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Major shakeup unlikely for legislature

ATLANTA - Republicans in the General Assembly will be working to increase their majorities in the House and Senate this fall, while Democrats try to regain lost ground.

But an early election-year look at the political landscape shows that opportunities for either side to pick up seats likely will be few.

This could be the second status-quo election in a row for the Georgia Senate, where Republicans hold the same 34-22 advantage now that they enjoyed before the 2006 elections.

On the House side, the GOP did add six seats in the last election cycle and gained a seventh this year when Rep. Mike Jacobs of Atlanta switched parties. Republicans now command a huge 107-73 majority in the lower chamber.

Indeed, the GOP dominance has grown so lopsided that Republicans in one sense have become victims of their own success.

In 2004, when the GOP took control of the House, and again in 2006, Republican gains came primarily from party switchers and from seats vacated by retiring Democrats.

But that trend may have run its course, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

"There aren't many old timers left who haven't retired or switched parties," he said. "(Republicans) have picked up the low-hanging fruit."

In the Senate, Bullock said, Republicans already have taken full advantage of the advantageous redistricting map drawn by the federal courts, which took effect back in 2004.

That explains why the party makeup of the chamber stayed the same in 2006, he said.

"It's pretty much maxed out," he said. "There may be only three to four seats statewide that could change hands."

Bullock said the General Assembly typically finds itself in such a holding pattern late each decade.

By law, the legislature must draw new House and Senate district boundaries every 10 years following the census to adjust for growth and shifts in population.

Even accounting for the lawsuits that resulted in the maps being drawn twice, the more veteran legislators already have run two times in the same districts and won.

"Incumbents are fairly comfortable with their districts," Bullock said.

By the same token, he said, any would-be challenger may think twice before attempting to knock off an incumbent this year when he or she could wait until after the next redistricting mixes up the lines again.

Issues important

Of course, legislative politics is about more than district lines. It's also about issues.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said those clearly favor Democratic candidates this year.

He said voter dissatisfaction with the way Gov. Sonny Perdue and Republican legislative leaders have handled transportation, particularly their lack of support for commuter rail, will hurt GOP candidates in congested suburban areas.

"People in suburbs are frustrated with the lack of transportation funding," he said.

Porter said discontent with school funding cuts imposed by the GOP will hit home hardest with rural voters.

"People in rural areas live close to their elected officials," he said. "They know the reason property taxes are so high in Georgia is the state hasn't done what it needs to do in funding the schools."

But Ben Fry, spokesman for the Georgia Republican Party, said the GOP has built a record of fiscal responsibility that will appeal to voters across the state.

It's Republican lawmakers who are at the forefront of efforts to overhaul tax and spending policies, from House Speaker Glenn Richardson's plan to replace school property taxes with an expanded sales tax to a Senate-backed proposal to limit annual increases in state spending to population growth plus state government inflation.

Incumbents vulnerable

Fry also said there are still some seats held by Democrats in Republican-trending districts that the GOP can pick off.

"There's probably going to be some Democratic incumbents who haven't voted with their districts," he said.

The list of Democratic House incumbents in districts considered vulnerable to the GOP includes Reps. Jeannette Jamieson of Toccoa, Alan Powell of Hartwell and Jimmy Lord of Sandersville.

Republicans also again are expected to target Sen. Tim Golden of Valdosta, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, but Bullock said Democrats probably will hold on to most of those seats at least until the incumbents leave office.

Two key factors that figure into the parties' respective prospects for November won't be known for several months.

The most important will be what happens during this year's legislative session, which convenes a week from Monday.

After that, Republicans and Democrats will put together their rosters of candidates, who will plunk down their qualifying fees in late April.

"A lot's going to depend on how things turn out between now and qualifying," Fry said.