ATLANTA -- Senate President Pro-tem Sonny Perdue's decision to switch to the Republican Party puts the GOP within six seats of claiming a majority in the chamber, a proposition almost unimaginable a decade ago.
His switch also raises the profile of two rising powers: Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, and Senate Minority Whip Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.
If Democrats hold their lead, Mr. Walker could be in line to replace Mr. Perdue in 1999. Mr. Johnson would be in a similar position if Republicans take over.
However, Mr. Johnson already has secured enough commitments to make him Republican leader in 1999, and the Savannah lawmaker said Saturday he would be willing to cede the president pro-tem post to Mr. Perdue if Republicans gain control.
The president pro-tem presides over the Senate in the absence of the lieutenant governor and has a hand in most of the body's important decisions, including what gets into the state's $12.5 billion budget.
The switch by Bonaire's Mr. Perdue, announced Friday, had been expected for weeks. He had been calling other Democratic senators and candidates trying to get them to switch with him.
Among them was state Rep. Tim Golden, D-Valdosta, who is running for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Loyce Turner, D-Valdosta.
"I think they thought I would switch. I told him no. I've been a Democrat all my life, why would I switch?" Mr. Golden said.
However, Mr. Johnson said Mr. Perdue's decision could lead to more switches in upcoming weeks.
"He stuck his toe in the water and jumped in," Mr. Johnson said. "There are four or five others that are thinking about it, and now they have seen it's safe."
Mr. Perdue said his decision was based on his conviction that the state will be run in the future by a coalition government.
"I expect I'll be treated like a defecting North Korean general, vilified by some and welcomed as the hero by others," Mr. Perdue told The Macon Telegraph.
His announcement came a little more than two weeks before candidate qualifying begins.
Democrats now hold their slimmest majority since at least Reconstruction, with 33 seats in the 56-member body. In the House, Democrats have 104 of 180 seats.
A decade ago, there were only 10 Republicans in the Senate and 28 in the House.
The legislative jockeying is increasingly important this year, because two of the state's longtime leaders, Gov. Zell Miller and Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, both Democrats, are retiring. At least 10 lawmakers are leaving the General Assembly to seek statewide office, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Clay, R-Marietta, who is campaigning to replace Mr. Howard.
The next two election cycles also are vital to the parties, because lawmakers will realign districts in 2001 when the new census is completed. The party in control can dictate how districts are drawn, giving them a major political advantage for the next decade.
Republican leaders heaped praise on Mr. Perdue, hoping he will be the bait needed to attract a school of Democrats.
"We're excited about our new member," Mr. Johnson said. "Sonny brings a lot of leadership and experience to our emerging majority.
"I think we will either be the majority by the election or we will be a majority by the time the gavel comes down in January (for the beginning of the 1999 session)."
State GOP Chairman Rusty Paul credited Mr. Johnson and state Board of Education Chairman Johnny Isakson with laying the groundwork for Mr. Perdue's switch.
"Sonny Perdue has strong conservative values," Mr. Paul said. "He has already proven that he has excellent leadership qualities."
In recent years, then-Attorney General Michael Bowers and North Georgia U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal have been among the Democrats who have switched parties.
Mr. Walker said Mr. Perdue's Democratic colleagues are angered by his switch, and added, "Nobody else is going."
"We're going to focus on the Democratic agenda," he said. "Every individual has a right to switch parties. This is another failed attempt by the Republican Party to dismantle the Democratic educational and economic policies of this state."
He compared Mr. Perdue's switch to "the cowboy who comes in with a big hat and no cattle."
Steve Anthony, executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party, predicted Mr. Perdue's decision won't have a measurable effect on who runs the General Assembly in 1999.
"We as a party will continue on without him and be successful without him," Mr. Anthony said.