ATLANTA - When legislative Republicans redrew Georgia's congressional map last year, one of the main arguments they used to bolster their case was that it looked a lot better than its predecessor.
Gwinnett County, for example, which was split among four congressional districts in the 2002 map drawn when Democrats ran the General Assembly, was divided just two ways. So was Rockdale County, which had been divided among three districts by the old map.
Elsewhere in the state, oddly twisted districts that sprawled from Athens to Savannah and from Chattooga County to Columbus were put into more compact shapes.
But there was a glaring exception to that trend. Where legislative Democrats had formed a fairly tight district in middle Georgia around Macon, their GOP counterparts created a long, thin district running through the state's midsection into far south Georgia.
As a result, U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Macon, and his Republican challenger, former Rep. Mac Collins of Jackson, are being forced to scramble back and forth over more than 200 miles of campaign trail between Covington and Moultrie in search of votes.
More importantly, the winner of the Nov. 7 election will go to Washington representing an 8th Congressional District that extends from north of Interstate 20 to within one county of the Florida line.
"When you put Newton County and Colquitt County in the same congressional district, that's a stretch by anybody's definition,'' said state Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington. "Newton and Colquitt have completely different interests, Newton being suburban/exurban and Colquitt being almost completely agricultural.
"It's a district dominated by Macon, which has little in common with either end of the district.''
Like the Democrats before them, Republican mapmakers drew the new map with an eye on political gain.
Black voter registration in the new 8th Congressional District is 28.8 percent, down from 35.3 percent in the district Marshall now represents, middle Georgia's 3rd District.
Black voters tend to support Democratic candidates by large margins.
Also, President Bush posted a stronger showing in 2004 among voters within the new district's boundaries than in the old district.
In defeating Democrat John Kerry two years ago, the Republican president rolled up 60.6 percent of the vote in what is now the 8th District, up from 56.2 percent in the old 3rd District.
"They redrew it to make it what they think is more Republican,'' said Georgia House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin.
The new map was a blow particularly to Porter and other Democratic leaders from middle Georgia, who in 2002 had made giving the region a congressional district of its own a top priority.
"For a long time, we wanted a middle Georgia district,'' he said. "You had the interests of Macon, the (Robins Air Force) Base and the VA (hospital in Dublin). It's a community of interest.
"We hate that we no longer have a compact middle Georgia district.''
Mike Digby, a political science professor at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, said the new district goes against the good-government principles of redistricting.
"In the ideal world, legislative districts should be compact and contiguous, so you don't have a great deal of elongation ... and a greater possibility that those living in the district will share common values and economic conditions,'' he said.
Digby said that, from a practical point of view, sprawling districts also tend to make local government leaders feel they're less likely to get the ear of their congressman in addressing community needs.
"If you ask local officials, they'll just about always say they'd like to have a representative who is from their part of the state because he'd understand them better and have had previous contact with them,'' he said.
Dan Miller, chairman of the Worth County Commission, said he's not concerned about his ability to communicate with a congressman from middle Georgia - or even exurban Atlanta - as much as the confusion the new map would sow among his constituents.
Worth County is one of three in the new 8th District that are being split between two districts, the others being Newton and Baldwin. Worth is now divided between the 8th and Southwest Georgia's 2nd Congressional District.
"People won't know who to call when they need to talk to their congressman,'' Miller said.
New and improved
But a Georgia Republican Party official speaking on background pointed out that the middle Georgia district drawn by Democrats in 2002 actually featured five split counties, including Bibb and Houston.
In an effort to maximize Democratic strength in the Macon-based district, Democratic leaders moved a large portion of Republican-leaning Houston County into the heavily Republican 1st Congressional District and shifted Bibb County suburbs north of Macon full of GOP voters into a Republican-dominated district stretching from suburban Columbus into Rockdale and Newton counties.
Statewide, the new map splits 18 counties and just 20 precincts, compared to 34 counties and 88 precincts under the 2002 map.
There's also precedence for a long, thin congressional district running through middle and south Georgia. During much of the 1990s and into this decade, the 8th District started in Lamar and Monroe counties north of Macon and extended southeast all the way to the Florida border at the Okefenokee Swamp in Charlton County.
It was represented for much of that time by Republican Saxby Chambliss of Moultrie, who moved up to the Senate in 2002.
"The previous district was similar in a sense of having one metro area (Macon) and a lot of rural areas,'' Digby said. "The old district was fairly disparate and diverse. I'm not sure the new district is any more disparate.''
Douglas, the senator from Newton County, seems resigned to the new district's shape. Ultimately, he voted with his Republican colleagues in favor of the map despite his reservations.
"It's the district we have, hopefully until 2011,'' he said, referring to the year after the next Census, when the General Assembly will have to undertake redistricting again.
"I think we're all tired of redrawing districts. We'll just go with what we have.''