sponsored or co-sponsored several bills that the media deemed ‘conservative,’ including a balanced budget amendment, a Social Security reform bill, several veterans' bills, and a tort reform bill that would prevent lawsuits against gun manufacturers brought by victims of misuse of firearms. 

Here's where it gets interesting: In the same 2004 election which saw John Barrow emerge victorious, the Republican Party took over the Georgia House for the first time since Reconstruction, and along with the 2002 capture of the state Senate, the GOP now controls the entire General Assembly. Republicans, who felt that the Georgia congressional map was severely distorted to barely meet the federal requirements of congressional districts, set out to redraw the map in an effort led Lynn Westmoreland, a U.S. congressman and former state House leader.  

In the redistricting process, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Perdue in 2005, John Barrow’s home county of Athens-Clarke was removed from the 12th and placed in the newly drawn 10th District, a heavily Republican district represented by Charlie Norwood. In fact, Congressman Barrow was forced to purchase a new home within the new 12th District so he could run to keep his seat. Additionally, the General Assembly drew the 12th to be more Republican friendly by pulling some counties from Norwood’s heavily Republican district, as well as pulling some counties from Republican Jack Kingston’s heavily Republican 1st District. The 12th District has moved from a sure-thing Democratic seat to essentially a toss-up seat.

And who did the Republicans tap to run in the new 12th District? The first congressman from the old 12th District, Max Burns. Thus, a tale of two incumbents.

Due to the dynamics and history of the seat, John Barrow has the incumbent advantage, but so does Max Burns. Both have been the 12th’s congressman, but the seat was redrawn to give Burns an advantage.

This race should live up to its hype with plenty of out-of-state money thrown around by both parties. With three large metropolitan areas (with low advertising costs) in or near the 12th District, political observers expect a flurry of TV ads from both sides. Georgia’s 12th District has been targeted by Republicans for a potential takeover and will be defended vigorously by the Democrats. It ought to be a dogfight.