Georgia View: Whither Georgia Democrats?

Ten years ago, Georgia had a Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, two Democratic U.S. senators, Max Cleland and Zell Miller, and Democrats in the offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, agriculture commissioner and labor commissioner, as well as decided majorities in the state house and state senate.

What a difference a decade can make. The GOP majority in the house continues to grow to a near veto-proof majority, with recent party switchers including State Rep. Doug McKillip of Athens, the Democratic Caucus Chairman.

So who best warned, and in some ways contributed to, Georgia’s shift from blue to red state? Perhaps it was Georgia’s former governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller.

After 16 years as lieutenant governor and eight as governor, having retired in 1999 to his beloved north Georgia mountains, Miller re-ceived a flattering call from Gov. Roy Barnes, asking him to fill the term of U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, following Coverdell’s tragic death from a brain hemorrhage in the summer of 2000.

Barnes’ gut led him towards appointing former Democratic Congressman Buddy Darden, who had lost his 7th Congressional District seat to Bob Barr in 1994. But when Barnes broached Darden to then-U.S. Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), the Senate majority leader, Daschle let Barnes know he strongly favored Miller and his strong statewide name recognition and even stronger ties to the Clinton/Gore administration. Barnes yielded to Daschle’s preference and appointed Miller.

Freshman Sen. Miller arrived in Washing-ton to find a partisan climate, which he felt caused gridlock and an inability to get the business of the American people done.

Miller filled the remaining months of Coverdell’s term, then ran for the seat in 2000, easily beating back a challenge from former Republican U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly.

Instead of repaying Daschle for his support, Miller became a harsh critic of the Democratic Senate leadership, later co-sponsoring the Bush Tax Cuts in 2001 and supporting Bush’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. The same Zell Miller, who in 1992 helped nominate then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton for president, in 2004 re-nominated George Bush for president at the GOP National Convention the year after his book A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat came out.

During a memorable live television interview, moments after nominating Bush, a clearly frustrated Miller practically challenged MSNBC Political Commentator Chris Matthews to a duel. Miller did not seek re-election to the Senate in 2006, but in 2008 he endorsed Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss during his run-off campaign against Democrat Jim Martin. Miller remains one of Georgia’s most popular elected officials.

Meanwhile, the National Democratic Party ousted the GOP majority in Congress in 2006 and racked up near-record wins, including the White House, in 2008, while Georgia Demo-crats watched their bench strength dwindle.

Political legend and former Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy lost his seat in 2002 after 29 years of leading that chamber. Georgia’s Democratic Agriculture Commis-sioner Tommy Irvin served from 1969 until 2010, but did not groom a successor to run in 2010. In the 2010 elections, the Georgia Democratic Party’s strongest statewide vote getters, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, both unsuccessfully sought higher office; the year before, Democratic-leaning, though officially nonpartisan, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears voluntarily retired at a young age.

As Georgia Democrats look ahead, their options for 2012 look pretty bleak. The party may need a time of introspection and issue development to again attract middle class, independent and even south Georgia voters.

But never underestimate the ability of perks, privilege and power to cloud the judgment and ability of even the savviest of political leaders. It still remains fully within the reach of the Georgia GOP to blow all this largesse given them by the voters. Just ask former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Georgia Speaker Glenn Richardson.

Categories: Georgia View