Could Vernon Jones be the next Mack Mattingly?
Remember 1980? Democratic bosses went to bed on election night confident that President Carter had won his home state even as he lost the country. Party gurus also were sure veteran incumbent Sen. Herman Talmadge had survived all his problems. He would be re-elected. No doubt about it. Everybody said so.
An early edition of the Atlanta Constitution called it a great election victory for Talmadge. Eerily, Talmadge refused to issue any statement as county after county reported runaway totals in his favor.
Then the ballots from heavily Republican Cobb County poured in. While Carter won the state, a relatively unknown Republican, Mack Mattingly, defeated Talmadge, compliments of the Ronald Reagan landslide.
Will DeKalb CEO Jones defeat Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, compliments of a Barack Obama landslide? Jones is the likely Democratic nominee to face incumbent Chambliss in the November general election. Before Vernon meets Saxby, he may have to weather a runoff Democratic primary in August. Two candidates, Atlanta lawyer Jim Martin, the party chiefs' favorite, and ex-TV reporter Dale Cardwell are fighting it out for the runoff spot.
Jones has an awesome edge to finish No. 1 in the primary: African-Americans are likely to make up more than 50 percent of the Democratic primary vote. They are expected to vote overwhelmingly for Jones.
Jones's home base, DeKalb County, may account for 15 percent of the Democratic primary ballots.
Jones is resilient. In 2004, in the midst of a horrendous scandal, he won re-election without a runoff in a five-candidate primary.
What happened to Jim Martin, an earnest coat-and-tie guy with great promise and the blessings of the state party hierarchy? He needed big labor money to make a dent in the TV advertising wars. However, the AFL-CIO endorsed a fringe candidate, Rand Knight, and big business walked away from Martin.
Insiders said the labor union move was meant to punish Democratic leaders in a squabble over national delegate selection. The union decision may wind up fatally wounding Martin's campaign.
Then, too, Jim has fizzled as a lightning rod for "the middle class," as he calls his supporters. Yet, Martin's sparse TV-ad schedule may be enough in a low-turnout race to propel him into a runoff against Jones. And if that happens, all bets are off. African-American voters have a history of passing up voting in runoff elections, even more so than the electing population as a whole in the middle of summer.
Another candidate, Josh Lanier, talks a great game and knows his way around the political track. But he has little money and almost no traction.
Journalist Cardwell also has a chance at making the runoff. Though he has little money to buy ads, he is still well known in the Atlanta market from his TV days. Yet his populist rhetoric makes Democratic leaders nervous, as did his pole-sitting stunt in the middle of freezing weather.
What you have just read is probably the best scenario Georgia Democrats can hope for. That story line is supported by national commentators and, of course, supercharged national party functionaries.
Conventional wisdom among Georgia old timers holds that no black candidate, not Jones or Obama, can win a Georgia general election for a national office. Forget poll numbers and "State Back in Play" headlines.
Chambliss' campaign would feel more confident with Jones as the Democratic candidate. With him as their challenger, Chambliss' brain trust believes their candidate is all but certain to win.
In any event, a far more interesting question for Saxby watchers a few months from now may not deal with the Democratic primary. Instead, it will center on wonderment about how a rubber-stamp Republican can effectively serve Georgia in the U.S. Senate.
Keep in mind: The Senate is all but certain to have a wider Democratic majority, and odds are growing that the White House will be occupied by an Illinois Democrat whose chief advisers may include Georgia's Sam Nunn.
Bill Shipp's column on Georgia politics appears Wednesdays. You can contact him at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30160; Web site.