ATLANTA — Riding a wave of discontent over the economy, Iraq and gas prices, Democrats are hoping to win enough seats to retake the House of Representatives this November. But their success could also hinge on their ability to keep the seats they already have -- and doing so could prove difficult in two key races in Georgia.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Jim Marshall of Macon and John Barrow of Savannah are facing hearty challenges from a pair of former Republican congressmen with name recognition and the ability to raise big money. Bolstering their chances are new district boundaries drawn up by the first GOP-dominated Georgia Legislature since Reconstruction.
The outcome of the races could have broad national implications. The Democratic Party needs a net gain of 15 seats to obtain a majority in the House. Its candidates are posing serious threats to Republican incumbents in states such as Indiana, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
But Republicans have also identified a handful of vulnerable Democratic incumbents, and are hoping to pick off a few of them to thwart a Democratic return to power.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 13, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Georgia congressional races: An article in Section A on Sunday said Georgia's 8th and 12th congressional districts had fewer registered Democrats after a recent redistricting. Both were redrawn so that they now have a greater percentage of voters who supported President Bush in 2004. But the state does not require voters to register by party.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Georgia congressional races: An article in Sunday's Section A said Mac Collins, a challenger in Georgia's 8th District, was a member of the U.S. House from 1993 to 2003. He was a congressman until 2005.
"Everyone's focused right now on where Democrats can gain seats, and properly so -- it's a Democratic year," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "But if Republicans can steal even a few seats from Democrats, it will probably eliminate the chances of a Democratic takeover.
"Georgia has two of these races -- I really don't think there is another state where there are two Democratic seats that are at least somewhat vulnerable."
Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Marshall and Barrow were among 10 House Democratic incumbents his party considered beatable this year.
Others include veteran Iowa Rep. Leonard L. Boswell, a septuagenarian who has had health problems and who is facing a well-funded Republican challenger; Rep. Melissa Bean, an Illinois freshman whose victory was aided by the lackluster campaign of her 2004 rival; and Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas, whose district includes President Bush's Crawford ranch.
In Georgia, as in much of the South, the Democratic Party has been dramatically losing ground in recent years. Since 2004, Republicans have controlled both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor's office.
Democrats grumbled when the ascendant Republicans redrew congressional maps, which were introduced last year. Republicans said they were correcting years of Democratic gerrymandering.
This year, Barrow, a former county commissioner from Athens, and Marshall, a former mayor of Macon, were left with districts that had fewer registered Democrats. Barrow even had to leave Athens, his longtime hometown and, as the home of the University of Georgia, a Democratic redoubt, because it was left out of the boundaries of his redrawn 12th District. He moved to Savannah in January.
In November, Barrow will again face off against Max Burns, a conservative farmer who served in the House for one term before being defeated by Barrow in 2004. In the 8th District, Marshall is facing Mac Collins, a trucking entrepreneur who was a congressman from 1993 to 2003 and lost a bid for U.S. Senate in 2004.
Barrow and Marshall call themselves conservative Democrats -- and point to their routine flouting of the party line. Both voted for the strict House bill addressing illegal immigration, both oppose gay marriage and both oppose set timelines for a withdrawal from Iraq.
Perhaps as a result, their Republican rivals have emphasized the bigger picture in their campaigns -- namely, what would happen if the Democrats took control of the house. In a recent Collins TV ad, his opponent isn't mentioned at all. Instead, the ad targets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who would presumably become House Speaker with a Democratic majority.
The ad says Pelosi would give "amnesty" to illegal aliens, doling out "welfare, food stamps and free education."
"How do we stop her?" the ad says. "Elect Mac Collins."
In a recent news release, Burns' camp also points to the alleged perils of a Pelosi-led Congress, noting her opposition to the National Security Administration's wiretapping program.
"At a time when our country needs to clearly remain on the offense against terrorists, John Barrow supports leaders who want to retreat and take away the programs necessary to win the global War on Terror," Burns said in the release.
In a phone interview, Barrow said voters in his district respected him for voting not according to dogma, but according to the district's best interests. "Ms. Pelosi only controls her vote," he said. "She doesn't control mine."
On Thursday, Bush traveled to Pooler, Ga., a Savannah suburb, and spoke at a fundraiser for Burns (who, unlike Collins, has lagged behind his Democratic opponent in the money race, despite raising more than $1.1 million through July 1).
Bush focused on national security, telling the GOP donors that Burns "understands the stakes" in the war on terrorism.
Democrats may disagree with that assessment. But everyone seems to agree the stakes in these two races could be greater than who represents a handful of Georgia counties.