Roy Barnes’ bid for the governor’s seat reshapes the political landscape 

The last time he ran, he was clobbered by a little-known challenger with a fraction of the funding. It’s been nearly eight years since his name appeared on a ballot. And the state became decidedly redder in the meantime.

By most standards, ex-Gov. Roy Barnes should be a political has-been.

But the reality is that, during the months he spent deciding whether to try to get his old job back, Barnes was seen as the 800-pound gorilla lurking over the governor’s race. Now that he’s officially thrown his hat into the ring, he’s almost universally viewed as the instant front-runner — insofar as that term has any real meaning a full year before the Democratic primary.

On the face of it, the celebrated re-run of Roy Barnes is arguably evidence that the Georgia Democratic Party is in a woeful state. When a defeated former governor — even one with legendary charisma and proven fundraising ability — can set aside his elder statesman duties and immediately vault to the front of the pack running for the state’s highest post, that doesn’t speak well for his party’s depth of electable talent.

Still, there’s reason to believe that the Barnes candidacy could help give the Democrats their best shot at recapturing the Governor’s Mansion, as well as several other statewide seats. And even if Barnes isn’t his party’s nominee, says Emory political science professor Alan Abramowitz, “It looks like the Democrats have a decent shot at winning back the governor’s office.”

Abramowitz cautions that it’s too early for any definitive predictions for the June 21, 2010, primary, much less the Oct. 4, 2010, general election. “The polling right now is pretty much meaningless on both sides of the aisle,” he says. “The polls make Barnes look stronger than he really is because he has high name recognition. They probably won’t tell us anything until next year, when the candidates start putting ads on TV.”

But polls aren’t the only indicators of the prevailing political winds. When Barnes announced his candidacy last week, all three of his Democratic rivals — Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and former state Adjutant General David Poythress — quickly released statements affirming their intent to stay in the race. That was to be expected; they had to do that to silence questions and give them time to reassess their ability to raise funds.

The next few weeks will be telling in terms of campaign fundraising. Baker and Porter will file their first campaign disclosures at the end of this month. Poythress, who entered the race last fall, reported having raised about $120,000 by the end of the year. Barnes, by contrast, likely won’t be filing a mid-year disclosure; he said he wouldn’t launch a formal campaign until July because he needs to finish up some work at his law practice.

Even without Barnes actively soliciting contributions, there’s a chance the other Democratic candidates could find the well drying up as big donors wait to give their money to the former governor, says Chuck Clay, an ex-legislator and former state GOP party head. If Baker and Porter find it too difficult to raise funds for a governor’s race that insiders are predicting will likely cost $10 million to $12 million to be a contender, they could be forced to step aside, he predicts — possibly in favor of running for a lesser post.

Poythress, who has no definable political base, is unlikely to be able to keep up with the others in fundraising, but history suggests he’ll stay in no matter what. In 1998, he came in third in the Democratic primary for governor behind Barnes — who got 49 percent of the vote — and former Secretary of State Lewis Massey; within days, Massey suspended his campaign and threw his support to Barnes rather than compete in a hopeless runoff, but Poythress didn’t follow suit. (In the end, it didn’t matter; Massey’s name remained on the ballot, thus denying Poythress a runoff bid.)

Another factor that could affect the race in the next few weeks is behind-the-scenes pressure from the national Democratic Party, which is reportedly eager to avoid a bruising primary battle like that fought between Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox three years ago. A Democratic insider says the national party has made clear it’s willing to spend heavily to wrest the Georgia governor’s seat away from the GOP — but only if state Democrats are able to agree early on a preferred candidate.

Even if Baker — who, unlike Barnes, has never been a fundraising powerhouse — stays in the race, most pundits and politicos believe Baker can’t automatically count on carrying the African-American vote simply because he’s black.

“You can fairly raise questions about whether Baker has met the expectations of the Democratic base,” says William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. That’s a nicer version of what many of Baker’s fellow Democrats have long said about him off the record. In particular, Baker’s hard-line prosecution of Genarlow Wilson — the black teen imprisoned as a child-molester for having oral sex with an underage girl at a party — has earned him widespread criticism in the black community.

Barnes, on the other hand, enjoys wide support among African-Americans for taking the lead in removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. While his flag actions helped lead to Barnes’ defeat, it’s unlikely that the Republicans will successfully be able to revive that issue eight years later. Similarly, much of the opposition that Barnes stirred up among teachers when he proposed stricter accountability rules — another factor in his 2002 loss — has been replaced by anger at Gov. Perdue for slashing school funding.

But Abramowitz, for one, isn’t counting out Porter, who he sees as a potentially successful populist candidate among downstate Democrats. “Barnes carries a lot of baggage, so it’s not inconceivable that he could be defeated in a primary,” he says.

No matter who emerges from the Democratic primary, Abramowitz gives that candidate good odds for beating the Republican nominee, who likely will have been beaten up and drained of cash in the GOP primary.

And the dismal performance of the GOP-controlled General Assembly, which has failed to passed statewide funding plans for transportation or trauma care two years straight, has further eroded statewide support for Republicans. It’s no mistake that Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, is the only GOP legislator running for governor — and that race wasn’t his first choice.

Among the other Republican gubernatorial candidates, it’s difficult to pick a clear front-runner. Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine is something of a party outsider who’s been recently wounded by a series of AJC articles detailing potential illegal contributions to his campaign from an insurance executive whom Oxendine appointed to an influential oversight agency.

“One or two stories won’t destroy his campaign,” says Clay, the former GOP party leader, “But a steady stream of negative news about Oxendine would hurt him.”

Secretary of State Karen Handel seems positioned as Perdue’s hand-picked successor, which could backfire if the governor’s approval rating continues to sink.

And U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, while a nine-term congressman, simply isn’t well-known outside North Georgia, says Clay.

Some Democratic insiders are openly hoping for a dream-team ticket of Barnes for governor and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who is black, for lieutenant governor. Thurmond has said he’s considering his options. If a Barnes-Thurmond ticket were to become an election juggernaut, the theory goes, it could help other Democrats capture down-ballot statewide seats that are now in Republican hands.

Certainly, with the primaries so far away, much can change and Barnes fans already counting their chickens could be sorely disappointed come next year. But the next few weeks should give us all a flavor of what’s to come.

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