Money will soon begin to shape Georgia's 2010 governor's race

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In about six weeks, the amorphous race to be the Republican nominee for governor in 2010 will start to take some shape.

Few people know much about the six candidates. The latest major statewide poll suggests that half of the GOP voters are undecided. Many likely don't have a clue.

But somebody has to win. And a pre-condition to winning is getting better known among Georgia Republicans.

It will take money - lots of it - to reach the 500,000-plus people likely to vote in next July's primary election.

The first batch of campaign finance reports is due no later than July 8. Then speculation about who has the resources to get better known will yield to show and tell.

Until then, though, why not speculate?

For the moment, it's a game of follow the leader - state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine.

The first to enter the race, he's ahead in the polls, and - as of Dec. 31 - he had done the best job of shaking the political money trees.

But he has relied heavily on the insurance industry that his office regulates. And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that insurance companies funneled $120,000 to him through political committees.

Oxendine might have done nothing wrong. Still, the revelation has cost him at least $120,000; he decided it was prudent to give the money back.

All that suggests two questions.

First: Will the industry now decide it's wise to buy some insurance of its own by more widely spreading its largesse to other candidates? Second: Can Oxendine broaden his base of financial support?

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Karen Handel and state Sen. Eric Johnson are competing mostly for Gov. Sonny Perdue's donor base. Luckily for them, it's a huge one, and it draws on most of Georgia's business community.

But it's a competition the Savannah lawmaker must win - even dominate - to remain in the hunt.

Here's why: A six-person field almost guarantees that no one will receive a majority of the primary votes. So the top two finishers likely will square off in a runoff.

Oxendine's head start in raising money and building name identification gives him a good chance to be one of the top two. But, by virtue of being the only woman in the race, Handel is well-poised to be the other.

That is, unless Johnson cannot only do well, but also do well enough to limit Handel's access to electioneering cash.

That's possible, even though he started late and is less well-known than Handel. His four years as the de facto leader of the Senate made him a go-to guy for much of the business community. That's why he's one of the top political fundraisers in state politics.

Handel, too, has ties to that group. But her job as the state's top election officer has not made her someone its members usually turn to for help. Or feel an urge to bankroll.

And what of U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal? Like Johnson, Deal begins as a mostly regional candidate.

But Deal raised more than $900,000 during the last election cycle. It's hard to compare that with money raised by his 2010 opponents. As a candidate for federal office, he rounded up much of his cash from a variety of sources and under different rules.

Anyway, he's no slouch; inquiring minds should wonder about not only how much he'll raise, but also at whose expense.

That leaves states' rights activist Ray McBerry and state Rep. Austin Scott, of Tifton. Both are in electoral cul-de-sacs - McBerry's is ideological, and Scott's is geographical.

They will find it hard to persuade major donors that giving them money won't be throwing it away.

But, as I've conceded, this is all speculation.

In six more weeks, give or take a couple of days, it's Round One of show and tell.


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