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Gone With the Winds of Change: Democrats in Georgia

For the first time since Reconstruction, the Republicans grab the governorship. Victory underscores the new politics in the South.

November 07, 2002|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — 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.

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