Note: Portions of the column first appeared in a post earlier this week.
State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, considered one of the most cautious men in Georgia politics, on Wednesday took a huge gamble — and jumped into the U.S. Senate race against Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson.
Consider that Thurmond, despite his status as an A-list Democrat, starts with a vacant campaign treasury. Isakson has already squirreled away nearly $4 million.
Also consider that, within the dynamics of a general election, Isakson, 65, may be the strongest and most popular Republican in Georgia.
So the immediate question becomes whether Thurmond, 57, a former state lawmaker from Athens and a history buff, has been hiding a fondness for the roulette wheel. Or a penchant for Texas hold ’em.
The answer is yes — and no.
Thurmond is better than good on the stump, as he proved in an emotional debut at the state Capitol, beneath a portrait of James Oglethorpe, founder of the 13th British colony.
Thurmond brings a passion that many Georgians will find unusual. Asked whether he was prompted to enter the race by Isakson’s recent hospitalizations, Thurmond said no.
The labor commissioner talked to Isakson the day before and declared his opponent to be in excellent health.
Had Washington Democrats lured him into the race? “That’s a popular notion, but really, it didn’t happen,” Thurmond said. “I’ve talked to people in Washington, but they did not recruit me.”
Thurmond said he made his decision to enter the Senate race beneath an oak tree in a Clarke County park where his sharecropping family once had a shack — and an outhouse.
“I used to sit under that oak tree, and dreamed that one day,” Thurmond said, choking up for three beats, “that after three generations of sharecroppers who could not read and write, that one day we would rise above that. That I would rise above that.”
Thurmond offered himself up as an example of what can happen through faith and hard work. But an African American who has run — and won — statewide three times in a Georgia that’s not just red, but occasionally scarlet, also can have no illusions about his chances.
No doubt, national Democrats will steer some money his way, but the cash is never as much as promised. So what, short of outright victory in November, is Thurmond up to?
Politics is very seldom a team sport — but we may be seeing the equivalent of a sacrifice fly to deep right field, for the sake of advancing or protecting the Democratic runners already on base.
Thurmond is a sign that Democrats in Georgia and in Washington, with congressional districts to be redrawn next year, are dead serious about November.
All four major Democratic candidates for governor have settled on Republican ineptitude in the Capitol as the issue that will carry them into the general election.
The GOP, on the other hand, will do its best to tie Democrats to Washington and President Barack Obama, who does not poll well in Georgia. Not among white independents.
The economy will be the topic, and Isakson is likely to become the major vehicle for nationalizing the Georgia contest. Should Isakson, at the top of the ballot, clear much beyond 60 percent, then Democratic chances of winning the race for governor disappear.
That’s the case whether the candidate is former Gov. Roy Barnes, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, House Democratic Leader DuBose Porter or former National Guard commander David Poythress.
Thurmond joins the unfunded and unknown R.J. Hadley in the Democratic primary. By putting up a strong candidate fluent in the language of jobs and the economy, who just happens to be black, Democrats have taken a large step toward preventing an Isakson-driven avalanche.
There’s more. Thurmond had been spoken of as a candidate for lieutenant governor. His shift to the Senate race leaves the Democratic nomination to Carol Porter of Dublin, wife of the candidate for governor.
Arguably, Thurmond might have beaten Carol Porter, but at the cost of a divided Democratic electorate that still bears the scars of the 2006 Cathy Cox/Mark Taylor debacle.
So Democrats will able to avoid yet another contest that might have fractured the party along the fault lines of race and gender.
Moreover, suppose that DuBose Porter does not win the Democratic contest for governor. By assuring the wife’s nomination, Democrats guarantee that the husband — one of the most influential Democrats in the Capitol — will remain engaged through November.
And yes, Thurmond’s entry into the Senate race could help Barnes reclaim the Governor’s Mansion.
While he has differed with other African Americans in the party over such volatile issues as Genarlow Wilson, as a long-time attorney general, Baker has a legitimate claim on black voters. Barnes likewise has a strong base among African-American voters, through his decision to change the ’56 state flag.
But with Thurmond at the top of the state ballot, racial loyalty immediately becomes a lesser issue in the governor’s race. And if Barnes is indeed the Democratic nominee, the chances of an African-American backlash are greatly lessened.
Bottom line: Whether he wins or loses the U.S. Senate race, should any Democrat win a statewide contest in November, Thurmond will deserve a spot on the victory stage.
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