published Monday, June 17th, 2013

3 open congressional contests in Georgia dominated by GOP

SAVANNAH, Ga. — With three U.S. House seats in Georgia wide open in 2014, the chance to go to Washington already is attracting a crowd of several state legislators, a minister, a surgeon, a political novice and an ex-congressman seeking a comeback. So far, not one is a Democrat.

To date, 16 Republicans have launched campaigns to replace the trio of incumbent congressmen -- GOP Reps. Paul Broun, of Athens; Phil Gingrey, of Marietta; and Jack Kingston, of Savannah -- who are leaving the comfort of their districts for a shot at succeeding retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

Before he stepped aside recently, Georgia Democratic Chairman Mike Berlon said he was focused on winning statewide races rather than congressional contests in districts drawn to ensure Republican victories. Some Democrats favor waiting several years until demographic shifts in Georgia boost the number of black, Latino and young voters in the state to give Democrats an edge. Others, like Clarke County Democratic chairman-elect Russell Edwards, aren't buying that strategy.

"I think it's foolish," said Edwards, who's looking to recruit a Democratic candidate for Broun's seat. "The reason a political party exists is to run candidates for office."

Primary elections are more than a year away, meaning there's plenty of time for Democrats to jump in. But the rush by Republicans to get in the game early while Democrats stay on the sidelines just underscores the big advantage the GOP has to win each of those seats, even without incumbents defending them.

Each district was drawn in the Legislature after the 2010 census to give Republican candidates a formidable edge, giving established Democrats little incentive to fight for them. And Republican gains over the last decade have eroded the ranks of elected Democrats in state and local offices who would be obvious choices to run.

Tony Center, of Savannah, a Chatham County commissioner and former county Democratic Party chairman, said he doubts any Democratic officeholders will risk their positions by running for the congressional seat Kingston is leaving after 20 years.

"The Democratic bench here is very, very thin, and that's the way it is statewide, too," Center said. "I would love to be a member of the U.S. House, but I'm happy as a county commissioner. I don't want to resign as a commissioner to run in a race like this."

Meanwhile, five Republicans already have announced for the 1st District race in Southeast Georgia barely a month after Kingston kicked off his Senate campaign. The field includes state Sens. Buddy Carter, of Pooler; Jeff Chapman, of Brunswick; former Kingston aide David Schwarz; Savannah surgeon Bob Johnson; and Darwin Carter, a former federal agriculture official from Alma.

Carter, a pharmacist elected to the state Senate in 2009, said he expects Democrats will find a candidate and hope to take advantage of what will be an expensive -- and possibly bruising -- primary campaign for the GOP.

"I don't think anyone will concede it just to the Republican Party," Carter said.

Still, demographics of all three open House seats make them daunting turf for Democrats. Republican Mitt Romney carried each of them by solid double-digit vote margins in the presidential election last year.

In metro Atlanta's 11th District, Gingrey won re-election in 2012 by a whopping 35 percentage points. Five Republicans are competing for the seat. Former GOP congressman Bob Barr, of Marietta, is seeking a comeback after a 2010 presidential campaign on the Libertarian ticket. State Rep. Ed Lindsey, of Atlanta, the Republican whip in the state House, is running, along with state Sen. Barry Loudermilk, of Cassville. Tricia Pridemore, of Marietta, left her job as director of the Governor's Office of Workforce Development to campaign for Gingrey's seat, which also has drawn Republican newcomer Susan Davis, of Kennesaw.

With so many Republicans in the race, potential Democratic challengers are barely on the candidates' radar at this point.

"I often joke that the Democrats are the American League, and we're the National League, and I don't worry about them until October," Lindsey said.

Loudermilk said any of three open seats are simply "not a wise investment" for a serious Democrat.

"In this district, it's kind of hard to find a Democrat anymore anyhow," Loudermilk said.

Ironically, Democrats might have a tougher time recruiting a candidate for Northeast Georgia's 10th District seat now that Broun isn't seeking re-election. During his more than five years in office, Broun has compared President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler and denounced evolution and the Big Bang theory as "lies straight from the pit of hell." Such statements helped motivate challengers from heavily Democratic Athens.

"He in and of himself was definitely a recruitment tool for Democrats," said Edwards, the Clarke County Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Broun in 2010.

Six Republicans are already running to take Broun's place. Michael A. Collins Jr., of Jackson, is the son of former Georgia congressman Mac Collins. State Rep. Donna Sheldon, of Dacula, who leads the House GOP caucus, is in the race along with John F. Douglas of Social Circle, an ex-lawmaker who's now a Newton County commissioner. Monroe minister Jody Hice and retired Army officer Stephen K. Simpson, of Milledgeville, are taking a second shot at election to Congress after unsuccessful previous campaigns. Lexington attorney Gary Gerrard is running.

Edwards said it's unlikely any current Democratic officeholders will seek Broun's former seat in 2014. But he insists there's value in recruiting a young, first-time candidate "who's going to work tirelessly, raise money and has nothing to lose. And may even win a race."

In Savannah, Chatham County Democratic chairman Will Claiborne noted that Kingston's seat actually gained Democrat-leaning voters when it was redrawn in 2011, though both Kingston and Romney still easily won the district last year. Claiborne said he's spoken with several potential Democratic candidates but "none of them are ready to declare yet."

Edwards in Athens paused when asked if he's heard of any Democrats seriously considering a race for Broun's seat.

"I heard a name the other day," he said. "It's telling that I can't remember it."

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