Legislative Republicans poised to ride Perdue's 'coattails'

Georgia politics for the past several months has been all about the top statewide races and a couple of key congressional contests.

Most of the focus has gone to Gov. Sonny Perdue's bid for a second term and, before that, hotly contested races for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and the Republican nod for lieutenant governor.

On the other hand, little attention has been paid to the 236 seats up for grabs in the General Assembly.

There's a good reason for that. Not much has happened since majority Republicans emerged from qualifying last spring well positioned to retain control of both legislative chambers.

Most of the huge crop of incumbents who drew no opposition during qualifying week are Republican lawmakers, giving an edge to the GOP going in.

Nothing changed those dynamics during the summer primaries. With minimal exception, neither party's voters did the other side the favor of knocking off an incumbent.

If anything, recent developments make it more likely that Republicans will hold more legislative seats come January rather than fewer.

Polls from the past several weeks have put Perdue up to 24 points ahead of his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor.

Those are "coattail'' numbers, strong enough for the governor to carry GOP legislative candidates with him to victory, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.

"If Perdue continues to have the kind of leads that are appearing in these polls, it will surely help Republican candidates,'' Black said.

But the coattail effect doesn't play out evenly. Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said a strong showing by Perdue is most likely to help the GOP win open seats in districts where Republicans already are gaining momentum.

"A longtime incumbent can often withstand that,'' Bullock said. "But when you remove an incumbent and things are already trending against your party, that's what will make it tough on Democrats.''

That scenario particularly fits the House, where Republicans already hold 104 of 180 seats, after four veteran Democrats from rural districts switched parties this year.

Other longtime Democrats from similar districts opted to retire, leaving their seats vulnerable to the GOP.

"We feel like we have a good shot in several of those races,'' said Jay Walker, political director of the House Republican Caucus.

Walker's list of potential Republican pickups includes the seats now held by former House Speaker Terry Coleman of Eastman, and those of Reps. Robert Ray of Fort Valley, Bill Cummins of Rockmart and Paul Smith of Rome.

The Democrats' land of opportunity, as has been the case for the past several election cycles, continues to be Atlanta's inner suburbs.

Democrats have gained both House and Senate seats in recent years in parts of Gwinnett and Cobb counties, and throughout Clayton County, due in large part to an influx of black and Hispanic voters.

"We're building a lot of support in what were traditionally solid Republican areas,'' said Will Widget, a Democratic political consultant working on legislative races.

Ground zero for that trend this year appears to be House District 82 in DeKalb County, where Republican Rep. Paul Jennings is retiring. The district borders Gwinnett County southeast of Interstate 85.

Widget said Democrats also believe they have a chance to knock off incumbent Republican Rep. Harry Geisinger of Powell.

The Senate appears to be a little less fluid. For one thing, only three Democrats are leaving office, and Republicans failed to field a candidate in two of those districts.

Also, Republicans already hold 34 of the 56 Senate seats, and the consensus among political observers is they may have maximized their gains because of Democratic strength in the remaining 22 districts.

"There's a ceiling to how many districts the Republicans can win,'' Black said.

Still, Republicans say they like their chances in the Senate, especially with Perdue heading their ticket.

"Certainly, having a popular governor and a record of accomplishment to put before the people can only help in legislative races in targeted Senate districts,'' said Marry Klieg, policy director for the Georgia Republican Party.

Klieg wouldn't say which seats the Republicans have their sights set on. But it's a good bet that Democratic Reps. Tim Golden of Valdosta and Doug Stoner of Myrna - who perennially sport bulls-eyes on their backs - are on the short list, along with freshman Sen. J.B. Powell of Blythe.

For their part, Democrats are looking to recapture the Athens-based Senate seat vacated by Republican Brian Kemp, who left office in an unsuccessful bid for state agriculture commissioner.

Widget said his party's hit list also includes three incumbent Republicans holding seats in primarily rural districts formerly occupied by Democrats: John Bulloch of Ochlocknee, Johnny Grant of Milledgeville and Nancy Shafer of Turnerville.

While an overwhelming victory by Perdue could affect some or all of those races, Black said it's still important to remember the admonition of the late former House Speaker Tip O'Neill that politics are local.

"A lot of these legislative races really depend on the strength of the candidates and the kind of campaigns they're running,'' Black said.

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.