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If Taylor fails, Georgia could go back to one-party politics

Enjoy two-party politics while you can. Democrats struck out in the last two statewide elections. They may go down swinging again Nov. 7, thus ending a 26-year stint of competitive Democrat vs. Republican politics in Georgia.

Unless Mark Taylor can stage the election upset of the young century, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue seems destined to waltz to re-election. Democrat Jim Martin is the undisputed underdog in the race for lieutenant governor against GOP state Sen. Casey Cagle.

The longer-term future looks equally bleak for Democrats. U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the Republican who drove Democrat Max Cleland from the Senate six years ago, is up for re-election in 2008. Democrats do not have a capable challenger in sight.

Secretary of State Cathy Cox, once the Democrats' brightest hope for resurgence, has already said no to a Senate bid. Since her embarrassingly bungled campaign for the gubernatorial nomination, no one seems to care that she won't be around for a Senate race. Some believe she may try a comeback one day as a Republican.

Another resounding Democratic defeat puts the Republican Party in full charge of our political destiny. Just as in the old days of Democratic control, voters' choices will be limited. Major candidates will sing virtually the same tune. The candidate who can sing loudest will emerge the winner.

The lyrics to that victory song are yet to be decided, but Democratic history may offer a clue.

Until 1964 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, every important Democratic candidate in Georgia chanted, "I'm a segregationist." After 1964, many white Democrats, even moderates such as Jimmy Carter and George Busbee, used code words to continue the same message.

Today's looming sea change is rooted more in race than in any fundamental shift in ideology about, say, taxes or education. Modern Georgia Republican leaders sound, look and act just like yesteryear's Democratic chieftains. In several cases (see Perdue), the new GOP generals are simply Democratic retreads.

Any impartial observer of today's state scene will tell you this: In post-2006 elections, the main events will likely occur in the Republican primary, possibly between rural and suburban candidates or Atlanta-centric and south Georgia factions.

Remember this well-worn newspaper phrase from the 20th century: "Winning the Georgia Democratic primary is tantamount to election"? Substitute "Republican" for "Democrat." That's what our political future looks like.

From about 1964 until 1980, underdog Republicans made slow but sure progress toward parity, but they were not within striking distance of a major statewide office.

Then a little-known Republican upstart, Mack Mattingly, suddenly ended the Democratic monopoly on high offices. He defeated Sen. Herman Talmadge and became the first Republican senator from Georgia since Reconstruction.

Although Mattingly turned out to be a one-termer, he had released the GOP genie.

The genie notwithstanding, a Democratic coalition of rural whites and blacks held onto power in Atlanta until 2002 when Gov. Roy Barnes lost to Perdue. In that same election, Vietnam War veteran Cleland fell to Chambliss, who portrayed the triple-amputee former infantry officer as sympathetic to our terrorist enemies. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor led the Democratic survivors of their party's train wreck. Taylor had carefully separated himself from the doomed Barnes-Cleland nexus.

The 2004 Senate election to replace retiring renegade Democrat Zell Miller signaled the Democrats' total collapse. The party's primary voters put race ahead of winning. They nominated Rep. Denise Majette, an eccentric black woman with no chance to capture the vacant Senate seat. Johnny Isakson, a Republican once considered too moderate for most Georgia voters, won Miller's seat in a landslide. The Democratic Party became the loser party.

What does such a sea change portend for Georgia?

Chambliss may glide to an easy re-election, though some Georgia elephants grumble that he has been little more than a shill for the Bush White House.

And the next governor - the one who will succeed Perdue - is all but certain to emerge from the ranks of Republican primary contestants. House Speaker Glenn Richardson, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland or a promising but presently little known legislator - Sen. Chip Rogers, for instance - may go for governor.

Of course, a couple of possibilities could spoil the above scenario:

• Taylor might catch fire in the closing days of the election campaign. Even if he doesn't win, defeat by a very narrow margin could rekindle Democratic flames. A few years ago, both North Carolina and Virginia were declared "Republican forever" states. Democrats now govern both. Sen. George Allen, who led the Republican takeover in Virginia, is now fighting for his political life in a state that has gone Democratic in the past two elections for governor.

• On the national level, Republicans could reject centrist Sen. John McCain and turn to a whacko (perhaps a Northeast liberal whacko) as their presidential choice. If that should happen, even Georgia voters might think twice about swimming outside the nation's mainstream.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com.

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