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When a sure bet is a loser

POSTED: August 21, 2007 5:02 a.m.
By now just about everyone who follows Georgia politics has heard about new Congressman Paul Broun’s amazing victory over former State Sen. Jim Whitehead in the July runoff to fill the unexpired term of the late Charlie Norwood.
Broun, a perennial candidate and gadfly known for getting himself in hot water with outlandish statements, pulled off a giant upset by defeating Whitehead.
Whitehead had backing from Georgia’s entire GOP establishment, from Gov. Sonny Perdue on down, and was about as sure a bet as a candidate can be without being unopposed. He had far more money than any other candidate and just about all the political support. The press (including yours truly) considered Broun a fringe candidate, and treated him as such.
How did it happen? Like most political races that end with a surprising result, the post-mortems in the press and on the blogs were full of bloodletting about mistakes by the losing campaign. True, Whitehead was far too complacent and bet far too much on the ability of his geographic base in metro Augusta to carry him over the top. For some strange reason, Whitehead seemed determined to alienate Athens, the other population center in the district, ignoring its debates and stating publicly that he would serve as the representative for metro Augusta, rather than the whole district.
Even with those missteps by Whitehead, he should have been able to pull out a win against a weak candidate like Broun. So why did he lose? After covering politics for more than a half century, I can tell you that like most races, this one was a reflection of the mind-set of the electorate rather than a result of skill by the winner or mistakes by the loser. We can learn much from this race.     
Last year, as the rest of the nation moved in the direction of change, Georgia voters lagged, due in part to their generally conservative Republican outlook and to the continued strong economic growth in the state. In a year when much of the nation was yelling for change, Georgia stayed the course. It is telling that on Nov. 7, 2006, as many Americans engaged in “throwing the bums out,” not a single incumbent Georgia officeholder at the federal or state level was defeated.
Whitehead was at least as much of a favorite against Broun as almost any incumbent seeking re-election. But Broun, the man who had finished far from victory in all of his other tries for office, was able to bolt together a coalition of disaffected Republicans, Athens Democrats and a multitude of others who are fed up with corruption in Washington and inaction on critical issues facing the nation, from the Iraq war to health care to illegal immigration.
While the campaign in the heavily Republican district was between two members of the GOP, it was clear to everyone who cast a ballot that Whitehead was the chosen, logical successor to Norwood (he even touted the endorsement of Norwood’s widow in broadcast advertisements), and that Broun was the outsider who was rejected by Georgia’s powers-that-be. Whitehead’s defeat should send chills down the spine of every Georgia officeholder who will be on the ballot in 2008, especially Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a representative of Georgia’s GOP establishment if there ever was one. Chambliss is running his first race for re-election to the Senate next year, and he will face a difficult challenge if he is opposed by a candidate who can claim the mantles of outsider and reformer.
Broun’s victory may be short-lived, as former Augusta Mayor and fellow Republican Bob Young, who has been eyeing a race for Congress for some time, lines up to challenge him. Broun’s Democratic supporters in Athens are likely to return to their own primary next year, and will be unable to vote for him against Young. Young, an experienced candidate, will undoubtedly spend time making sure Republican primary voters learn things about their new congressman they won't like much. Broun, as an incumbent, may have a hard time replicating his outsider appeal. In addition, the Augusta area, without a congressman for the first time in decades, will undoubtedly provide big money and a lot of votes for Young next year.
Despite his likely short tenure in Washington, Broun’s 2007 upset will remain the “shot heard round the world,” or at least around Georgia, for years to come. It may well be a harbinger for 2008, as Georgians finally react to a political system full of corruption that is unable to address the problems we face at home and abroad. Georgians may finally be ready to throw our bums out, and frankly, that would be none too soon.
Contact Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net
 

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