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Walter Jones Columnist

Published Saturday, June 09, 2012

Georgia Democrats may be shrinking, but they may not be vanishing

When candidate qualifying ended May 25, the number of Democratic hopefuls in Georgia was the smallest since Reconstruction, showing just how much the party has shrunk.

Few contenders stepped up behind the party banner to challenge sitting Republicans, and a growing number of elected Democrats chose to switch parties for this year’s re-election bid.

Multiple counties had absolutely no Democrats put their names on the ballot. They’re not just suburban counties either.

All the partisan offices in Jones County are now held by the GOP after two county commissioners switched parties

Gilmer and Catoosa counties are now all Republican. In Bleckley County, all but one of the elected Democrats changed party allegiance Three district attorneys switched last month.

The only partisan statewide races this year are for two seats on the Public Service Commission held by Republicans Chuck Eaton and Stan Wise.

Only one challenger qualified as a Democrat, Ted Oppenheimer who’s running against Eaton.

In legislative races, 24 GOP senators drew no Democratic challengers. In the House, 62 Republicans have no opponents of either party.

State GOP Chairwoman Sue Everhart crowed about the party’s success in a message to followers.

“Among the candidates were 28 Republicans running for U.S. Congress, four Republicans running for the Public Service Commission, 37 Republicans running for district attorney, 59 Republicans running for state Senate and 177 Republicans running for state House of Representatives,” she wrote. “For those of you keeping score at home, the Georgia Republican Party qualified more candidates than the Democratic Party of Georgia for every single office on the ballot.”

Democrats knew their numbers would diminish when Republicans paired 12 of them in the House and two in the Senate during redistricting.

Still, they had vowed to target a few Republicans for special attention, especially party-switcher Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens. In the end, McKillip’s only opposition came from within his new party.

Things are so bad that Democratic Party officials are also bailing out, such as the executive director and the treasurer.

Coincidentally, party insiders say the organization’s finances are weak, dependent on a cash infusion from its share of the candidate-qualifying fees for sustenance.

Is the Democratic Party going the way of the dinosaurs, loping slowly into the tar pits and permanent extinction?

Probably not.

For one thing, they’ll be aided by the dynamics of one-party rule.

First, there’s no one else to blame when things go wrong.

“One thing the Republican right wing has continued to do is unite us,” said Roger Sikes, organizer for the Atlanta Jobs With Justice labor group.

Second, ideological groups traditionally sympathetic to the Republican Party will lose patience with the philosophical dilution that comes from having a tent so big that it includes nearly everyone.

That’s already starting to happen.

Jerry Luquire, president of the Georgia Christian Coalition chapter, called for Senate Republican Leader Chip Rogers’ resignation over revelations on an investigative-journalism website called Atlanta Unfiltered that Rogers had been a spokesman for sports-gambling companies.

And Tea Party activist Debbie Dooley was the one who filed a formal ethics complaint against one of the longest-serving GOP senators, Don Balfour of Snellville, a complaint his fellow partisans concluded had merit.

Republicans spent 130 years in the minority, but Democrats aren’t likely to be down that long.

History in other states has shown that dominance tends to swing from one party to another in roughly 10-15-year cycles.

It usually takes that long for voters to get fed up and for the hubris of those in power to snare them.

Democrats dominated for so long here because of the unique combination of race, the Great Depression and a stagnant economy.

As the economy thawed, life-long Republicans moved into the state and altered the demographics of the voters.

Plus, GOP operatives got smarter.

Long-term migration patterns offer hope that Democrats will bounce back.

At some point, the Democratic operatives will stumble upon a better strategy, too.

In the meantime, Georgia is settling into the habits of a one-party state where the debates will be between the ideologues and the pragmatists on the same side of the aisle.

Those issues will boil down to questions of degree rather than the bold innovations that come from broader diversity.

And Democrats, as the loyal opposition, will struggle to be heard.

(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)

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