Here’s the Deal: Open Seat in Georgia Draws a Crowd

Posted September 30, 2009 at 6:31pm

Former state Rep. Mike Evans — one of a growing gaggle of Republicans running for Georgia’s 9th district open seat — recently quipped, “If two more [candidates] get in, there won’t be anyone left to vote.—

The number of declared Republican candidates is now pushing double digits, and the field may still grow. Of course, in a district that gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) his fifth-largest winning percentage of the 2008 cycle — he took 75 percent of the vote in the northwest Georgia district — the GOP primary will be the election that decides who replaces Rep. Nathan Deal (R), who is running for governor next year.

With Deal staying out of the race to replace him and a field that includes a slew of current and former state legislators, business leaders and local elected officials, the July primary is destined for an August runoff featuring the top two finishers.

According to multiple Georgia insiders, the frontrunners vying for one of those top two slots are Evans, state Rep. Tom Graves, state Sen. Lee Hawkins and former state Sen. Bill Stephens.

As of June 30, Evans had about $143,000 in cash on hand compared with Graves’ nearly $116,000. Stephens reported close to $40,000 in the bank. Hawkins entered the race in late July, but he said this week his third-quarter Federal Election Commission report will show that in two months of fundraising, he doubled what any other candidate raised through June.

The money race will be closely monitored in the primary not only because the district includes two major media markets — Chattanooga, Tenn., and the much more expensive Atlanta market — but also because in this staunchly conservative district it may be hard to draw major ideological differences between the various Republican candidates.

“When you hear all of us speak, we all say pretty much the same thing. We are all conservative, pro-life, pro-gun North Georgia conservatives,— Evans said. That said, Evans, who also represented the 9th district on the State Transportation Board, argued that he’s the only candidate who has “backed up my mouth with my votes— in the state Legislature. He proudly noted that he was “32 and 0— when it came to voting against budgets that he believed contained too much pork-barrel spending.

Hawkins, who has also worked as a dentist for three decades, was quick to discuss his medical background on Wednesday. He said it would be important in Congress’ ongoing debate on health care reform.

Graves, a four-term state House Member who serves on the Ways and Means Committee, was endorsed by the anti-tax group Club for Growth’s political action committee earlier this month. He said his areas of expertise are job creation and understanding how the tax code affects citizens.

Along with the club’s backing, Graves has earned some high-profile support from the state Speaker, who held a fundraiser for Graves’ campaign last week.

Another influential group whose endorsement could come into play is the Georgia Right to Life.

Executive Director Nancy Stith said Wednesday the group will make an endorsement in the primary but hasn’t decided yet whether it will get behind just one or multiple candidates.

“If there’s four strong pro-lifers, we might qualify all four of them,— Stith said.

But with so many candidates in the primary, geography may become as important a factor as high-profile endorsements.

Graves hails from the small town of Ranger in Gordon County, about halfway between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Evans and Hawkins hail from the district’s two most populous counties, Forsyth and Hall. Stephens is a native of the northern Fannin County.

Another candidate in the race for whom geography will be an issue is state Rep. Bobby Reese (R).

Reese lives just outside the 9th district in Rep. John Linder’s (R) 7th district, and he plans to officially file this week after announcing his intention to run in late August. Reese’s state House district includes very little of the 9th district territory, although he said he previously represented a larger portion of the Congressional district in the state House before Georgia’s 2005 redistricting.

With the GOP field already large, there’s at least one name that can be crossed off the potential candidate list.

Former Rep. Max Burns (R), who moved to the 9th district in 2007 and is a dean at North Georgia College & State University, was mentioned as a possible candidate earlier this spring when it became clear Deal was running for governor.

But Burns, who held the 12th district seat from 2002 to 2004, said Wednesday he has no plans to get involved in the 9th district race.

“I’m not a candidate for anything,— Burns said. “There are some really good candidates in there. I know most of them. Most are my friends. So I would prefer to defer and let the voters decide.—