Georgia 12: Curb Your Enthusiasm

March 15, 2006 · 12:05 AM EST

Georgia’s 12th Congressional District was never supposed to elect a Republican. Max Burns didn’t win the seat in 2002, Democrats lost it, and after only one term, Burns was voted out of office. Now the former congressman is attempting a comeback in a slightly redrawn district, but Republicans should temper their optimism and understand the realities of the race.

After the 2000 census, the Democratically controlled state legislature drew the 12th District to elect Charles “Champ” Walker, Jr. (D), son of then-state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker (D). But in the 2002 general election, Walker’s multiple arrests (including a disorderly conduct incident at an Applebee’s restaurant) became the issue, and Burns was elected to Congress.

Burns also had a significant wind at his back. Peach State voters simultaneously threw out two Democratic incumbents, Gov. Roy Barnes and U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, in a mini-GOP wave that year. Champ’s father even lost reelection and is actually in jail until September for tax evasion, mail fraud, and conspiracy. Burns will not have a 2002-esque wave this November, and even more likely, the national mood will be sour toward his party.

Two years later, Max Burns lost reelection when Democrats nominated a candidate without a rap sheet. Former Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow defeated the Republican 52%-48% in a very competitive contest.

Post-election, the now-Republican controlled state legislature took to “fixing” the congressional lines drawn by Democrats just four years earlier. Barrow’s home, and political base, of Athens was removed from the district, but the 12th District continues to lean-Democratic.

George W. Bush’s 2000 percentage increased from 45% to 48% in the new district, but he still lost it. Under the new lines, Bush did win the 12th District very narrowly, 50.4%-49.6% in 2004. (John Kerry won the old district 53%-46%.) But the president was considerably more popular then, compared to now.

Also in 2002, Sonny Perdue (R) lost the newly-drawn 12th District in the governors race, garnering 46%, and under-performed his 51% statewide performance. And Saxby Chambliss (R) lost the district with 44% in the Senate race, even though he took almost 53% statewide.

By comparison, in Jim Marshall’s (D) re-numbered 8th District, where former Cong. Mac Collins (R) is running, Perdue won with 58%, Chambliss took 56%, and President Bush won it in both 2000 (58%) and 2004 (61%). By the numbers, the 8th District is clearly a better opportunity for Republicans.

A recent Public Opinion Strategies poll, conducted February 20-21 for Burns showed him trailing Barrow by a slim 43%-42% margin. The Democrat’s reelect was very low at 28% compared to 35% who “want a new person.” The survey also shows Burns with higher name identification (84% to Barrow’s 70%) in the district.

But, to describe this race as an incumbent vs. incumbent battle is not entirely accurate. Burns will not have the advantages and access that Barrow now possesses, particularly in fundraising. In 2004, when Burns was the incumbent, he outspent Barrow $2.8 million to $1.8 million. Now, through December 31, the incumbent Barrow had almost twice as much money, with $902,406 on hand compared to Burns’ $505,919.

Barrow will have a voting record to defend, but according to new vote ratings released late last month by National Journal, Barrow’s liberal composite score was 55.7, placing him near the ideological center of the House of Representatives. (Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was a 90.2.)

Frankly, Republicans don’t have a lot of takeover opportunities this cycle. They will be playing a whole lot of defense in November. But in Georgia’s 12th District, the outlook for Republicans is much darker than either the rhetoric or Burns’s poll suggest.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on March 10, 2006.