Legislative races an uphill fight for Democratic Party

Most statewide candidates on this year's busy election slate are expected to troop to the Capitol on Monday, the first day of qualifying week, and - amid much hoopla - sign up for a spot on the ballot.

While those politicians and their entourages will get most of the attention, Republican and Democratic insiders will be keeping a close eye on a much quieter activity that will be going on throughout the week: qualifying for the 236 seats in the General Assembly.

For the first time in living memory, Republicans have the inside track. After taking control of the House two years ago, the GOP held 100 of the 180 seats in the lower chamber entering this year's legislative session.

Senate Republicans, who have been in control for four years now, enjoy a 34-22 edge.

Speaking to the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce last week, a confident House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, predicted that the GOP will have picked up six seats by the time the legislature reconvenes next January.

"We're slowly working our way up,'' he said.

Actually, that forecast might turn out to be overly modest. Republicans already are in position to gain half of those seats as a result of three party switches that have taken place since this year's legislative session ended last month.

Rep. Mickey Channell of Greensboro went first, announcing his conversion from Democrat to Republican on April 12. Then, late last week, two other veteran Democrats - Reps. Richard Royal of Camilla and Butch Parrish of Swainsboro - took the plunge.

Those aren't the first Democrats to switch parties in the last couple of election cycles. Others came over to the GOP in 2002, following the upset victory of Republican Sonny Perdue in the governor's race, and again in 2004 after Republicans gained control of the House.

But Marty Klein, political director for the Georgia GOP, said he understands why the latest batch of party switchers may have waited until now.

"The last two sessions showed Republicans can lead,'' he said. "A lot of members who may already have felt their values aligned with the Republican Party have seen it play out in real life.''

Another trend giving House Republicans reason for optimism is the number of Democrats retiring from the legislature. Eight House Democrats - mostly veterans - have announced they won't seek reelection, including former Speaker Terry Coleman of Eastman and several others who chaired committees when the Democrats held power.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said it's no surprise that a lot of senior Democrats are choosing to leave.

"When you were in the majority ... constituents and lobbyists cared what you thought,'' Bullock said. "People who hung upon your every word now rush past to the new committee chairman.''

Many of the retiring Democrats hail from rural districts that are trending Republican. As a result, the GOP appears to have a solid shot at capturing four of those eight seats.

Democrats, for their part, say they are recruiting strong candidates to run for the seats Democratic incumbents are vacating, and that the recent spate of party switching is likely behind them.

Despite rural Democrats-turned-Republican such as Royal and Parrish, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said there's still a place in Georgia's Democratic Party for rural politicians and their voters.

"The Republican Party has been taken over by the suburbs of Atlanta,'' Porter said in a pointed reference to the preponderance of suburbanites among legislative GOP leaders and committee chairmen. "When (rural) voters vote that way, they're voting against their self-interest.''

Democrats also are counting on the survivor of this summer's gubernatorial primary - Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor of Albany or Secretary of State Cathy Cox of Bainbridge - to draw Democratic voters to the polls, particularly in Southwest Georgia, still a strong region for the party.

"Either will do an excellent job of leading the ticket in November,'' said state Democratic Party spokesman Emil Runge. "We believe we have a great opportunity to win back seats in both chambers.''

The Senate appears to be the better opportunity for Democrats. So far, only two Democratic senators have announced their retirements, while three Republicans are leaving the upper chamber to run for statewide offices.

Of those three GOP seats, Democrats are expected to put on the biggest push in the 46th Senate District, being vacated by Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens, who is running for Georgia agriculture commissioner.

Bullock said Democrats also could make a strong run at two freshman Republicans, Sens. Nancy Schaefer of Turnerville and Johnny Grant of Milledgeville.

"(But) I'd be amazed to see them take all three,'' Bullock said. "And even if they did, they're still a minority party.''

Dave Williams is a staff reporter for the Citizen. E-mail him at dave.williams@graypub.com.