Originally created 10/02/00

Voter influx encourages GOP



ATLANTA - Like sports teams at the beginning of the season, Georgia Republicans and Democrats are putting their most optimistic spins on how they will fare in this year's General Assembly elections.

Republicans, intent on gaining control of either the House or Senate for the first time since Reconstruction, are predicting gains of up to six seats in the Senate and a dozen in the House. That would be enough to pull the GOP even with the Democrats in either chamber but would not put Republicans over the top.

Democrats are being only slightly more modest, forecasting an additional two Senate seats and a gain of up to 10 in the House.

Such a substantial swing in either direction would be a far cry from two years ago, when the Legislature saw little movement. After suffering significant losses earlier in the 1990s, the Democrats rallied in 1998 to fight the GOP to a standstill in the Senate and pick up one House seat.

Insiders from both parties agree that some of the trends that lessened the likelihood of major upheavals in Georgia two years ago are still at work this year, including the healthy economy.

"We've been in boom times for a pretty long time," state Republican Party Chairman Chuck Clay said. "That generally plays to the status quo."

Political consultant Steve Anthony, who is working for about two dozen Democratic legislative candidates this fall, said there are no galvanizing concerns for either candidates or voters to latch on to. Even education reform, the main topic of this year's legislative session, isn't resonating with voters, he said.

"I don't see any big issues out there that are driving everything, including education," said Mr. Anthony, also a former state Democratic executive director.

But when party strategists look at their electoral maps, they can find enough competitive races to justify their hopes for major gains.

For Republicans, the best hunting ground for turning Democrats out of office is in north Georgia, coastal Georgia and along Interstate 20 east and west of Atlanta, areas where people who tend to vote Republican have accounted for much of the recent population growth.

GOP activists say they have a solid shot at defeating north Georgia Democratic Sens. Carol Jackson of Cleveland, Sonny Huggins of LaFayette and Eddie Madden of Elberton. An incumbent Democrat who finds herself perennially targeted by Republicans is Sen. Peg Blitch of Homerville.

Republicans also believe they can take House seats held by Democrats Jack West of Bowdon and Jim Stokes of Oxford. The two incumbents represent districts in Carroll and Newton counties, respectively, that have seen an influx of Republican-leaning voters.

Outside of those areas, Republicans also see an opportunity in the 46th Senate District, where Athens lawyer Doug Haines upended long-time Democratic Sen. Paul Broun of Athens in the July primary. Local businessman Jim Ivey is carrying GOP hopes to capture the unexpectedly open seat.

Democrats see their best opportunity for picking up GOP Senate seats in the 16th District, where incumbent Sen. Clay Land of Columbus is leaving office, and in the middle Georgia district represented by freshman Sen. Susan Cable of Macon.

Like the Republicans, Democratic strategists are eyeing House seats in the Atlanta region. But in their case, the targeted area lies closer to the city, in the Marietta-based districts of Reps. Judy Manning and George Grindley Jr. Marietta is seeing a large in-migration of Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic.

Probably the race Republicans and Democrats are most exercised over is in the 29th House District, represented by Randy Sauder of Smyrna.

Democrats view it as virtually an automatic pickup because then-GOP Rep. Sauder switched to the Democrats on the final day of qualifying in April, too late for the Republicans to field a candidate. But Republicans are backing the independent bid of Ginger Collins, and are quick to note that Doug Stoner, who had planned to run as a Democrat before Mr. Sauder's switch, is still in the race as an independent.

One element present this year that was missing in 1998 is the presidential contest. Even Democrats concede that Texas Gov. George W. Bush now has the inside track over Vice President Al Gore for Georgia's 13 electoral votes.

Republicans say a comfortable Bush win here could affect GOP fortunes in the General Assembly races.

"If Bush runs strong, and I think he will, our chances are good of picking up five to 10 House seats," said House Minority Leader Bob Irvin, R-Atlanta.

Mr. Clay put the margin of victory for Mr. Bush to help Republican chances in the Legislature at 5 percent.

But his counterpart, state Democratic Chairman David Worley, said it would take a lot more than that for Mr. Bush to generate what in politics is known as the "coattail effect," a win by a candidate at the top of the ticket pulling along other candidates from the same party lower on the ballot.

"A year ago, the Republicans were saying they were going to pick up seats because George W. Bush was going to sweep Georgia," Mr. Worley said. "We're behind by 5 points at the most. Five points is not coattails, and I think it's going to be a lot closer than that."

Key races

Here are some of this year's General Assembly races in which Republicans or Democrats see opportunities to gain House or Senate seats:

House

District........Democrat........Republican........Independent

29th...Randy Sauder*.....none.....Ginger Collins,Doug Stoner

32nd............Patricia Dooley.......Judy Manning*

35th............Terry Johnson.........George Grindley Jr.*

92nd............Jim Stokes*...........LeAnne Long

101st...........Jack West*............Timothy Bearden

Senate

District.....Democrat.............Republican

7th..........Peg Blitch*..........Ed Perry

16th.........Lois Cohen...........Seth Harp

27th.........James Pierson Jr.....Susan Cable*

46th.........Doug Haines..........Jim Ivey

47th.........Eddie Madden*........Michael Beatty

50th.........Carol Jackson*.......Guy Middleton

53rd.........Sonny Huggins*.......Jeff Mullis

* denotes incumbent

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.