Originally created 12/29/96

Elections offer few changes



WASHINGTON - As Georgia's political year dawned, visions of Republican-held congressional seats danced in the eyes of Democrats while Republicans dreamed of Sen. Sam Nunn's soon-to-be-vacant seat.

Republicans also boasted that 1996 would be the year when at least one chamber of the Democratic-controlled Georgia legislature would fall to their decade-long assault at the ballot box.

But as the year drew to a close, Georgia's political landscape is largely unchanged, despite the expenditure of millions of campaign dollars and the saturation of the airways with thousands of political ads.

"In the most visible kinds of contests, the things that people were watching, there was no movement at all," said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "Incumbents won where there were incumbents, and where there wasn't an incumbent, the front runners held on."

Consider:

  • All 11 members of Congress won re-election, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Marietta.
  • Former Secretary of State Max Cleland won election to the Senate, keeping in Democratic hands the seat Mr. Nunn has held for 24 years.
  • The GOP gained seven seats in the Georgia House and one in the state Senate, fewer in both cases than in recent elections and not nearly enough to crack the Democratic hold on either chamber.
  • Bob Dole returned Georgia to the GOP column in the presidential race, but his 27,000-vote victory was almost as narrow as the margin by which President Clinton carried the state in 1992.
  • In other statewide races, Democrat Lewis Massey won a full term after being appointed secretary of state to replace Mr. Cleland; and Democrat Mac Barber and Republican Bob Durden won re-election to the Public Service Commission.

  • Two events in late 1995 set the political stage for the year and created most of the soaring expectations that ultimately went unfulfilled for both political parties.

    The first was Mr. Nunn's announcement that he would not seek re-election to a fifth term in the Senate, giving the GOP a legitimate shot at a seat they likely wouldn't have contested if the popular Mr. Nunn had run.

    Millionaire businessman Guy Millner, who narrowly lost to Gov. Zell Miller in 1994, emerged from a field of five GOP candidates to take on Mr. Cleland, who was unopposed in his party's primary.

    Mr. Millner spent more than $6 million of his own money on a largely negative campaign attacking Mr. Cleland's ethics and judgment. But Mr. Cleland prevailed by billing himself as the candidate of the "sensible center" while cashing in on his popularity as a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran.

    In a race where more than 2.2 million votes were cast, Mr. Cleland beat Mr. Millner by just 30,024 votes.

    The other major 1995 event that shaped Georgia's political year was the Supreme Court ruling declaring the majority-black 11th congressional district unconstitutional.

    That decision resulted in a court-drawn congressional map reducing the number of majority-black districts from three to one. Democrats greeted the new map with glee, predicting it would help them begin reversing the GOP gains of the past two elections.

    Civil rights activists, meanwhile, decried the ruling and predicted it would make it next to impossible for most blacks to win election to Congress.

    In November, voters proved both groups wrong, re-electing all eight of Georgia's GOP congressmen, and the state's three incumbent black Democrats. Two of those three, Reps. Cynthia McKinney of Lithonia and Sanford Bishop of Albany, won in majority white districts.

    The central figure in congressional campaigns in Georgia and across the country was Mr. Gingrich, who shouldered the brunt of voter discontent over last year's standoff between the White House and Congress that led to a prolonged shutdown of the government.

    But despite Mr. Gingrich's sagging popularity nationally, he managed to win re-election handily over millionaire cookie entrepreneur Michael Coles of Smyrna, who spent nearly $3 million of his fortune.

    Mr. Gingrich also retained his speakership, as Republicans won control of the House in two consecutive elections for the first time in 68 years.

    Mr. Gingrich ended 1996 with the admission that he violated House rules regarding use of tax-exempt organizations to finance his college course and televised workshops, and that he gave false responses earlier to the ethics committee.

    He said the violations were unintentional.

    The House ethics committee will recommend whether the full House ought to reprimand Mr. Gingrich or impose a censure, a more serious punishment that would prevent him from serving as speaker.