As 2009 dawns, the next cycle of Georgia politics is coming into view. We already have seen coverage of the budding race for governor, with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine preparing to run for the Republican nomination.
Other GOPers considering an entry include Secretary of State Karen Handel and Congressman Lynn Westmoreland.
On the Democratic side, coverage to date has focused on whether ex-Gov. Roy Barnes will mount a comeback attempt. Retired adjutant general David Poythress looks like he's prepared to go for the state's top job whether Barnes jumps in or not.
However, the 2010 contest with the most potential for fireworks has so far received little attention. The primary for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor features, for now, Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson of Savannah and Sen. David Shafer of Gwinnett County. Johnson and Shafer have been on opposite sides of most intra-GOP fights in the state Senate. The two don't hit it off personally either.
While campaigns infused with personal bitterness may not do much for the Georgia political system, they provide great entertainment value. Besides, the joust for lieutenant governor is often a prelude to bigger things. Since 1967, seven governors - three of them lieutenant governors - have come from the ranks of legislative leaders. In 2006, Ralph Reed, a dynamic Republican figure with a national profile, saw his career as a Georgia politician destroyed, perhaps forever, in his quest for lieutenant governor.
During the 2006 campaign for lieutenant governor, Johnson, like most of Georgia's Republican establishment, was quick to jump on the Reed bandwagon. Johnson figured he might as well get an early start with Reed, who appeared at first to be a shoo-in for the post. Reed, an adviser to President George W. Bush, also looked likely to eventually move on up to governor.
At the height of pundit talk of a permanent national Republican majority, the only real question was whether - or maybe how soon - Ralph would be changing his address to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Shafer, who had lost to Reed when Reed was elected chairman of the state Republican Party in 2000, was one of the few willing to plant his flag with Cagle's then-longshot bid for lieutenant governor. Shafer's gamble paid off when Reed's association with tainted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, as well as allegations of other less-than-ethical transgressions, made national headlines during the campaign.
The cloud around Reed helped Cagle coast to victory. Then Cagle expeditiously dispatched hapless Democrat Jim Martin in the general election. Of course, Johnson, who had committed to Reed too early, lost his place in Georgia's Republican power lineup.
Now Johnson has launched a bid to regain his supremacy in the Senate by becoming lieutenant governor. You may expect his campaign to be sparked by his anger over the indignities he believes he has suffered throughout the four years of Cagle's term.
Shafer has his own baggage. He was Guy Millner's right-hand man during Millner's not-quite-successful attempt to become Georgia's first modern-era Republican governor in the 1990s.
Shafer was Oxendine's top aide in the state Insurance Department and lost a race for secretary of state in 1996. His race for lieutenant governor will be fueled by his ambition to reach the highest levels of state government and elbow Johnson out of the way once and for all.
Expect both Republicans to go bare-knuckles in this battle. Johnson may have unexploited weaknesses that Shafer can expose, in a manner similar - if less spectacular - to the drumbeat that took Reed down in 2006. Johnson's dealings as an architect and real estate developer, and his alleged use of his position in the Senate to benefit those enterprises, have never been fully examined by a hard-charging opponent.
Johnson also was close to disgraced former U.S. Attorney Rick Thompson. Before Thompson was removed from office for violating the public trust, Johnson bragged to a Republican state convention about his ability to get Democrats prosecuted.
Now that Democrats are taking charge of the U.S. Justice Department, don't be surprised to see the scandal around Thompson resurrected at an inopportune time for candidate Johnson.
Johnson has enjoyed a position of relative power as the top Republican in the Senate, but endured little scrutiny from a capitol press corps that has dwindled in number and initiative over the last several years. Now that he is a candidate for statewide office, Johnson may well emerge as a better candidate for a little old-style investigative journalism.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at email@example.com.