Deal’s Departure Creates Busy Primary in Georgia

Posted April 29, 2009 at 6:12pm

There had certainly been discussions in recent weeks that someone from Georgia’s Republican House delegation would run for governor in 2010, but most of that talk had centered around Reps. Jack Kingston and Lynn Westmoreland.

So when word began leaking out this week that Rep. Nathan Deal would throw his hat into the gubernatorial race, many of his would-be successors in the ruby-red 9th district were caught off-guard.

Evidence of that surprise can be found in the fact that rather than having a few clear frontrunners, the race to replace Deal in his conservative stronghold is a wide-open affair.

Deal’s decision to run for governor “really did catch most people, maybe all people, by surprise,— said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor. “There’s been rumors that Nathan was thinking about retiring for maybe five years or so … Everyone’s been sitting on the sidelines just waiting for him to act.—

Among the Republicans who are being mentioned as possible replacements for Deal in the 9th district are a half-dozen members of the state Legislature, including state Reps. Tom Graves, James Mills and David Ralston and state Sens. Chip Pearson, Jeff Mullis and Lee Hawkins. And then there’s talk-radio host Martha Zoller, former state Rep. Mike Evans, former state Sen. Bill Stevens and former Rep. Max Burns, who moved to the 9th district in 2007 and is a dean at North Georgia College & State University.

Deal’s departure doesn’t do much for Democratic chances in the 9th district this cycle. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took 75 percent of the vote there in 2008, and Deal, who has been unopposed in three of his past six elections, has never taken less than 66 percent of the vote since he decided to leave the Democratic Party and become a Republican in 1995. So all of the action is certain to be on the GOP side.

“I think there’s a lot of pent-up ambition in the 9th district,— said Ralston, who pointed out that the 2010 race will only be the third time the seat has been open since 1952.

“We’re very, very serious,— Ralston said of the possibility of throwing his hat in the ring.

Zoller has talked openly in the past of making a Congressional bid in the 9th district, but she said Wednesday that because of family concerns she hasn’t made any decision on the race.

As for Burns, the former Congressman would only say, “never say never.—

After being elected in the 12th district in 2002, Burns lost his re-election bid in 2004 to now-Rep. John Barrow (D). He attempted to make a comeback in 2006 in the 12th, and former President George W. Bush traveled to Georgia twice to campaign for him. But after spending more than $2 million on the race Burns fell less than 1,000 votes short of Barrow on Election Day.

“It would be a great honor to get the opportunity to serve again,— said Burns, who noted that he’s been active in 9th district Republican politics since moving into the district. But before considering another run, Burns said he’d wait for Deal to make his official announcement about a statewide bid.

Graves said Wednesday that he is considering the race but would also wait for Deal’s announcement.

While Deal’s spokesman has only said that his boss is “seriously considering a run,— sources indicate that the Congressman will make his gubernatorial bid official at a press conference in the district on Friday.

Members of the Georgia’s Republican House delegation had been in talks about which of the “G-7— would jump into the race to replace Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), who is term-limited next year.

Westmoreland said he would pass on the gubernatorial race late last week, and Deal informed his fellow Republican Members that he had decided to run for the governor’s mansion on Monday evening and during the day on Tuesday.

“The G-7 has a reputation for doing that, not getting in each other’s way,— Bullock said. When then-Rep. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) decided to run for Senate in 2004, “none of those guys contested him once he got into it.—

Deal will not, however, have the Republican primary field to himself in the gubernatorial contest. That too is expected to be a crowded affair.