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Shipp: Did no-show Georgia Democrats cut a deal?

POSTED: May 21, 2008 5:01 a.m.

For months now we have been subjected to a steady stream of promises of political change. Georgia Democratic leaders painted their party's runaway voter turnout in the Feb. 5 presidential primary as a preview of the general election in November. Donkeys would fill up polling places to cast ballots for a new generation of Democratic candidates.

If you paid attention to the horn tooting, the world's oldest political party appeared ready to rebuild in the Peach State.

Speculation has been rampant that Republicans' icky sex scandals and ugly intraparty fights at the state Capitol would make even conservative voters ready to give new faces a chance.

We saw the new-model Democratic donkey unveiled last week, as Georgia's 2008 campaign season took shape. Republican and Democratic candidates qualified for federal, state and local offices. One look at the list shows that no matter what happens on the national level, nothing much in Georgia's political order will change.

Even if voters are in the mood to kick the bums out, they lack an alternative set of bums to kick in.
If you're a Georgia Republican satisfied with your party's performance, the post-qualification climate should be just fine. The status quo is destined to dominate through the 2008 election.

As for the Democrats, an examination of their candidate recruitment efforts leads to no other conclusion than that they have run up the white flag in their attempt to regain control of Peach State politics.

Despite big talk from party leaders, Democratic qualifying is the weakest it has ever been. For the first time, the party is leaving uncontested a statewide office (Republican Doug Everett's PSC seat).

At the federal level, Democrats lured Jim Martin, their failed 2006 nominee for lieutenant governor, into the race against Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Party insiders concede that Martin has little chance of defeating Chambliss, but they hope Martin can deny the nomination to controversial DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones.

For the U.S. House, Democrats boast that they have qualified candidates to run in all 13 congressional districts, as they did in 2006. So what? They are still playing defense at the congressional level, with their party holding the only two swing seats in the delegation, those occupied by Reps. John Barrow and Jim Marshall. No new beachheads are in the Democrats' sight.

For the General Assembly, qualifying was astonishingly sparse. A reasonable observer could conclude that a backroom deal was cut to give senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle a pass. Twenty Senate Republicans have no Democratic opposition. The same goes for 81 Republicans in the House. The Senate is devoid of competitive general election campaigns, and the House has very few.

The best example of the Democrats' surrender is the seat of Republican Richard Royal, a recent party switcher and former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Royal's seat has a large African-American population in Democratic-leaning Southwest Georgia. In a year when Democrats are banking on a record participation by their base voters, his seat is worth contesting even against the deep roots he put down during 25 years in office.

An even better opportunity was created when Royal decided to retire at the last minute, but with no Democrat running, Republicans are guaranteed a free ride.

Also left vacant were several metro Atlanta seats where Democrats could have organized a surge. One House seat is held by Harry Geisenger, a 75-year-old conservative Republican who has had two close calls in a Democrat-trending Fulton County seat. Another is the post of Bill Hembree, a longtime Republican representative in Douglas County, which has a rapidly growing minority population.

Both lawmakers are without opposition. In other seats where Democrats have opportunities, most candidates are folks who have run and lost in previous years, including Bob Puckett against Rep. Katie Dempsey in Rome, former Rep. Pat Dooley against Rep. Thunder Tumlin in Marietta and George Wilson in a district covering parts of Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton counties.

Democrats, led by House Minority Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin, say they have abandoned aggressive tactics centered on attacking Republican shenanigans and corruption under the Gold Dome to focus on grass roots. They claim they are letting the Republicans fight among themselves, while dedicated Democrats quietly toil away, building a statewide network of local leaders. In the new Democratic handbook, "grass roots" may be translated as "laying low."

The Democrats of 2008 are reminiscent of the Republicans of 1958. Except the Republicans of a half-century ago usually offered progressively amusing agendas. There's nothing amusing about today's dwindling and lethargic Democrats.

Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can contact him at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30160; Web site. First published May 7, 2008.



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