‘Dazed and Confused’

Ga. Democrats Struggle to Replace Miller

Posted February 5, 2003 at 6:13pm

If there is any evidence that Democrats in Georgia are still trying to put the pieces back together after their historic losses at the polls last November, look no further than the aspiring field of 2004 Senate candidates. Simply put, there isn’t much of one yet.

While early jockeying among state Republicans began almost immediately following Sen. Zell Miller’s (D-Ga.) retirement announcement last month, Democrats remain “dazed and confused,” in the words of one Democratic observer, as they attempt to figure out how best to restore their political capital.

At least two of the party’s first-string candidates, former Gov. Roy Barnes and Secretary of State Cathy Cox, have already passed on the 2004 Senate race.

Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who was defeated last year, is also considering entering the race, although few expect him to run. Cleland is still recovering from his defeat last November and focusing on his upcoming marriage and work as a member of the Sept. 11 Commission.

The focus for Democrats now is determining which of their depleted slate of statewide elected officials would make the most viable Senate contender.

“They’re definitely in a quandary,” the Democrat said.

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond — three of the Democrats who kept their jobs after a GOP tidal wave of historic proportions swept the state last November — are considering a bid for Miller’s seat.

Only one of the three is likely to eventually run, an acknowledgement that the party cannot afford to open multiple seats to a possible Republican takeover.

According to one Democratic source in Georgia, Taylor and Baker are given an edge in terms of becoming the party’s eventual nominee.

“I think Taylor is considering it and Thurbert Baker is considering it, and I think that one of those two guys will be our guy,” the Georgia Democrat said.

Both men are conservative Democrats and protegés of Miller. Taylor served as Senate floor leader while Miller was governor, and Baker was his House counterpart. Miller first appointed Baker as attorney general in 1998, when then-Attorney General Michael Bowers (R) resigned to run for governor.

Thurmond is also viewed as an attractive, top-tier contender, although his greatest weakness could be the lack of an obvious fundraising base.

While Taylor is seen as a strong candidate, and may be facing considerable pressure to run, many political observers say that his interest lies in running for governor in 2006, when he would likely face a primary with Cox.

Regardless of whether Taylor enters the race, Democrats may still have to choose whether Thurmond or Baker, both of whom are black, should run for Senate. Party leaders have even said they will convene a summit to make that decision.

Unlike other black Senate candidates in recent years, both men have been elected statewide before. They were also re-elected by healthy margins last year as Democrats Barnes and Cleland fell. Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D), the last black candidate to run for Senate, was handily defeated in Texas last year.

Meanwhile, Democrats are also keenly aware of the possibility they could have a black Senate nominee on the ballot at the same time voters decide a controversial referendum on the state flag.

The White House has urged Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) to keep the issue off the ballot in 2004, hoping to keep the president away from being drawn into a racially tinged controversy. However, holding a special election this year would cost taxpayers an estimated $2.7 million, which Democrats see as a hard sell for the governor during lean economic times.

Two-thirds of the state flag, which was adopted in 1956 as an act of defiance to the Supreme Court-ordered school desegregation, featured the Confederate stars and bars.

A new flag design, with the Confederate emblem less prominent, was approved by Barnes in 2001 and rushed through the state General Assembly with minimal debate. Perdue’s victory last year was in part credited to his stance in favor of putting both designs to a vote and allowing a public referendum on the issue.

Having the flag issue on the ballot would be a wild card for Democrats in 2004. On one hand, the issue would likely boost black turnout, but it would also fuel the same type of backlash from rural white voters, who turned out in droves for the 2002 elections. The issue has already boosted the fundraising efforts of Democrats in the state.

“I think it cuts both ways,” said Bobby Kahn, a former chief of staff to Barnes. “In the end, it’s not beneficial to an African-American candidate.”

Meanwhile, several other potential Democratic candidates are looking at the race.

Former Secretary of State Lewis Massey (D) is seriously considering a run and has already sent out a letter to backers in an effort to gauge support.

Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson (D) is also eyeing a run. While he would not be the Democrats’ top choice in a general election, he would have the ability to draw minority voters to the polls in a primary.

“He’s not to be underestimated in a primary by any stretch of the imagination,” the Democratic source in Georgia said.

On the Republican side, Rep. Johnny Isakson (R) is the only announced candidate in the race. Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) this week said he would not run for the seat, and GOP Reps. Jack Kingston and Mac Collins are still considering running.

State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine (R) is also looking hard at a Senate run. Former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who was defeated last year in a Member-versus-Member primary, had been exploring a run but announced Wednesday that he will not mount a Senate bid. Instead, he appears likely to seek Isakson’s 6th district seat.

“After much consideration and prayer my family and I have concluded that I will not seek the nomination for U.S. Senate in 2004,” Barr said in a statement. “I have directed Craig Dowdy the chairman of my exploratory committee to direct all of the efforts of the committee towards a possible campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives.”