In their quest to regain their footing in the South, Democrats have scored somewhat of a a coup in Georgia: Roy Barnes, who served six years in the state House, fifteen years in the state Senate and four years as Governor (1998-2002) just announced that he will be seeking his old job back in 2010.
This will be Barnes’s fourth gubernatorial campaign. After losing the 1990 Democratic nomination to eventual turncoat Zell Miller, Barnes successfully ran to replace him in 1998 - winning the general election by 9%. Four years later, Barnes lost his re-election race by 5% in what was seen as an upset; Republican Sonny Perdue benefited from the favorable winds that boosted the GOP across the country but especially in the South: On the same day, Georgia Senator Max Cleland lost just as unexpectedly by an even larger margin and Democratic Governors in Alabama and South Carolina lost their re-election races.
A solid general election contender…
Barnes’s long political experience, name recognition and credibility make him a strong contender for Democrats. His 2002 re-election defeat was due as much to the political environment as to his own standing with voters and Barnes looks to have remained relatively popular: A Research 2000 poll taken in April show 45% of respondents hold a favorable impression of their former Governor (including 69% of Democrats and 42% of independents) while 35% have an unfavorable one (including 32% of independents).
That same survey showed Barnes trailing Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine by just 2% and leading Secretary of State Karen Handel by 6% in gubernatorial match-ups. (Tested against incumbent Johnny Isakson in a Senate match-up, Barnes trails by 4%.) All of these Republicans are known commodities; more than just name recognition, Barnes’s competitiveness reflect general election electability - not a small feat for a Southern Democrat.
One of the most controversial issues of Barnes’s gubernatorial term was his decision to modify the state flag. The 1956 flag prominently featured the Confederate Emblem and many were clamoring for a change. After years of controversy, Barnes got the state legislature to adopt a compromise flag. While that version still featured a small Confederate symbol, it provoked an outcry and the issue played a major role in the 2002 race: Perdue promised to call a referendum asking voters to choose their flag. (The current version, adopted in 2003, is modeled after the Confederacy’s first flag rather than after the better-known emblem.)
It might seem bizarre to think that this issue could play a decisive role again, but could Barnes’s bid to serve a second term as Governor be derailed by the flag issue again? Would Georgia Republicans try to warn voters that Barnes would try to change the flag again? And how will Barnes address an isuse that has come to be viewed as one of his defining legacies? (Note that Barnes’s 2001 flag contains as obvious a Confederate reference as Perdue’s 2003 flag, so it’s not like the Democrat had had the courage to do away with the emblem entirely.)
… first needs to survive a crowded primary
All of this said, the significance of Barnes’s entrance should not be overstated: State Democrats retain enough of a bench that they have a number of other electable candidates - so much so that Barnes looks guaranteed to be facing quite a crowded primary. Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and former Secretary of State David Poythress are all already running, and most would make credible general election contenders.
This means that Barnes will have to fight for the Democratic nomination before thinking ahead to the general election. Yet, he starts as the clear front-runner: A Strategic Vision poll taken back in April shows him crushing Baker 56% to 29%, with 4% and 2% going to Porter and Poythress; a recent Insider Advantage poll shows Barnes dominating even more clearly.
As an African-American, Attorney General Thurbert Baker would be able to mount a strong challenge if he mobilized black voters but it won’t be easy for him to do so given that he has a conservative profile - even by the standards of Georgia Democrats and especially on racial issues. (Baker played a prominent role fighting the liberation of 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.)
What about the Senate race?
Barnes was also mentioned as a possible challenger to Senator Johnny Isakson, and the Research 2000 poll I cited above suggests he would have started in a promising position. Obviously, today’s announcement takes care of that possibility but his decision to run for Governor (rather than stay out of politics) could still provide an opening for the DSCC: Ambitious Democrats like Baker, Porter and Poythress are now clear underdogs to win their party’s nomination - let alone claim the Governor’s Mansion. Could they be convinced to switch gears and run for Senate instead?
To be a sure, it would be a tough race but Isakson’s numbers suggest he could be vulnerable to a top-tier challenge and that the DSCC should strive not to waste an opportunity as they did in 2008: While Saxby Chambliss was obviously vulnerable, Jim Martin was not a solid enough candidate and he rose to prominence too late in the cycle. A higher-profile contender and an earlier DSCC involvement could have yielded an additional Democratic seat on November 4th.