The Return of Roy Barnes

Every election cycle seems to have at least one result that comes as a complete shock. In 2002, there wasn't really any question as to ...
by | June 4, 2009

Roy barnes Every election cycle seems to have at least one result that comes as a complete shock. In 2002, there wasn't really any question as to which election fit this description: It was the defeat of Roy Barnes.

Barnes was the Democratic governor of Georgia, who was considered a rising national star. He raised $20 million dollars for his reelection bid -- an incredible sum in Georgia politics at the time -- and until late in the campaign wasn't really on anyone's list of vulnerable governors. He lost 51%-46% to an under-funded state senator, Sonny Perdue.

With Perdue now completing his second term in office, Barnes announced this week that he wants his old job back. So is Georgia interested in another four years of Roy Barnes?

Part of that question, of course, is whether Georgians are willing to elect a Democrat. While Georgia is dramatically more Republican than it was when Barnes was first elected governor in 1998, I don't think there's any doubt that the right Democrat can win.

Democrats won statewide elections in Georgia in 2006 for attorney general, agriculture commissioner and labor commissioner. Last year, Barack Obama only lost 52%-47% for president, while Jim Martin only lost 50%-47% in the first round of voting for Senate.

Perdue's tenure has been marked by a fair amount of Republican infighting, punctuated by a feud between the governor and House Speaker Glenn Richardson. That infighting is likely to spill over to the campaign trail, especially because the early G.O.P. frontrunner, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, backed out for health reasons.

Four Republicans, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, Secretary of State Karen Handel, U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal and State Sen. Eric Johnson, have a legitimate chance to win. "I think that primary on the Republican side is going to be brutal," says Tom Crawford, editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report. All of this is to say that, though Georgia leans Republican, Democrats have an opportunity here.

The question, then, is whether Barnes is the right Democrat. None of other aspirants for the Democratic nomination -- Attorney General Thurbert Baker, Georgia House Minority Leader DuBose Porter and former state Adjutant General David Poythress -- fled the race when Barnes declared his candidacy. Still, no one would be surprised if his field of opponents shrinks in the weeks ahead as the other candidates reassess their chances.

If he sticks around, the opponent who could give Barnes the most trouble is Baker. Baker is an African-American and a proven vote-getter. He's won statewide three times. Close to half the voters in the Democratic primary are likely to be black, which, one would think, would give Baker a great chance to win.

But, Baker has alienated many Georgia blacks by defending the state's voter I.D. law and defending the sentence of Genarlow Wilson in a nationally noted court case with racial overtones. Barnes has a good relationship with the black community and is a skilled politician. "Barnes is one of the best campaigners we've ever had in this state," says Dick Pettys, editor of InsiderAdvantage Georgia. "He's immensely likable on the stump, whether you agree with him or not."

So, Barnes is the heavy frontrunner for the Democratic nomination and will face the nominee of a Republican Party that's likely to be fractured. Before you get too high on his chances, though, it's worth remembering why he lost in 2002.

Part of the reason is that 2002 was simply a terrible year for Georgia Democrats, with others such as U.S. Sen. Max Cleland also losing. The other part of the reason is that Barnes embroiled himself in several major controversies as governor.

The two biggest were over the Georgia flag and education policy. The Georgia flag at the time heavily featured the Confederate Battle Flag and Barnes supported the shift to a new emblem. What's less widely known -- and at least as important -- is that Barnes pushed hard for an end to teacher tenure. In doing so, he alienated teachers, a key Democratic constituency in Georgia or just about any state. Teachers haven't forgotten.

Those two controversies, and others, reflect a key point about Barnes. Supporters think he is bold, critics think he is brash and everyone agrees he is a polarizing figure. Whether Georgians want four more years of bold, brash leadership is an open question.

Barnes, for his part, struck a conciliatory tone in his announcement, declaring:

"Listening is something I didn't do enough of when I was governor. I tried to do too much, too fast. My heart was in the right place but I was impatient and didn't consult enough different people outside the Capitol."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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