How Barnes Can Lose

You can't beat somebody with nobody. Until now, that has summed up a seemingly immutable law of Georgia politics. As long as no well-known, well-heeled opponent is running, an incumbent is safe from defeat. That maxim has a corollary: A Republican cannot win.

Gov. Roy E. Barnes is about to test the validity of both notions. The Grand Old Party is on the verge of nominating a "nobody" to challenge the governor. Because of the growing number of Barnes enemies, Candidate Nobody could become a serious impediment to Barnes' re-election.

At this writing, three Republicans — former state Sen. Sonny Perdue, former Cobb Commission Chairman Bill Byrne and State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko — are vying for the GOP nomination. Perdue and Byrne are not well known beyond their own communities. Schrenko has high name recognition statewide, but her "unfavorable" score in the polls is also sky-high. None of the challengers has much money.

By contrast, Barnes is rolling in clover. He has collected close to $15 million for his re-election bid. He has no Democratic primary opponent. His TV campaign started last spring. History is on his side. Georgia has not elected a Republican governor since Reconstruction. With so many good things going for Barnes and so much bad stuff for the other team, what's the problem?

The problem is Barnes himself — more specifically, his first-term record. No matter whom the Republicans nominate, the 2002 election in November will be a referendum on Barnes' first three and a-half years in office.

To win, Barnes must depend heavily on the African-American vote and the female vote. If the polls are correct, Barnes will receive only a handful of white male votes.

He has alienated many white male Georgians because of his successful effort to change the state flag, and the overall perception of Barnes as "liberal Democrat" pains conservative Southern men.

Barnes' advocacy of the Northern Arc highway helped further alienate white voters, though most of the vocal foes of the Arc oppose Barnes anyway. They are die-hard Republicans.

Barnes doesn't gain any extra points for courage. He aggressively engaged the issues of the Northern Arc and other transportation projects to bring Georgia into compliance with national clean-air laws and free up federal funds for building and improving highways in all sections of the state. Those issues were assiduously avoided by Barnes' predecessors, including Miller. Tackling tough issues has never been a sure road to popularity.

Barnes' advocacy of education reform is seen as a plus among female voters. However, many teachers are expected to cast ballots against Barnes. They have come to believe he blames them for the shortcomings of Georgia schools. They are not altogether wrong.

Several special-interest groups also have fallen out with Barnes. Many lawyers are disappointed in his judicial appointments. Chamber of commerce types believe he has fallen short in economic development. Many newcomers perceive Barnes as part of the :good old boy: Democratic club that has hobbled the state for generations.

For the sake of argument, let's suppose Candidate Nobody takes down Barnes on Election Day. Here's what the replacement will face in the months and years ahead: The state's economy has cooled. Tax revenues are down. Cash for new programs or existing ones will be in short supply. The state lottery is running out of money. Demands for HOPE scholarships and pre-kindergarten care, both financed by the lottery, are skyrocketing. Traffic and air-pollution problems will get worse. As they have in many other states, the NIMBY ("not in my backyard") people are taking over in Georgia, which could ultimately lead to a no-growth policy for the state. Problems with minorities and immigrants will worsen.

If you look at the tasks ahead for the governor, you have to wonder whether Barnes really wants another four years. He could let Republican Nobody have the job, then pick up the pieces again in 2006. No matter who wins the election in November, Georgia's governor will be the loser in the popularity polls. The incumbent in 2006 will have faced too many problems for which only painful solutions (or no solutions at all) exist.

Categories: Guest Commentary