Georgia has had nothing but Democratic governors from the early days of Reconstruction until 2002, when party-switching former Democrat Sonny Perdue pulled off an upset of incumbent Democratic Governor Roy Barnes by running as a Republican. Barnes had lost support from teachers, whom he infuriated in 2002 over reforms that he was pushing similar to No Child Left Behind. Following the subsequent furloughing of teachers by Governor Purdue and the Republican legislature, however, I’m pretty sure the teachers that supported Purdue that year have long since regretted their choice. Barnes had also inflamed the right that year by retiring the confederate flag as the state flag. Arguably, those two positions cost him the Governorship in 2002. But 2002 was also the year Republicans captured the state Senate and knocked off Sen. Max Cleland, winning the House two years later.
But Sonny Purdue is now term-limited against running again and Roy Barnes is back in the race for Governor, so this morning I drove over to the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center, my local polling place, and voted in the Georgia primary, mainly with the intention of getting Barnes back into office. Barnes has been the prohibitive favorite in the Democratic primary all along - the main mystery has been whether he could be forced into a runoff.
His primary opponent, Thurbert Baker, is a former State Attorney General who refused Gov. Perdue’s order to initiate a lawsuit against the government over the recent Federal health-care reform. Baker’s a good man, but it is important for the welfare of Georgia that the Republican stranglehold on the state government be broken, and despite having once alienated the teachers and the hard-core right, Barnes has a better chance of beating the Republic candidate, most likely former Secretary-of-State Karen Handel, than Baker.
Although Handel may be better than Purdue (it’s hard to be worse), there are compelling reason to not want her in the Governor’s House. Her signature accomplishment was passing a controversial photo-ID requirement for voting, a measure considered by many to discourage mainly poor and minority voters, and much of her political career has been built around the virtually non-existent issue of “voter fraud.” Handel has been identifying herself as a "conservative reformer," taking on the corrupt and ideologically suspect good ol' boys, what with their party-switching and all. To her credit, she has endorsed gay/lesbian rights early in her career when she was running for office in relatively liberal Fulton County (she once made a small contribution to the Log Cabin Republicans, not a popular group among Georgia conservatives). She also got hit hard by Georgia's influential right-to-life lobby, which blasted her for supporting rape-and-incest exceptions to a hypothetical abortion ban, and for opposing proposals to sharply restrict in vitro fertility clinics.
The immigration furor touched off by Arizona has become an important issue in the Georgia gubernatorial race (not a surprise, since Georgia is a state with a highly visible but politically weak Hispanic population). Handel scored a coup late in the campaign when she was endorsed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (a former fellow Secretary-of-State). Sadly, Roy Barnes has also indicated support for an Arizona-style immigration law, although adding a few caveats later.
Finally, Handel has advocated the abolition of the state income tax, which accounts for about half of all state revenues. She has not made it clear what, exactly, she would do to replace those revenues, and how, if she were to succeed in abolishing the state income tax, she would not have to massively increase sales taxes, especially given recent chronic state budget deficits. Abolishing income taxes, though, strikes a very strong chord not just with long-time "Fair Tax" fans, but with Tea Party activists. So on the one hand, she is running on tax cuts and fiscal responsibility, but on the other, she can't provide specifics on how she will achieve that responsibility if she does get the tax cuts. Keep in mind that Georgia is a state running deeply in the red and cutting everything across the board, starting with education and most "entitlement" programs that Republicans hate. I’m not sure what else can be cut and still have a functioning government. So it’s sort of hilarious to see Handel make these promises that a) can't be done and b) the state can't afford.
To top it all off, former half-term governor of Alaska Sarah Palin gave Handel priceless free media by endorsing her last week. It is amusing that Handel was the only Republican candidate not endorsed by the Georgia Right to Life organization, yet she was the one who got Sarah Palin's endorsement. Palin has even recorded robocalls defending Handel as a "pro-life and pro-family" conservative.
Handel’s primary opponent, former Republican Congressman Nathan Deal, immediately encountered with an endorsement by Georgia's Newt Gingrich, who has also cut an ad for his former House colleague. Deal has been hit with ethics problems, allegedly resigning early from Congress to curtail an investigation of a state contract obtained under questionable circumstances by one of his companies back home. However, he has intensified his attacks on Handel's social views, presumably trying to counteract the impact of the Palin endorsement on hard-core social conservatives. The rhetoric has grown very heated, with Deal running ads calling Handel a "liberal."
There's little question Sarah Palin will get a lot of credit, deserved or not, if Handel romps to a strong first-place finish in the Republican primary today. If she winds up in a runoff against Nathan Deal, we'll see a rare and fascinating surrogate confrontation between two potential 2012 presidential candidates, right on Newt Gingrich's home turf, and it could get very, very ugly.
Which, of course, bodes well for Barnes.