Johnson had right strategy to exploit McKinney

ATLANTA - Controversy surrounding U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney eroded her support, and Hank Johnson was astute enough to take advantage, political observers said Wednesday, a day after Johnson upset McKinney in the 4th Congressional District Democratic runoff.

After finishing strong enough in last month's primary to force McKinney into the overtime election, Johnson poured it on Tuesday, carrying all three counties in the district - DeKalb, Gwinnett and Rockdale - to roll up nearly 59 percent of the vote.

McKinney, D-Decatur, took just 41 percent, according to unofficial results, with 98 percent of the precincts counted by Wednesday afternoon.

"When she does something that attracts a lot of negative attention, potential swing voters come out and vote against her,'' said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "It creates an opening for a challenger to come in ... as an anti-Cynthia candidate.''

It's easy to trace what led to McKinney's downfall in the two primaries she has lost in the last four years.

During a decade in the House, she built up loyalty from constituents in the mostly black, heavily Democratic district by sharply criticizing the policies of the Republican-controlled Congress and of President Bush after he gained the White House.

But even many Democrats felt she went too far following the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by suggesting that Bush had prior knowledge of the terrorists' plans.

She paid for those statements in the 2002 primary, losing her seat to Denise Majette.

But McKinney won her old job back two years later when Majette left Congress in an unsuccessful run for the Senate.

With six terms under her belt, most observers believed McKinney would have little trouble winning re-election this year. For one thing, the redrawn 4th District she would be running in featured 59 percent black voter registration, an increase from the old district.

Then in March, McKinney got into a scuffle with a Capitol police officer who stopped her at a checkpoint because he didn't recognize her.

She was accused of striking the officer, but a grand jury declined to indict her.

Even with the new district, she received only 29,216 votes in last month's primary, a sharp dropoff from the 48,512 she had won in the 2004 primary.

Her support fell further in Tuesday's runoff to 28,832 votes. Particularly telling was the huge victory margins Johnson amassed in Gwinnett and Rockdale, where most of the precincts were new to the district.

"Obviously, they didn't like her style of representation,'' said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. "Both her issues and her style ... had a very polarizing effect.''

But there was no guarantee that a challenger would be able to capitalize on McKinney's negatives.

Bullock said Johnson ran the right campaign to take advantage of the incumbent's shortcomings, constantly hammering away at what McKinney wasn't doing that he would do if voters sent him to Congress.

That list included working with other lawmakers - even Republicans - to get things done, whether it be passing legislation or bringing federal dollars into the district.

State Rep. Mike Jacobs, D-Atlanta, who held a fundraiser for Johnson in his north-central DeKalb House district, said Johnson also worked extremely hard throughout the campaign and across the district, not waiting until the runoff like McKinney did.

"He campaigned in every nook and cranny of the 4th District,'' Jacobs said. "Cynthia McKinney didn't show her face in my neck of the woods.''

What that work did for Johnson was solidify areas where voters had already shown anti-McKinney patterns, either in previous years or during last month's primary. Plus, Johnson was able to make inroads into McKinney's southern DeKalb base because he had represented parts of that area as a county commissioner from Lithonia.

State Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Norcross, whose Senate district overlaps the 4th Congressional District, noted that more voters in Gwinnett and Rockdale showed up for Tuesday's runoff than voted in the primary. Usually, runoff turnouts are much lower.

Johnson barely beat McKinney last month in Gwinnett and won by several hundred votes in Rockdale. However, the challenger dominated the runoffs in the two counties, topping McKinney by a 3-1 margin in Gwinnett and more than 3-1 in Rockdale.

Thompson said it's clear that many voters who stayed away from the primary showed up to vote for Johnson on Tuesday.

"There was a coordinated effort to get people to avail themselves of Georgia's open-primary system,'' Thompson said.

Both Black and Bullock said McKinney's political career is probably over, since she now is a two-time primary loser.

But Black said that doesn't mean Johnson's seat would be safe if he goes on to defeat Republican Catherine Davis in November.

With McKinney out of the way, Black said other Democrats may be emboldened to run against Johnson in 2008 if he doesn't perform.

"His challenge over the next two years will be to show that he's capable of delivering as a member of Congress,'' Black said.