When Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp first ran for office, Democrats ran the show.

By BLAKE AUED – blake.aued@onlineathens.com

Published Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kemp, a Republican, took on a liberal incumbent, Doug Haines, in 2002 for a Democratic-leaning state Senate seat representing Clarke and Oconee counties.

“If I had been a little smarter politically, I probably wouldn’t have run in the first place,” Kemp said.

But he did, and he won. A few party-switchers later, Republicans took over the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. Georgia voters also put a Republican, Sonny Perdue, into the governor’s office for the first time in 130 years.

The issue at the time, as Kemp recalled, was the gerrymandered district maps Democrats drew in an effort to cling to power in a state that clearly was trending Republican.

The maps angered conservatives and moderates who turned out in droves, he said.

“Obviously, it was one of those elections where the Republican turnout was huge,” he said. “We had a lot of crossover votes, and we targeted a lot of independent voters as well.”

Courts drew new district lines for the 2004 election, and another Republican landslide turned control of the state House of Representatives over to the GOP. Two years later, Republicans also took the offices of lieutenant governor and secretary of state.

But the Republican takeover was not yet complete. Three statewide Democrats – Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin – kept their jobs by wide margins.

All three abandoned their posts this year. Thurmond ran for U.S. Senate, Baker ran for governor, and Irvin retired. Republicans filled all three slots in November as voters who’d split their tickets in the past voted straight party line.

“You could certainly feel the change, that if somebody decided to leave, there would be an opportunity for Republicans to fill those seats,” Kemp said.

President Obama’s strong showing in Georgia in 2008 and former Gov. Roy Barnes’ deep pockets gave Democrats hope in 2010. But it wasn’t even close. Every statewide Republican on the ballot won by double-digit margins. Republican Austin Scott finally ousted U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon, a long-time target, and little-known Mike Keown nearly took out Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany, whose seat was considered safe until recently. The results surprised even House Speaker David Ralston.

“I didn’t think the swing would be as absolutely overwhelming as it was,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

And the Republicans weren’t done yet. As of last week, eight formerly Democratic legislators switched to the GOP, including state Reps. Doug McKillip of Athens and Alan Powell of Hartwell. Both said joining the majority is the only way to get anything done.

“This is a one-party state,” McKillip declared.

While Powell’s switch made sense – he is a conservative in a conservative district – McKillip’s floored Democrats. His Central Athens district is one of most liberal in the state, and he had been elected to a party leadership position just weeks before.

“It’s very disappointing to me, and baffling,” Clarke County Democratic Committee Chairman Bill Overend said. “I don’t get it.”

Republicans are now just a handful of seats away from complete control – being able to pass constitutional amendments or override a governor’s veto by themselves.

Opinions vary on why Republicans dominated this November. Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Jane Kidd blamed it on a backlash against Obama and efforts to tie him to Barnes. Carol Porter, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, cited lackluster fundraising and poor communication. Ralston said that most Georgia voters are simply conservative and saw the Democrats moving to the left.

Many Republicans say the shift is here to stay.

“I think we’ve shown, for the most part, that we’ve been able to govern, even in some difficult times,” Kemp said.

But Republican pollster Mark Rountree warned that, in the long run, demographic trends are in Democrats’ favor. Democratic-leaning minority groups are growing faster than heavily Republican whites, and populous GOP strongholds like Gwinnett County are getting ready to flip one day.

“Georgia is going to change,” Rountree said. “This is the high-water mark.”

Democrats, meanwhile, haven’t settled on a strategy for fighting back. Where they go from here will depend on who state committee members elect to party leadership positions Jan. 29 in Warner Robins.

Now that Republicans have a grip on every lever of power in state government, they’re turning their attention to the partisan races for county commission, sheriff and other local offices, Kemp said. Already, a black Democratic commissioner in Hall County made national news by becoming a Republican.

“The place where we can really build the party now is at the local level, not so much the legislature,” Kemp said.

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