Against the backdrop of an expanding battleground of competitive races and the absence, so far, of the resources to help fund them, Democrats appear poised to coalesce behind a self-funding venture capitalist in the Georgia Senate race.
Cliff Oxford, a 41-year-old self-made millionaire, is on the verge of announcing he will seek the seat of retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), according to knowledgeable Democratic sources.
Oxford has talked to Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) and former President Jimmy Carter, both of whom have encouraged him to make the race.
“He’s about to get in,” said one Democratic source in Georgia.
Oxford’s candidacy would appear to fill the last gaping hole in Democratic recruitment efforts this cycle, after the search for a viable contender in the Peach State became a perpetual source of disappointment for the party throughout the last year.
Miller announced he would not seek re-election in January 2003. Seemingly all of the marquee Democratic names in the state eventually passed on the race, and little-known state Sens. Mary Squires and Nadine Thomas are the only candidates currently running.
On the Republican side, Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins are already engaged in what is shaping up as a bruising primary. Millionaire pizza executive Herman Cain, who worked his way from poverty to become the president and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, is also seeking the GOP nod. He went on the air this week with his sixth television ad in the race.
While Oxford’s total net worth is not clear, it appears to be a given that he will partially, if not wholly, underwrite the race.
“He’s a self-funder,” said the Georgia Democratic source, before stressing that Oxford’s positives reach beyond money.
“He’s not just a rich guy — he’s got some things to say,” the source said.
Finding candidates with the ability to pick up most of the tab for their own campaigns has become a priority for the cash-strapped DSCC, particularly as the Senate playing field has expanded to include eight open seats.
Aside from the obvious personal resources Oxford would bring to the race, party strategists are also touting his self-made background and his potential geographical strength in the general election, depending on who Republicans nominate.
While Oxford now lives in suburban Atlanta’s Cobb County, Isakson’s heavily Republican base, he originally hails from Waycross, Ga., a rural area in the southeastern part of the state.
“We think the matchup with Isakson is good,” said the source, referring to the Republican frontrunner and the perception that he may have trouble connecting with voters in middle and south Georgia.
Oxford worked his way through West Georgia College as a driver for the United Parcel Service. He eventually rose through the ranks of the company to become a regional technology director.
In 1995, he founded Support Technologies Inc., a technology consulting company aimed at aiding clients in refashioning the concept of the computer “help desk.” By 2001, STI had offices in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong and its client list included Fortune 500 companies such as American Express Co. and Merrill Lynch & Co. Oxford sold the Atlanta-based company for an undisclosed amount in 2003.
Earlier this year he gave $5 million to the school’s Goizueta School of Business at Emory University, which has named its executive MBA program after him. He earned his MBA at Emory in 1994.
Democrats also believe that Oxford’s business background positions him well to go head to head with Republicans on economic issues such as job creation.
“He has a good line on outsourcing,” the source said, noting that Oxford has proven examples for how companies can relocate jobs within the United States without sending them overseas.
Through the OneGeorgia program, an economic development effort that seeks to provide jobs outside of the metro-Atlanta area, Oxford’s company announced in 2002 that it planned to open a customer support center in Americus, in southern Georgia.
But ultimately, Democrats were elated to finally have found a candidate with the potential to make the race competitive.
“We are pretty excited about it,” said the Democratic source in Georgia. “He certainly looks like a good candidate. ... We think he’s a good find.”
In the past year, more than a half-dozen names have been floated as potential, or even likely, Democratic contenders in the Senate race. All have eventually passed.
Among the highest profile were Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Attorney General Thurbert Baker. Both Cox and Taylor are eyeing a run for governor in 2006.
Freshman Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) said at one point last year he was considering the race, but now he is focused on his re-election to the House, a spokesman said.
Former Atlanta Mayor and ex-U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young (D) and Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), also looked at running. Young was considered all but in the race before reversing course.
At a recent briefing with reporters on how the Senate playing field was shaping up, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Vice Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) joked that the committee was “looking for volunteers” in Georgia.
But at a meeting with Roll Call editorial staff last week, Corzine said Democrats were still working hard on recruiting in Georgia and had not yet abandoned hope.
“I’m just not giving up,” Corzine said.
This is not Oxford’s first attempt at seeking political office.
In 1996, before he had the resources to self-fund a campaign, he challenged cookie company mogul Michael Coles in a 6th district primary. Oxford lost the race to the free-spending millionaire. Coles went on to lose to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the general election.