Republicans look for gains in Georgia

U.S. House Democrats only need a net gain of 15 seats this fall to recapture the majority they lost a dozen years ago in the Republican onslaught led by Newt Gingrich.

With gasoline prices through the roof, widespread opposition to the war in Iraq and President Bush's approval rating sinking, many political observers are predicting that's just what will happen.

To prove them wrong, Republicans can't just rely on holding GOP seats in competitive races; They'll need to take some away from incumbent Democrats.

That's where Georgia's 8th and 12th congressional districts come in.

Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon, is seeking a third term representing the 8th District, which stretches from Newton County all the way to within one county of the Florida line.

Rep. John Barrow, D-Savannah, is looking for a second term in the 12th, a swath of eastern Georgia that runs from parts of Augusta into Savannah.

"Jim Marshall and John Barrow are two of the weakest and least effective Democratic members of the U.S. House,'' said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP's campaign arm.

"These two seats represent two of the Republicans' top-five opportunities for pickups.''

Indeed, except for the candidates around the state and their campaigns, there's widespread consensus that the 8th and 12th districts offer Georgia's only competitive congressional races.

All seven Republican incumbents are strong bets to win re-election. The other four seats held by Democrats are expected to stay that way, including the 4th District, where incumbent Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Decatur, lost her seat to Democratic primary challenger Hank Johnson.

But neither the 8th nor 12th promise to be easy pickings for the GOP. In fact, in its weekly assessment of all 435 congressional elections, The Cook Political Report - a Washington-based newsletter - rated both races as "leaning Democratic.''

Although the Republican-controlled General Assembly boosted GOP chances by redrawing Georgia's congressional map last year, demographics still are working against them in the 8th and 12th.

The two districts still feature large black voting populations, about 30 percent in the 8th District and nearly 42 percent in the 12th.

Despite ongoing attempts by Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere to improve their candidates' showing among black voters, African-Americans continue to overwhelmingly support Democrats.

However, that demographic advantage for the Democrats isn't translating evenly in the two districts.

The 12th District's "Democratic performance,'' a crunching of results from national and statewide elections between 2000 and 2004, is a strong 52.7 percent.

But the 8th District only posted a Democratic performance of 45.7 percent during that period, likely a reflection of the large military presence in Middle Georgia. Service members tend to vote for Republicans.

President Bush competed well in the 12th District in the 2004 presidential election, winning 49.5 percent of the vote, and he garnered nearly 61 percent in carrying the 8th District.

Those numbers have to be encouraging for former Rep. Mac Collins, the Republican from Hampton who is challenging Marshall.

But Mike Digby, a political science professor at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, said Collins faces tougher odds against Marshall than confront another former GOP congressman, Max Burns, in his race against Barrow.

For one thing, Collins isn't a household name in the redrawn 8th District because he represented only a small portion of it during a dozen years in the House, Digby said.

Also, he said, Marshall showed resilience in winning the seat in the first place in 2002 and in gaining re-election two years ago. Both times out, he was targeted by national Republicans as a Democrat running in a district that should belong to the GOP.

"Marshall has done a very astute job of positioning himself in the center,'' Digby said. "It's hard to present him as a national Democrat when he hasn't been one.''

In particular, Digby cites Marshall's support for the war in Iraq and his work to save Robins Air Force Base from falling victim to last year's round of base closings.

While the raw statistics in the 12th District look better for Barrow, he faces some obstacles placed in his way by Republican mapmakers in the General Assembly.

The former Clarke County commissioner ran Burns out of Congress two years ago in a district that included Barrow's Athens base.

After a new congressional map put Athens-Clarke into the heavily Republican 10th District, he moved to Savannah, where he is less well known.

The new 12th District is considered friendlier turf for Burns. It includes more rural counties similar to the Republican's home base of Screven County.

"The district changed more than Marshall's did,'' Digby said. "It could go either way. It's going to depend on who runs a better campaign during the last two months.''

But Democrats argue that Barrow showed voters a commitment to the district by relocating. The law doesn't require House members to live in their districts.

And in Marshall, a former Macon mayor and Vietnam veteran, party stalwarts point to a track record of surviving repeated assaults from Republicans.

"These guys are going to be fine,'' said Adrienne Elrod, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Georgia voters will certainly send both back to Congress in November.''

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.