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Sweep-minded Republicans facing long odds in some down-ballot races

Gov. Sonny Perdue frequently talks about politics as a team sport, and he has been acting on those words throughout this year's campaign.

Not content just to raise money for his own re-election bid, he has pitched in for half a dozen fellow Republicans on the statewide ballot by showing up at their fundraisers.

Now, with Perdue leading in some polls by more than 20 percent, he may be in a position to help down-ballot GOP candidates in an even more concrete way. If he goes on to defeat Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor by a large margin, Perdue could pull the other Republican candidates along with him to victory, giving the GOP a sweep or near sweep of statewide offices.

"Republicans should be favored for all the open seats and pressing the incumbent Democrats,'' said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.

This is an especially opportune year for the Georgia GOP. Besides the Republicans' successful track record in statewide races during the past two election cycles, they have two key vacancies to shoot for on the statewide ballot, seats now held by Democrats.

Taylor is giving up the lieutenant governor's office to take on Perdue. Secretary of State Cathy Cox also declined another term in her post to make a bid for the Governor's Mansion, losing to Taylor in the Democratic primary.

That leaves Democrats defending only four statewide offices: attorney general, labor commissioner, agriculture commissioner and the only spot the party still occupies on the Public Service Commission.

At this point, Republicans have a good shot of capturing both open seats.

Their candidates for lieutenant governor and secretary of state - state Sen. Casey Cagle and Fulton County Commission Chairman Karen Handel, respectively - are leading in the polls and have outraised their opponents.

Partly because he had to fend off a strong Republican primary opponent in Ralph Reed, Cagle had raised $3.7 million through the end of last month. His Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Jim Martin, had raised $2.2 million as of Sept. 30.

Handel also enjoyed a strong money lead over Democratic Rep. Gail Buckner in the race for secretary of state, bringing in nearly $860,000 by the end of last month to Buckner's $335,000.

However, incumbency still seems to have its advantages for Democrats, even in a state that is trending Republican.

All four Democratic statewide officials seeking re-election had outraised their Republican challengers through the end of September.

Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin and PSC member David Burgess had built up substantial fundraising leads over Republicans Perry McGuire, Gary Black and Chuck Eaton, respectively.

The difference wasn't as dramatic in the labor commissioner's race. Incumbent Democrat Mike Thurmond had raised about $400,000 to $300,000 for Republican Brent Brown.

Aside from the dynamics of this year's races, Republicans face a tall order in scoring a sweep of the statewide elections, if recent history is any indication.

Even as Democrats continued to dominate Georgia politics during the 1990s, Republicans were starting to win statewide elections.

Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, PSC Chairman Stan Wise and former state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko were elected in 1994, even as voters were choosing Democrats across the rest of the statewide ballot.

"In Georgia, we have a tradition of people looking at these races as independent races,'' Martin said. "Over the years, they've voted split tickets. I believe that's probably what will happen this time.''

But Democrats still need the top of the ticket to provide unity.

Black said that's not happening with Taylor because of campaign missteps.

He said the lieutenant governor alienated some blacks, a crucial element of the Democratic coalition, when he started running an ad calling for the death penalty for repeat child molesters.

Mindful of a history of discrimination, black voters tend to be suspicious of the criminal justice system and, thus, wary of tough-on-crime politicians.

Black said Taylor's inability to mend fences with Cox after a bruising Democratic primary also is hurting him among women voters, another key Democratic constituency.

"Democrats seem so divided and unenthusiastic about Taylor,'' Black said. "Females don't have anything invested in (him).''

Although Martin has consistently been running a stronger second in the polls than Taylor, the lieutenant governor hopeful said he's not worried about the top of the Democratic ticket.

"Mark is a very effective campaigner,'' Martin said. "That race isn't over.''

For his part, Cagle said he would welcome a strong showing by Perdue, with its potential to help down-ballot Republican candidates like himself.

But Cagle said he's taking care of his own business and not making any assumptions.

"We're not running a race predicated on the success of anyone but ourselves,'' he said. "We're trying to earn it through hard work.''

E-mail staff writer 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.