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Democrat Thurmond will run for US Senate

Labor commissioner will face incumbent Isakson

POSTED: April 21, 2010 10:29 p.m.

ATLANTA — Can a Democrat win a U.S. Senate seat from Georgia in 2010? We’re about to find out.

Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond on Wednesday became the first prominent Democrat to announce he would run against Republican incumbent Sen. Johnny Isakson.

With his wife, Zola, at his side in the Capitol, Thurmond told the crowd of supporters and media that going to the Senate was the best way for him to help Georgians.

“It’s time to send someone to Washington who will put you and your family first,” Thurmond said. “At this critical juncture in the history of our nation, we need servant leaders in Washington who will forsake political expediency and partisan gridlock.”

But Thurmond faces a tough battle in unseating a well-established Republican incumbent, said Ross Alexander, a political scientist at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega.

“I would not want to be a Democrat running for statewide office in Georgia,” Alexander said Wednesday. “Georgia is a one-party state, traditionally. But it was the other party for 120 years, and now it’s the Republicans. ... It’s a tough road ... for any Democrat challenging an experienced, incumbent Republican.”

But the head of Hall County’s local Democratic party, Jim Taflinger, said he thinks Thurmond will be a “very strong” opponent for Isakson.

“I think he’s very well-versed in the issues. I think he represents the party well,” Taflinger said. “He adds diversity to our ticket, and I’m excited to work for him.”

Thurmond, finishing his third term as labor commissioner, would be the first black senator from Georgia were he able to unseat Iskason. The Senate currently has only one black member, Illinois’ Roland Burris, and he is not seeking re-election in November.

Thurmond, an Athens native, will face R.J. Hadley of Rockdale County in the Democratic primary July 20. The winner will face an uphill fight against Isakson, who was elected in 2004 and has more than $4 million in his campaign coffers.

Isakson, who recently spent time in the hospital for a bacterial infection and an irregular heartbeat, issued a statement Wednesday saying he is energized and ready to campaign aggressively for a second term.

“Georgians will get to choose whether they want someone who represents their conservative values or someone who will push the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda of government health care, cap-and-trade taxes, skyrocketing debt, auto bailouts, government takeover of student loans, jobless stimulus packages, terrorist trials in U.S. courts and forced unionization of private sector employees by repealing their secret ballot,” Isakson said.

Alexander said getting voters to turn out in heavy numbers in a nonpresidential election will be Thurmond’s challenge.

“Midterm elections are lower turnout elections,” Alexander said. “Peripheral voters come out in presidential election years, not in midterm election years.

“Those (midterms) are mostly for people who vote in all elections. Those people usually are not young and not people of color. They tend to be affluent, educated, older, upper-class voters who vote most regularly and tend to vote Republican.”

Thurmond, an attorney, is one of just three Democrats who currently hold statewide elected office in Georgia. The other two are stepping aside this year: Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin is retiring, and Attorney General Thurbert Baker is running for governor.

A Democrat hasn’t won an open statewide seat since Gov. Roy Barnes arrived in the governor’s mansion in 1998.

But Thurmond pointed out that he has been elected statewide more than once.

“My Georgia never turned red,” he quipped. “The people of Georgia don’t care as much about party.”

During his announcement, Thurmond became emotional as he talked about being the ninth child of illiterate sharecroppers and who then “rose above that through hard work and faith ... to seek the highest office in the state of Georgia.”

Thurmond said he was courted by state and national Democrats to run against Isakson.

Two years ago, Democrat Jim Martin forced Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss into a runoff.

And with voters nationwide losing their taste for incumbent candidates, Taflinger said he thinks Thurmond’s entrance into the race is exciting.

“There is an anti-incumbency feeling in the country, and that’s not limited just to Democrats,” Taflinger said.

Alexander said that though Isakson may not be the darling of hard-line conservatives, he will be tough to beat.

“He’s viewed as a moderate, but it’s still a safe seat, still a safe bet for Republicans,” he said.

Thurmond has been at the helm in the labor department as the state’s jobless rate has reached a record-high 10.6 percent. He said the economy was the main catalyst that pushed him into the race.

“This recession has changed me and my philosophy of public service,” Thurmond said. “I realized I needed to focus not on the next election, but on the next generation.”

Times staff members Ashley Fielding and Keith Albertson and reports from The Associated Press contributed to this story.



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