Georgia Democrats Eye Chambliss Seat

Posted June 24, 2008 at 6:53pm

While Republicans might scoff at the notion that it could become anything close to an actual race this November, Democrats in Georgia say that they are serious about giving Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) a credible challenger this cycle.

But although the Democratic primary is now less than three weeks away, which of the five Democratic candidates will take on Chambliss probably will not be known until early August.

That’s because the crowded Democratic primary field will likely require a runoff before it’s finally decided. Although polling numbers have been somewhat in flux as the race developed this spring, a few Peach State pundits are already predicting that one of the Democratic candidates who will almost certainly be in that runoff will be DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones.

Jones, who served for eight years as a state Representative before being elected CEO of the large suburban county, has been campaigning since last summer. He had raised almost a half-million dollars through the end of March and is already on the radio with an ad. He has received contributions from one member of the Georgia House delegation so far, Rep. Hank Johnson (D), who hails from DeKalb. But perhaps most importantly in a state where about half of the Democratic primary voters are black is the fact that he’s the lone black candidate in the five-way primary.

Jones led his Democratic rivals in a pair of May polls released by Strategic Vision and InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research. But earlier this month, late comer Jim Martin, the party’s 2006 lieutenant governor nominee, released his own polling showing him ahead of Jones by 5 points.

Martin entered the race in mid-April with the encouragement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The former state Representative brings with him a long list of connections with state party officials and he’s gained momentum quickly.

That momentum has certainly been helped by the enthusiasm that Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., have shown for Martin’s campaign. Before he even made his official announcement, Martin showed more than $300,000 in cash on hand for his race, with $25,000 of that coming from late March donations from the political action committees of the Senate’s top Democrats: Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

In the past week, Martin has been endorsed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper and on Tuesday he released the first television ad of the Democratic primary. The statewide broadcast ad promotes Martin’s record during his nearly two decades in the Georgia Legislature. A campaign spokesman said Tuesday that now that Martin is up on broadcast television he intends to remain up through the rest of the primary.

While Martin has certainly made a splash since entering the race, his opponents, as well as some Georgia pundits, wonder how viable a candidate he will make against Chambliss, a well-funded, well-connected incumbent, after suffering a 12-point defeat in his lieutenant governor’s race just two years ago.

Martin has also lost a few notable endorsements that one might expect the anointed Democratic candidate to obtain easily. In late May, businessman and scientist Rand Knight, who at age 36 has proved to be a surprisingly strong presence on the campaign trail against his better-known opponents, picked up the endorsement of the Georgia AFL-CIO. This week, Knight picked up the endorsement of the Georgia Association of Educators.

“Jim Martin is kind of what’s left of the Democratic establishment hope of winning the nomination,” longtime Georgia political columnist Bill Shipp said on Tuesday. Shipp called Jones the frontrunner despite allegations of inappropriate behavior that have been leveled against him in the past and the fact that he’s not the “old party’s choice to be nominee. But [Jones] also has a good following in the African-American community throughout the state. He is a likeable guy who is seen as an enemy of the establishment.”

The other candidate who appears to be in the mix for a runoff spot with Jones and Martin is Emmy Award-winning television investigative reporter Dale Cardwell. Cardwell is well-known from his years appearing on one of Atlanta’s highest-rated news programs. Some polls have shown him ahead and with a high favorability rating.

The final candidate in the race is Josh Lanier, a long shot running an “un-campaign,” in which he has shunned the idea of chasing big donors and is working to show just how broken the American political system has become.

On Tuesday, Lanier shrugged off his single-digit polling numbers: “I’m here to demonstrate what it is to run a clean campaign. … If enough people catch on to that fast enough, we’ll do better than people predict. If a lot of them catch on to it, we’ll win.”

But regardless of who emerges from the Democratic primary on July 15 or the runoff on Aug. 5, defeating Chambliss will be a tall order.

“If I looked at a map of the United States and somebody said pick one safe Senate race, I’d pick Saxby Chambliss,” Shipp said, noting the incumbent’s support among key Georgia interest groups such as the agricultural and military community. Chambliss also was carrying a massive $3.6 million war chest as of March 31.

And while Democrats may be getting excited about how presumptive presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) will motivate new Democratic minority voters if he chooses to play in Georgia, Shipp said Obama will also do just as much to motivate the huge conservative, Republican base throughout the state.

One Georgia Republican staffer on Capitol Hill quipped Tuesday that Democrats getting excited about their nominee against Chambliss “is the equivalent of Republicans getting excited about who we’re going to pick to take on [Massachusetts Democratic Sen.] John Kerry.”