Originally created 08/16/98

Landscape of politics changing



HAMPTON, Ga. -- Veteran election watchers will tell you that not long ago, Republican was still a dirty word in Georgia.

"I can remember years ago when you didn't even say `Republican,"' Gwen Warner noted as she worked a Henry County voting precinct in last week's runoff.

"That's phasing out, and people are thinking for themselves more now. They're not saying, `My granddaddy always voted Democrat and I always will, too."

And they're moving to Georgia with different political notions.

Alice Fahrney of Douglasville was raised in a military family and lived overseas much of her life.

When it came time to settle down 18 years ago, she and her husband picked Georgia. In politics, they picked the Republican Party.

"I just felt like the Republican Party stood for the things I stood for," said Mrs. Fahrney.

In less than a generation, a more than century-long pattern of party allegiances in Georgia has been swept aside. After years of claiming party parity, Republicans showed this year that they are finally the near equals of Democrats at primary time.

Sixteen years ago, just 6.4 percent of Georgians who voted in a gubernatorial primary took a Republican ballot. Eight years ago, it was 10.1 percent.

That changed dramatically in 1994, when Republicans had a competitive gubernatorial primary. That year, 60.7 percent of gubernatorial primary voters used a Democratic ballot, and 39.3 percent a Republican.

This year, the two parties were only 69,000 votes apart, with 53.8 percent picking up a Democratic ballot and 46.2 percent a Republican ballot.

While turnout was low -- about 22 percent -- the number of Republican primary voters was up -- from 297,221 in 1994 to 418,542 this year. The number of Democratic voters increased as well, from 459,779 to 487,362. But that's less than half the Democratic vote in 1990, the last time there was a competitive gubernatorial party primary.

"What this means is, it's the Democrats who aren't coming out," said Senate Minority Whip Eric Johnson, R-Savannah. "They're either turned off, they don't care, they're dead, or they're Republican.

"You see a dramatic change from 1982 to 1990, from 1990 to 1998."

Last week's runoff vote mirrored the primary. In the lieutenant governor runoff, about 260,000 Georgians voted on the Democratic side, and about 233,000 in the Republican election.

Republicans have been hyping their growth for years, in large part because they've come from so far back in the only Southern state without a GOP governor since Reconstruction.

Republicans used to the recent big gains and winning statewide and congressional races may forget that 12 years ago, the GOP had trouble getting 50,000 Georgians to vote in its primary. A decade ago, only 38 of 236 legislators were Republicans.

Even in 1990, when then-House Minority Leader Johnny Isakson won the Republican nomination for governor, only 118,118 voters chose the GOP ballot, while more than 1 million took a Democratic one.

Several factors have brought about the change, including a huge population influx from areas with traditions of electing GOP candidates, a rearranging of political lines that bleached districts, making them more attractive to white Republicans, and more competitive party primaries.

Redistricting and a sweeping national political change in 1996 made the Georgia congressional delegation Republican in just two election cycles. Republican gubernatorial nominee Guy Millner narrowly lost to Gov. Zell Miller that year.

"You can see the progression of the voter loyalty," noted Rusty Paul, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.

Democratic Labor Commissioner nominee Michael Thurmond, a former Athens state legislator, suspects more young voters than in the past are siding with the GOP.

"When they first vote, they vote as Republicans," Mr. Thurmond said.

Despite the gains, Senate leaders of both parties are publicly skeptical about the chances for a Republican takeover of the General Assembly this fall.

"I can't figure out what seats we're going to lose," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. "The House will hold what it has, the Senate will gain."

"Republicans will pick up seats, but won't cross the finish line," predicted Mr. Johnson, who is expected to become the next Senate Republican leader next year.

"Depending on the outcome, there will be another campaign between the end of the election and the beginning of the General Assembly session."

That's when, if Republicans win the governor's or lieutenant governor's race, the GOP will begin recruiting Democrats to switch parties.

Until then, both parties are likely to spend some of their own money to pump up candidates this fall.

Republicans have already done dirt-digging on Democratic gubernatorial nominee Roy Barnes and are ready to join forces with Mr. Millner in his fall campaign.

"You will see a solidification of message. There might not be unified TV ads, but the legislative, lieutenant governor and governor candidates might run on the same thing, like ending the car (tag) tax," Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Walker said Democrats will run as a team, with the party spending $1.5 million to $2 million to hold onto statewide and legislative seats.

"We're going to run a combined campaign," he said.

If the past few years are any indication, the parties, now at near parity, will be fighting over independents and Libertarians, who were blamed by Republicans for cutting into the GOP vote in 1996, allowing Democrat Max Cleland to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.

"The last three election cycles have indicated the turnouts are going to be equal between the two parties," said Johnny Isakson, a former House Minority Leader and the GOP's 1990 gubernatorial nominee. "I think we're a 40-40-20 state."

That's 40 percent Republican, 40 percent Democrat, and 20 percent independents.

"The Libertarians may be spoilers again," he added.