THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE: Results of filing satisfy parties

THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE
Results of filing satisfy parties

Web posted Sunday, June 23, 2002

By Dave Williams
Morris News Service

ATLANTA – Like baseball teams at the end of spring training, Georgia Democrats and Republicans emerged from last week’s legislative qualifying optimistic about their prospects for the coming season.
The faithful of both parties interpreted the numbers as good news for their cause.

When the Democrats captured 58 House seats right off the bat because no Republican qualified in those districts, barring successful independent candidacies, it gave them almost two-thirds of the seats they need to keep the majority the party has held since Reconstruction.

But Republicans took heart in the 47 House seats they’re guaranteed to hold come January because no Democrat filed in those races.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we had only 32 Republicans in the House,” said Mark Rountree, a political consultant who will work for many GOP legislative candidates this year. “To have 47 guaranteed seats isn’t bad.”

Since last year’s redrawing of the legislative maps, Republicans have argued that the Democrats’ strategy of spreading out Democratic voters over as many districts as possible could backfire.

An unintended result, GOP strategists contend, was the creation of a series of marginally Democratic districts where Republican candidates could be competitive.

But when qualifying ended Friday, 44 Democrats were unopposed in House races, giving them the seats without a fight unless an independent candidate qualifies later this summer.

Another 14 seats are being contested only by Democrats, so they will go to the majority party after the Aug. 20 primaries. In the Senate, seven Democrats are unopposed and another seven face only Democratic primary opposition, giving Democrats the inside track to 14 of the 29 seats needed to keep their majority in the upper chamber.

John Kirincich, a Democratic consultant and former executive director of the state party, said those so-called “marginal” districts that left Republicans salivating aren’t really vulnerable to the GOP.

“What they’re calling marginal (seats) are 54 percent to 56 percent (Democratic-performing) seats, not the 50 percent seats we had in the past,” he said. “That’s what we wanted to eliminate, and we did.”

For their part, the Republicans took 13 Senate seats during the three-day qualifying period, including 10 districts with an unopposed GOP candidate.

Thirty of the 47 House seats now in the GOP column also feature an unopposed Republican.

“It’s a sign,” said Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez, who is among those unchallenged GOP candidates. “We’re becoming a two-party state. As the state grows, a lot of people who are coming in are Republican.”

Mr. Rountree said Republicans will be particularly competitive north of the Gnat Line, except in majority-black districts in Atlanta and DeKalb County.

Black voters tend to support Democrats.

“Most of the non-Atlanta white Democrats drew (Republican) opposition north of Macon,” he said. “South of Macon, it’s a mixed bag.”

Indeed, south Georgia is where the vast majority of unopposed white Democrats are concentrated, a reflection of those lawmakers’ longevity in office and the region’s strong Democratic tradition. The list includes the chairmen of both legislative chambers’ appropriations committees – Rep. Terry Coleman, of Eastman, and Sen. George Hooks, of Americus – and the legislators who headed up the committees in charge of last year’s redistricting – Rep. Tommy Smith, of Alma, and Sen. Tim Golden, of Valdosta.

Beyond regional voting patterns, the two parties will be looking to garner support by hammering home issues designed to appeal to a broad range of Georgians.

For months, Republican leaders have sought to tie Democratic legislative candidates to what they argue is a series of abuses of power by Gov. Roy Barnes, on issues from education reform to the changing of the state flag to redistricting. The governor and the General Assembly’s Democratic leaders passed legislation affecting all of those major topics without input from Republicans or the public, said Sen. Tom Price, R-Roswell, the chairman of the Senate GOP caucus.

“There’s a discontent out there that’s palpable,” he said. “People want a change in the way government works in this state.”

Republicans also have seized on the recent resignations of two members of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles accused of accepting consulting fees from vendors doing business with the state.

The case comes on the heels of the suspension of Democratic Sen. Van Streat, of Nicholls, indicted last winter on charges of accepting money for arranging prison transfers for a convicted murderer.

Last week, Mr. Barnes proposed an overhaul of the state’s ethics laws, including provisions of a bill that would have tightened financial-disclosure requirements of candidates for public office. The legislation passed the Senate unanimously this year but died in the House.

“This campaign is going to be about ethics,” Mr. Rountree said. “Any candidate running for office against a Democratic incumbent is going to be able to ask the question, ‘How many prison felons did you get transfers for?”‘

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