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Capitol turnover: Lots of new faces, few incumbents for voters
0718Ross Alexander
Ross Alexander
On the national scale, incumbents may suffer dramatically in the 2010 midterm elections, potentially resulting in the Republicans gaining control of the House of Representatives (or maybe even the Senate).

This anti-incumbent sentiment has permeated to the state and local level as people continue to look for fresh ideas to serious economic and fiscal problems. It seems as though anti-incumbency has become the primary voter motivation; even stronger than partisanship.

This phenomenon applies to Georgia as well, with one very big caveat: What if there aren't many incumbents? Whom will voters "punish?" Whom will they "reward?"

With the exception of the races for U.S. Senate (Johnny Isakson), lieutenant governor (Casey Cagle) and secretary of state (Brian Kemp), there are few, if any incumbents running for state office. So if Georgia voters cannot express their dissatisfaction against incumbent officials, how will they vote?

No one is exactly sure, but it makes Tuesday's primary election (and Aug. 10 runoff) intriguing, not only for academics like myself but for other political junkies and citizens as well.

Obviously, the grand prize is the governor's seat, where John Oxendine appears to be leading the charge on the Republican side with healthy margins in some polls over both Karen Handel and Nathan Deal, who are scrambling to face Oxendine in the runoff.

When Deal resigned his congressional seat to run for governor, I assumed (incorrectly) that he would face little resistance due to his name recognition, long legislative record (he began serving in Congress in 1993), and because his was perhaps the "safest" seat in the House; meaning that he rarely, if ever, faced a legitimate challenger.

However, perhaps voters view Deal as the "establishment" politician and prefer what they perceive as the fresh perspectives of either Oxendine or Handel. In a normal election cycle, Deal's experience and name recognition would be a positive, not a negative. But, as we've seen, this is not a normal election cycle.

On the Democratic side, presumptive nominee and former Gov. Roy Barnes is running slightly ahead or dead even in head-to-head races (according to various polls) with Oxendine, Handel and Deal, perhaps indicating a reversal of the Republican takeover of the governor's seat in 2002. That would be a profound development in this "red" state.

Down the ballot, many races are without incumbents, meaning that many first-time officeholders will be sworn in come January. We'll have a new attorney general (first time we've had an open seat in 60 years); state school superintendant; commissioner of insurance; commissioner of agriculture; commissioner of labor; and District 2 Public Service Commissioner.

While intriguing, will this result in wholesale change in the operation of state government? Probably not.

Candidates promise a great deal during the election and usually have trouble delivering on more than one or two of those "promises."

Governors begin to understand very quickly that they lead one branch of government in a system of numerous checks and balances, and in fact, it is the legislature that actually passes the laws.

It will be interesting to see how the new insurance commissioner deals with the recently passed national health care legislation. The labor commissioner will have to devise strategies to address high state unemployment. The attorney general, as always, will have to determine the legality of gubernatorial and legislative decisions.

These are important offices which make difficult and important decisions for the state. While we clamor for new ideas and solutions to persistent problems, let's be as patient as possible with these new officials because their jobs are going to be difficult.

I, for one, certainly would not want the responsibility of serving in one of these statewide offices. Would you?

Ross Alexander is associate professor of political science at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega.