Originally created 10/31/04

GOP has sights on total control

ATLANTA - The race for control of the General Assembly doesn't end when voters cast their ballots Tuesday. That's when the real politicking begins.

Depending on how closely Georgians hew to their traditional voting patterns, and how long the coattails of President Bush and U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson prove to be, Republicans are angling to complete their takeover of state government. A pickup of 15 seats in the House would give the GOP outright control of the Statehouse.

But the party also could try to cobble together a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans to seize control of the lower chamber.

In the Senate, the party looks well-positioned to maintain or even increase its majority, won when four Democrats decided to jump ship after Sonny Perdue became the first Republican governor in 130 years.

Two of those newly-minted Republicans are gone, and Sen. Don Cheeks, R-Augusta, is in a tough race against former Senate Minority Leader Charles Walker, giving Democrats hope that they can reclaim the chamber or at least force a tie.

Despite a heated campaign for control of both chambers of the General Assembly, some observers think that the most likely outcome, barring any major surprise, is for the status quo to continue: a GOP majority in the Senate and a Democratic edge, if smaller than the current lead, in the House.

Mike Digby, a political science professor at Georgia College & State University, said the Republicans likely will hold onto the Senate and make a run for the House that will probably come up short.

"But there's a far longer gap to reach there ... for the House to switch over to the Republican side," he said.

Going into Tuesday, and accounting for a handful of party switchers, Democrats hold a 103-76 edge in the House, with one independent who usually sides with Republicans.

An examination of data indicating how the two parties' candidates have previously fared in each of the 236 legislative districts could give some solace to the GOP.

If incumbents also are given a slight edge, the GOP has an advantage in as many as 30 districts in the 56-member Senate, including 13 seats where there is no opposition to the Republican candidate.

Democrats hold the edge in the races for 21 seats, including 10 seats already in the bag. Another five seats appear to be toss-ups, with neither candidate heavily favored.

In the House, Republicans hold the advantage in the campaigns for 81 seats in the 180-member chamber, including 57 candidates who face no opponent. Democrats appear to have the edge in 79 districts, including 49 unopposed races. The other 20 seats are seemingly up for grabs, including seven where no incumbent is running for re-election.

As the polls close Tuesday, the eyes of most Capitol insiders will be on the House. Republicans have made no secret of their all-out effort to strip Democrats of their control of the chamber, and some lawmakers have even boasted that the party could win as many as 102 seats.

But Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, said he was confident that Democrats would maintain control of the House.

"We've got good candidates, and I think we'll wind up (with) what I've said all along - 96, 100 votes," he said.

EVEN IF THEY DON'T gain control of the chamber outright, House Republicans could try to use the method their Senate counterparts found effective: switching. But Mr. Perdue and other Republicans already have pushed wavering Democrats hard, picking off five lawmakers before they qualified for the elections this year.

"I think that's not going to happen after this election," Dr. Digby said.

Mr. Coleman said Democrats also would be targeting some Republican members to switch. He said some of the targets had been determined, though he declined to identify them.

Republicans also could take over by convincing some conservative Democrats to cast their lot with the GOP in a bipartisan effort to unseat Mr. Coleman.

"I feel very confident that we will, worst-case scenario, come back with needing only a few to form a coalition to be in the majority," said Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta. "Best-case scenario, we don't even need that."

A similar effort to beat Mr. Coleman two years ago, when he ran for the position after the defeat of then-Speaker Tom Murphy, collapsed and left several veteran Democrats temporarily locked out of leadership slots.

"It's probably something that's going to be attempted," Dr. Digby said.

IN THE END, it could be a waiting game for Republicans who dream of taking over the House. Some popular Democratic incumbents in conservative districts might retire within the next few years, paving the way for Republicans to take their place.

Republicans are even more buoyant about their prospects in the Senate, where they already hold the majority. Sen. Brian Kemp, R-Athens, said the party could pick up as many as five seats, boosting themselves to a 35-21 majority and giving Republicans a free reign to continue advancing Mr. Perdue's agenda.

Sen. Michael Meyer von Bremen, the Democratic Senate leader from Albany, said he believes Democrats could win between 28 and 30 slots in the Senate, putting them in a tie with Republicans or gaining the majority.

Even so, a tie in the Senate could create confusion. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat who serves as the presiding officer of the Senate, doesn't get a vote in the case of tie. That means Democrats and Republicans would have to agree on who will serve as president pro tem and what the rules will be governing the coming session.

Bipartisan coalitions also would be needed to pass any major legislation.

"I think you would need true leadership to step forward and set aside the deeply vain partisanship that we've seen the last couple years," Mr. Meyer von Bremen said. "And, in that sense, it may be good for Georgia."

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.


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