Gone With the Winds of Change: Democrats in Georgia

Times Staff Writer

Georgians awoke Wednesday to find their state's political landscape reshaped by a Republican upset that swept out an incumbent U.S. senator and installed the state's first GOP governor in 130 years.

Analysts and political operatives described the scale of the Republican win -- which also toppled a long-reigning House speaker and blunted Democrats' hopes of dominating Georgia's congressional delegation -- as nothing short of historic in a state that became the last to elect a Republican governor since Reconstruction.

The GOP victories that unseated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes, analysts said, signaled that the Republican tide that years ago washed over much of the South finally had lapped up on Georgia's shores in a meaningful way.

"We're headed for a new day in Georgia politics," proclaimed a weary but ebullient Saxby Chambliss, a four-term House Republican who defeated Cleland by 7 percentage points after a $25-million contest most notable for its acrimonious tone.

The Chambliss win -- and an even more surprising victory by Republican Sonny Perdue in the governor's contest -- were "stunning" results for Georgia, said Michael Binford, a political scientist at Georgia State University. "It was a major upset. People are still trying to figure out what was going on."

Theories fluttered like yesterday's campaign posters. But there was general agreement on several factors explaining the Republican sweep in Georgia, including the trend favoring the GOP nationwide.

Most observers agreed that Chambliss, along with Republican candidates in close contests around the country, benefited heavily from the popularity of President Bush, who visited Georgia three times recently on the congressman's behalf. The most recent presidential swing came Saturday, amid polls that showed Cleland's lead dwindling.

"George Bush was very effective at getting support to Saxby Chambliss. He campaigned for him extensively, raising money, and helped him in the debate on homeland security," Binford said.

Chambliss, who chairs a House subcommittee on terrorism, appeared to have gained from the public's anxiety over homeland security since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In one television commercial hammering Cleland as soft on national security, photographs of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein flashed on the screen to accent descriptions of how Cleland had voted repeatedly against homeland security legislation favored by Bush.

The national defense gambit was all the more remarkable because Cleland -- who preferred a competing homeland security measure that he said provided better worker protections -- lost his right arm and both legs during combat in Vietnam. He once ran the Department of Veteran Affairs. Cleland objected that his patriotism was being questioned, but some damage was done.

Barnes' loss in the gubernatorial race was more surprising. He made ample use of the largess afforded by his incumbency, spending about $20 million -- six times the amount spent by Perdue, a state senator who switched from Democrat to Republican in 1998. Polls gave Barnes the lead going into the final days of the campaign.

But Barnes, who was at the end of his first term, fell victim to voter resentment over several of his more controversial moves as governor -- including creation of a new state flag that greatly shrank the prominence of the Confederate battle flag symbol.

Barnes privately approved the design last year, which was whisked through the state Legislature without debate. The maneuver angered many Georgia residents, particularly rural voters who showed up in high numbers Tuesday to register their displeasure with Barnes.

Perdue has said he favors putting the flag issue to a referendum. Turnout was noticeably higher in many rural counties that picked Perdue over Barnes.

Barnes also faced displeasure from teachers opposed to his education reform program and from opponents of a controversial highway, called the Northern Arc, that is planned in the outskirts of Atlanta.

The state teachers union, which normally favors Democrats, did not endorse a candidate.

A redistricting plan favoring the Democrats also appeared heavy handed to many voters.

"There were a lot of smaller groups of people antagonized by the governor for one reason or another," said Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based GOP pollster.

Still, Ayres and others described Tuesday's results as a breakthrough for Republicans in Georgia, where the GOP managed to align their upscale voters in the suburbs with rural residents in corners of the state where Democrats once held sway.

The defeat of House Speaker Tom Murphy, who served for 42 years and was the archetype of the old-style, loyal, "yellow dog" Democrat, was one more sign of just how much politics here suddenly looks different.

It was the Republicans who were appropriating the rhetoric of the civil rights era. "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, free at last!" Perdue exulted before a jubilant crowd of backers. In the crowd, a supporter waved the former state flag dominated by the Confederate symbol.

While other states in the South grew accustomed to electing Republicans as governors and senators during the last 30 years, the Democratic Party's lock on Georgia held.

Ayres said that was partly due to a lack of "superstar" GOP candidates in the mold of Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and to the appeal of right-leaning Democrats, such as Zell Miller, who now will be the state's ranking U.S. senator.

But even Democrats conceded that that era may be over.

To them, the state's political map is stark and bifurcated: Atlanta remains a Democratic stronghold -- thanks in part to a sizable black population -- while much of the rest of the state may have more in common with Republicans than with a national Democratic leadership, which it views as too liberal. In the middle is a suburban belt that promises to be the battleground of the future, said Tim Phillips, who managed Barnes' campaign.

"The fight is over the SUV drivers, not the pickup truck drivers," Phillips said. "The fight over the pickup truck drivers is over."

But all is not lost for the Democrats -- the Republicans now have to govern with a legislature still controlled by Democrats.

"What that means to the future of Georgia depends on how Republicans operate in office and how the Democrats respond," Phillips said. "It's certainly not hopeless."

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