When President Obama comes to Atlanta on Monday, Roy Barnes will not be at his side. The Democratic nominee for governor is scheduled to be campaigning that day among the good people of South Georgia, which puts as much distance as possible between himself and the president.
However, once Georgia Republicans settle on a candidate of their own in the Aug. 10 runoff, Barnes is likely to find it a little more difficult to maintain that separation. Judging from rhetoric in the GOP primary and races elsewhere around the country, Republicans plan to make the 2010 elections a referendum on Washington in general and Obama in particular, even in races such as governor that have little or nothing to do with the federal government.
Here in Georgia, that means the GOP will be trying to link Obama to Barnes as if they were Siamese twins.
Results of a recent poll conducted by the Georgia Newspaper Partnership explain the virtues of that strategy. Among other things, the poll found that 56 percent of Georgians oppose the president’s controversial health insurance reform plan and support its repeal.
Overall, only 37 percent of Georgians approve of Obama’s job performance. Among likely white voters, where the GOP is strongest, that approval rating falls to 18 percent. In light of those numbers, defining the election as a referendum on Obama makes a lot of sense.
Fervor also plays into the GOP calculation. In nonpresidential elections, motivating turnout is difficult. Party leaders hope that by depicting a vote for a Republican as an act of rebellion against Washington, they can inspire their base and convert anger at the federal government into gains at the state and local levels as well.
But here in Georgia, that strategy has yet another important advantage for the GOP.
The party has held the governor’s office for the last eight years and for most of that time it has controlled the Legislature as well. Yet in all that time, it has made little progress in addressing critical state challenges such as unemployment, transportation, education and the water war with Florida and Alabama, among others.
(Barnes, in contrast, was accused of trying to do too much too quickly as governor from 1999-2003, which some believe caused his defeat.)
The GOP has been particularly apathetic, and at times even antagonistic, toward metro Atlanta, an attitude that has allowed other metro regions to emerge as competitors.
Transportation, for example, has long been key to Georgia’s prosperity, but in recent years we’ve been investing less per capita in transportation than any state but Tennessee. And even when the economy was doing well, Gov. Sonny Perdue and his colleagues were slicing billions from state aid for education, another important driver of long-term prosperity.
Perhaps as a result, Georgia’s unemployment rate has now exceeded the national average for 33 consecutive months. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Georgia has lost more jobs from June 2009 to June 2010 than any state but California, a state with almost four times our population.
That record contradicts GOP claims that low taxes — and by extension low public investment in our physical and human infrastructure — would make the state a leader in job growth, a message that they continue to preach even now.
As both parties understand, political campaigns are almost always won by the side that is able to define the agenda. While Georgia Republicans try to stoke public ire at faraway Washington, Barnes will ask voters to look instead at what’s happened for the last eight years under the Gold Dome in Atlanta.
That is, after all, where a governor has the greatest impact.