The Peach State 2010 governor’s race was moving at a fairly slow pace until mid-April, when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R) suddenly withdrew from the contest, announcing that pending surgery for a spinal condition made a race for Georgia CEO inadvisable (he will, however, seek re-election as lieutenant governor).
Then out of the blue came US Rep. Nathan Deal (R), announcing that he will seek the GOP nomination for governor, competing with five other contenders, Secretary of State Karen Handel, state Sen. President Eric Johnson, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, state Rep. Austin Scott and former candidate Roy McBerry. The next shoe to drop -- a big one -- will be on the Democratic side: Will former Gov. Roy Barnes get in the race?
With Gov. Sonny Perdue ineligible to seek a third term, the Republicans “have a highly competitive primary with at least four very strong candidates,” says Ralph Reed, Atlanta consultant and 2006 candidate for lieutenant governor. “No one in this race can rest on their laurels or take anything for granted.”
The GOP race “is wide open,” agrees University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, who says, however, that Handel “has the inside track.” Bullock says she will benefit from being the only woman in the race. “All else being equal, Republican women would vote for a woman,” says Bullock, noting his impression from speaking to GOP women’s clubs around the state. Handel has voter recognition, especially in the vote-rich North Fulton area from her previous service as chairman of the Fulton County Commission. She may also may draw support from some of the business community and from more moderate Republicans, though her support for a picture ID requirement for voting has helped her with conservatives. Most of all, it is possible that she will have the support of the still popular Perdue, either up-front or behind the scenes.
Deal’s entry into the race was very much a surprise. The Peach State rumor mill had it that he was going to retire in 2010. That he’s running for governor “tells us something about the race,” says Southern Political Report editor Tom Baxter, formerly chief political correspondent for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution; “he would have had to have some pretty powerful folks backing him.” Deal may get the support of some of the business community, since he serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee. In addition, he is expected to have the endorsement of most of the seven Republican US House members from Georgia. He also benefits by being from the heavily Republican 9th District (75% for McCain in 2008) in GOP-heavy North Georgia. Some 60% of the Republican Primary vote comes from North of I-20. Indeed, the withdrawal from the race of fellow North Georgian Cagle was a major factor in Deal’s decision to run.
Oxendine has significant name ID from having won three statewide elections. He has good fundraising potential from having served as Insurance Commissioner since 1995. And he is making a pitch to social conservatives, most recently by opposing (unsuccessfully) the sale of alcohol beverages in the state on Sunday.
Johnson has served in the legislature for 17 years and has many influential friends across the state. In the Senate, he backed a school voucher proposal, popular with conservatives, opposed by liberals and many educators. He will draw votes especially in Savannah, his hometown, and in South Georgia generally. He already has the backing of US Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) of the 1st District (Savannah, etc.)
Scott got press coverage recently by opposing a state House resolution honoring Obama on his election as president. However, in the big “stars and bars” battle of eight years ago, Scott supported the Barnes-backed flag to replace the “Confederate” version. He is from Tifton, which is not a large population center.
McBerry ran against Perdue in the 2006 GOP primary, charging the governor with reneging on his promise to let the people vote on the state flag change. He garnered some 12% of the vote. He stresses that he is the states’ rights candidate.
On the Democratic side, whether it’s a go or a no-go for Barnes, his decision won’t be a big surprise, as there is considerable speculation that he will run and that he won’t.
Evidence for the “yes, he will run” position is plentiful. Barnes is behaving like a candidate, speaking around the state and staying in the public eye. Moreover, as one observer put it, “I have rarely seen a guy more devastated by [his 2002] defeat -- maybe Jimmy Carter -- and rarely seen a guy more driven for redemption.”
But there is equally compelling evidence that he won’t take the leap. Close associates to the former governor are saying there is less than a 50% chance that he will get in the race. “He has not closed the door, but it’s looking less likely,” says one source. Several factors discourage him. One, says Bullock, is that “he would like for the last chapter in his political career not to be a defeat. So he would have to have a strong feeling that he could win for him to run.” Barnes is expected to make a decision by next month.
The presence of Attorney General Thurbert Baker in the Democratic race would have to enter into Barnes’ calculations. Baker has won election statewide as attorney general three times, although he has kept a relatively low profile in that office. While Barnes lost re-election as governor in 2002 in large part because he worked with the legislature’s black caucus to remove the Confederate battle flag from the official state flag, black voters might move strongly in Baker’s direction if his candidacy looks viable, much as they moved from long-time ally Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama last year. With African-Americans accounting for nearly half of the Democratic Primary turnout and the prospect that Baker would get some white support (he’s tough on crime), he starts out as a likely favorite for the Democratic nomination.
There has been some speculation, however, that Baker’s anti-crime stance, including support for capital punishment, would hurt him with some black voters. Writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, columnist Jim Galloway noted that the Rev. Joseph Lowery and state Sen. Emanuel Jones, both key black leaders, have expressed their policy concerns to Baker, and that Baker will be meeting with African-American legislators later this month in hopes of allaying those concerns. Two white candidates are also meeting with the group, and on equal footing with Baker. Other observers, however, believe the likelihood is that African Americans would not let policy differences keep them from helping Baker make history by becoming the state’s first black governor.
Two other Democrats are also in the race.
House Minority Leader DuBose Porter has served in the lower chamber for 26 years and should have significant support from many fellow House members. He's from Dublin, another low-population area.
David Poythress is a former Secretary of State, former Labor Commissioner -- both positions filled by statewide elections -- and state adjutant general, an appointive post. He has endorsed President Obama’s stimulus package as a way to help Georgia avoid a property tax increase. Poythress ran for governor in 1998, finishing third with 14% of the Democratic Primary vote.