Georgia Senate Field: One 'Moderate,' Many Conservatives?

In much the same way as he did in supporting President Bush’s tax cut and Homeland Security Department, Sen. Zell Miller (D.-Ga.) gave fellow Democrats another swift kick two weeks ago with his announcement that he would not run again next year.

In becoming the first senator of either party to announce his retirement in 2004, the 70-year-old Miller-who voted with President Bush more than any other Senate Democrat-also threw a monkey wrench into Democratic hopes to recapture the Senate.

While the popular Miller was considered a cinch to retain the seat he was named to following the death of Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) in 2000, the odds are strong that, without him, Peach State Republicans will pick it up.

"All of the formidable candidates that the media are discussing are on the Republican side," said former Rep. Howard (Bo) Callaway (R.-Ga.). "Almost all of the Democrats talked about as candidates are from the ‘B-Team."

In fact, all three Democrats who have been mentioned as possible candidates to succeed Miller have been beaten in other races. These include former Sen. Max Cleland, defeated by Republican Saxby Chambliss last fall; Cynthia McKinney, who lost her House seat to another Democrat after suggesting President Bush knew in advance about the September 11 attack; and former Georgia Secretary of State Louis Massey, who lost the Democratic nomination for governor in 1998.

By contrast, Republicans boast several high-powered office-holders as potential candidates, including four sitting U.S. House members. Republican sources in Georgia say moderate-to-liberal Rep. Johnny Isakson (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 66%), who succeeded Newt Gingrich in the House, is now poised to announce he’ll make the Senate race. Other possible candidates include three good conservatives from the House: Rep. Jack Kingston, a fierce opponent of pork barrel spending on the House Appropriations Committee; Rep. Mac Collins, a former truck driver who now serves on the Ways and Means Committee; and Charles Norwood, a dentist who, as a champion of Medical Savings Accounts, has focused on the problems with Health Maintenance Organizations.

Former Rep. Bob Barr, who led the charge for Clinton’s impeachment, but lost a primary for a new district last year to fellow Republican Rep. John Linder, is "seriously interested" in a Senate race, a Barr strategist told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Three-term State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine is also mentioned as a potential Republican candidate.

But most of the talk in GOP circles presently centers on "establishment Republican" Isakson, the only Republican in the field who is not pro-life and who has voted for statist campaign finance "reform" measures. He has also voted for a federal ban on assault weapons. His reputation as a moderate aside, the 57-year-old appears to have the greatest potential to raise campaign cash and thus must be considered the early front-runner.

This, of course, has Georgia conservatives worried. Many I talked to voiced concern that Isakson’s nomination might turn off conservative activists for the general election.

Georgia conservatives are also worried about what the Bush White House might do, because in races in several other states it has shown no hesitation in involving itself in state party matters and nomination fights. These conservatives fear the White House will give Isakson a premature blessing to try to clear the primary field.

For now, most Republicans nonetheless are cautiously optimistic about picking up the seat Zell Miller is leaving. "We have an abundance of good candidates," said Georgia Republican Chairman Ralph Reed. But Reed quickly added the warning that "the last time a Senate seat was open in Georgia [in 1996], we also had good candidates and all signs were positive. But we still lost in November [to Max Cleland] by 20,000 votes. Nothing should be taken for granted."