With changing demographics making Georgia younger and less white, Democrats see an opportunity with the retirement of Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss to pick up a Senate seat next year in the Peach State.
“Georgia's changing, all right. Black and Hispanic voters are growing in number, and younger people are moving here from the North. You won’t see the change in voting right now, but it’s coming soon,” said state Sen. Hardy Williams, Augusta Democrat and a leader of the black caucus in the Georgia legislature.
Williams made those remarks to me last summer at the Democratic National Convention, and offered a prediction about how Georgians would vote in the upcoming election.
“Mitt Romney’s going to carry Georgia this fall,” Williams said. “But just watch how much closer it is than other Southern states.”
Williams was spot on: Georgia gave its electoral votes to Romney, but by a relatively modest margin of 53 percent to 45 percent over President Barack Obama. The Republican fared much better in other Southern states, exceeding 60 percent of the vote in Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky.
The latest U.S. Census figures bears out what Williams said about Georgia’s demographics: The state’s black population is at an all-time high of 31 percent of the population, while Hispanics are an additional 9 percent.
Although all of the statewide elected offices and control of both houses of the legislature are in Republican hands — and the GOP holds nine of the state’s 10 U.S. House seats — the retirement of Chambliss may well present Georgia Democrats the opportunity to demonstrate that things are truly changing in their state.
With Chambliss’ exit, Republicans are faced with the kind of gloves-off, hit-’em-where-it-hurts primary that used to typify Democratic nomination battles back in the days when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election in the South.
Four Republican U.S. House members — three of them physicians and all strong conservatives — are likely to compete for the Senate seat.
Reps. Phil Broun, a physician and former U.S. Marine known for his public skepticism about evolution and his charge that Obama is a socialist; Tom Price, physician and national conservative favorite for his leadership in the House GOP Policy Committee; Jack Kingston, non-physician and another favorite of national conservatives; and Phil Gingrey, physician and, at 71, still going strong.
Broun is an announced candidate, Kingston is reportedly poised to announce, and Price said he will make a decision in May. Sources tell me that Gingrey has signed on veteran Georgia political consultant Chip Lake.
Such a scenario portends an eventual Republican nominee being bloodied going into the fall campaign, and leading a party whose scars from the primary need time to heel.
Is there a Democrat ready to pick up the pieces next year? Not yet. The White House and the Democratic National Committee are reportedly trying to move heaven and earth to convince Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, one of the party’s brightest stars, to make the Senate bid.
"My source tells me Obama is pledging to visit Georgia six times through next November in order to sway Mayor Reed to run for the Senate," veteran Georgia public relations man Phil Kent, past president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation and former editorial page editor of the Augusta Chronicle, told me.
When I spoke to Hardy Williams last summer, I asked him about the statewide chances of another charismatic Democrat with a memorable name: Jason James Carter, Atlanta state senator and eldest grandson of Jimmy Carter.
Williams said he didn’t know what his friend Carter would do or when he would pursue higher office. But, he added, “With that name, he’s surely got to be considered.”
If all the pieces come together for Georgia Democrats and they win the Senate seat, it would be appropriate for the victory party band to follow “Georgia on My Mind” by striking up Bob Dylan’s, “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ”
John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.
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