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Competition lacking in Capitol races

ATLANTA - Last Thursday, four days into qualifying week at the Capitol, dozens of incumbent state lawmakers remained unopposed.

That relative lack of challengers left political observers looking for a late rush on Friday to sign up before the noon deadline.

But it didn't happen, and, as a result, legislative Democrats face an even more uphill climb to supplant majority Republicans than they did at the beginning of last week.

"There's very little hope of the Democrats retaking control,'' said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "If you don't run anybody, you can't win.''

While it's an exaggeration to say Democrats aren't running anybody in this year's House and Senate races, they are leaving a huge number of seats to the Republicans without a fight.

Uncontested seats

In the House, 71 of 180 seats are not being contested by minority Democrats, according to the list of candidates posted on the secretary of state's Web site late Friday, hours after the qualifying deadline.

On the other hand, there's no GOP candidate in 60 House districts, leaving 49 House races with at least one Republican and Democrat.

On the Senate side, Republicans have wrapped up 19 of the 56 seats because no Democrat is running. Democrats are guaranteed to return with 13 seats, and the other 24 will be contested between the two parties.

In both cases, that means well more than half of the seats already are destined for party or the other.

That lack of competition might not seem surprising following the latest redistricting of House and Senate seats.

When legislators redraw district maps, they tend to protect incumbents, discouraging would-be challengers from taking them on.

But these legislative maps were drawn by a three-judge federal court panel, not the General Assembly, the upshot of a lawsuit filed by Republicans against the round of redistricting the Legislature conducted in 2001 and 2002, when Democrats still controlled both chambers.

"Federal judges try to avoid helping one party over the other,'' Bullock said. "This plan doesn't have partisan fingerprints on it.

Bullock said what may be at work instead is a settling in of voting patterns in Georgia that has left Democrats in firm control of cities and Republicans dominant everywhere else.

Gaining strength

But Democrats are vowing to change that, building upon recent gains the party has made in Atlanta's inner suburbs.

One sign of increasing Democratic strength in those areas is in western Gwinnett County, where Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Norcross, and Reps. Hugh Floyd, D-Norcross, and Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, are all being returned to office without Republican opposition.

"Cobb (County) and Gwinnett are turning back,'' said state Democratic Chairman Bobby Kahn, a reference to the era decades ago when the two counties were Democratic strongholds. "We're gaining legislative seats there.''

Kahn said Democrats also are optimistic about their chances this year because voters are paying attention to the ethics scandals rocking the Republican Party in Washington.

"The national meltdown has made it down here,'' he said. "People are sick and tired of what's going on.''

On the other hand, 2006 being a gubernatorial and not a presidential election year also should help Georgia Democrats, said Rep. Calvin Smyre, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

"Last time, we had to overcome a ticket with (Democratic presidential nominee) John Kerry,'' said Smyre, D-Columbus. "With the ticket being led this year by either (Cathy) Cox or (Mark) Taylor ... we'll be playing only within the parameters of Georgia politics.''

Congressional outlook

Kahn also touted the Democrats' ability this year to field candidates in all 13 of Georgia's congressional districts.

But Marty Klein, political director for the state Republican Party, said the GOP trumps the Democrats' roster of congressional challengers with two former members of Congress.

Ex-U.S. Rep. Mac Collins of Jackson is taking on Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon in the 8th Congressional District. Max Burns of Sylvania, who lost his 12th District seat two years ago to Rep. John Barrow of Savannah, is primed for a rematch.

"These two are extremely strong candidates running in targeted seats,'' Klein said. "Most of the Democratic challengers are running in heavily Republican districts.''

Republicans are also banking on four party switchers to help the GOP gain seats in the Georgia House.

Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, is predicting that Republicans will add six seats to the 100 they now hold. But they already stand to gain four with the defections of veteran Democratic Reps. Richard Royal, Johnny Floyd, Butch Parrish and Mickey Channel to the GOP.

Two of the four skated through qualifying week without drawing a Democratic opponent.

Senate more stable

Republicans are less optimistic on the Senate side, although they say they expect to retain their majority, which now stands at 34 of the 56 seats.

One problem they have that any political party would envy is that they've already gained so many seats in the last couple of elections that the remaining Democratic seats are in heavily Democratic districts.

Democrats hoping to regain lost ground have put up challengers for every Republican-held seat that might have a shot of going Democratic.

Their hit list includes GOP Sens. John Bulloch of Ochlocknee, Johnny Grant of Milledgeville and Nancy Schaefer of Turnerville.

For their part, Republicans are training their guns on Democratic Sens. Doug Stoner of Smyrna and Tim Golden of Valdosta, vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.