In the 2002 midterms, Republican candidates defeated three Southern Democratic incumbents to capture the Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina governorships. Now, all three of these Republican Governors are term-limited out of office, which gives Democrats an opportunity to reclaim a share of power in the South. Yet, these three states have colored themselves so red that the GOP has the undeniable upper-hand in each of them and much will depend on the quality of Democratic recruitment. And yesterday, two unexpected developments shook up the Democratic field in Georgia and South Carolina.
Georgia: In surprise move, Thurbert Baker jumps in
In 2008, Democrats managed a small comeback in the Peach State (Obama only lost by 5%), giving them hope about 2010’s gubernatorial election. And in a relatively unexpected move, Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker decided to enter the race.
Baker became Attorney General in 1997, when he was appointed by none other than then-Governor Zell Miller. He won re-election races in 1998, 2002 and 2006 - the latter by a 15% margin. As a current statewide office holder, Baker is undoubtedly a very credible candidate and his entry could guarantee that Democrats will be able to nominate someone who will be taken as a serious general election contender. Other Democrats are considering jumping in the race, including former Governor Ray Barnes and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. Former SoS David Poythress is already running.
Baker is African-American; at this point in time, it would be lazy and cliched reporting to say that his race could hurt him in the general election: Last fall, Barack Obama came within a few percentage points of winning the state - and he got roughly the same level of support as Senate candidate Jim Martin, who is white. Sure, 2010 should not be as favorable to Democrats as 2008, but it is also undeniable that Georgia voters will be more open to supporting a Democrat in a local race than in a federal one.
Baker has a conservative profile - even by the standards of Georgia Democrat. His focus on law-and-order issues makes his record look that much more conservative. For instance, Baker championed the abolition of parole for persons convicted of violent crimes - a measure that has not been enacted by the Assembly. Even before serving as Attorney General, Baker was already focused on such issues: In the mid 1990s, he sponsored the state’s “Two Strikes and You’re Out” law.
Perhaps most controversially, Baker played a prominent role in the case of Genarlow Wilson, the black teenager who was convicted to ten years in prison for engaging in oral sex with a 15-year old girl, who was white. That was a blatantly unfair sentence for unbelievable and outrageous charges. “The racial dimension of the case is likewise hard to ignore and perhaps unfortunately has had an impact on the final outcome of the case,” Jimmy Carter wrote in a letter to Thurbert Baker. And yet, when an appeal court reduced to sentence from 10 years to 12 months, Baker immediately appealed the decision and stayed Wilson’s liberation. That understandably caused anger, particularly among African-American politicians like Rep. Joseph Lowery.
It looks like Baker wil continue down that path: The only indication his spokesperson provided The Atlanta Journal Constitution is that Baker intends to run a “tough-on-crime campaign.” Now, I understand that a Georgia Democrat has to position himself much further to the right than a New York Democrat, but there are limits to how far to the right he can go without making a primary victory impossible and endanger his general election prospects by alienating his base.
Let’s look at some potential issues: For one, black voters represent half of the Democratic primary electorate; Baker might be African-American, but his rhetoric on crime combined with the Genarlow Wilson case could make it difficult for him to win the primary - particularly if another black candidate jumps in the race. Furthermore, the 2010 midterms will be probably fought on economic issues; voters will not care about law-and-order as much as they would have a few years ago.
Finally, the current climate gives Democratic candidate a chance to run on a populist platform. What is Baker’s platform on the economy? How will he connect with voters on what is sure to be their primary concern? Baker might be the highest-profile Democrat to enter the race, but his viability remains to be determined.
Alabama: Folsom and Sparks trade roles
It will arguably be even harder for Democrats to win Alabama’s governorship. The state has anchored itself in the GOP column, gave McCain a 22% victory and the GOP has a strong bench to choose from. Yet, Democrats are setting themselves up for a competitive primary - but not with the candidates we were expecting.
Rep. Artur Davis, an African-American with a centrist record, has already announced he will run. Two other Democrats were considering running: Lieutenant Governor Jim Folsom and Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. In recent weeks, reports insistently suggested that Folsom was strongly leaning towards the gubernatorial race and that Sparks was about to jump in the Lieutenant Governor’s race.
Yesterday, the two traded roles. First, Folsom announced that he would seek re-election. Then, Sparks withdrew his name from the Lieutenant Governor’s race and scheduled press conferences across the state to “announce his plans for 2010.” As the Times Journal writes, the implication is clearly that Sparks is planning to jump in the gubernatorial race.
A Davis-Sparks showdown would be highly competitive. In 2008’s presidential primary between Obama and Clinton, 51% of the electorate was black and 44% was white. That alone gives Davis a narrow edge. Sparks could try to run to Davis’s left on economic issues given the representative’s centrist record in Congress, but it is unclear how much he would be comfortable in such a role. (Note that some want Sparks to challenge Rep. Rogers in AL-03, where he resides.) As for the general election, both men would start as underdogs, but they would both be credible contenders.