Michael Thurmond and the gamble of a cautious man


State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, left, wipes tears from his eyes following his announcement that he would enter the Democratic race for U.S. Senate. AP Photo/John Amis

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.

For instant updates, follow me on Twitter.

30 comments Add your comment

GOP Voter

April 21st, 2010
7:04 pm

Here is a man with courage! I like that.

Tickled Pink

April 21st, 2010
7:52 pm

Thurmond has proven that he can win statewide even in tough years for Democrats. He has my vote!


April 21st, 2010
8:39 pm

I’d vote for Whoopi Goldberg before I ever vote for another republican.

Who needs al qaeda when you’ve got the republicans? Actually, al qaeda has done us less damage over the past decade.

The General

April 21st, 2010
9:06 pm

Thurmond wants out of politics so he is doing the ’suicide by cop’ thing as a face saving measure. He’ll beat Isakson the same day pigs fly. I’m not knocking the man, but it is just not going to happen.

Mike Smith

April 21st, 2010
9:52 pm

This will be Thrumond’s first statewide race as a challenger.


April 21st, 2010
10:51 pm

I am pleased with his decision, and will work with his campaign.

[...] April 22, 2010 · Leave a Comment In an interesting (though, expected) follow-up to my Young Democrats Convention outing, Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who spoke at the event’s evening ceremony, announced his intent… [...]

Aaron Burr V. Mexico

April 22nd, 2010
1:45 am

I want to know if he supports the Filibuster as it stands. If he doesn’t, then he has my vote.

I’d rather vote for a Republican than a Blue Dog.

And I’d sooner stick my hand in a threshing machine than vote for a Republican.


April 22nd, 2010
6:46 am

Johnny Isakson is a big spending, big government, pro amnesty RINO. Thrumond is actually more CONSERVATIVE.

You Asked

April 22nd, 2010
8:35 am

Thurmond has been a class act as Labor Commissioner during a tough time for employment in our State. Democrat or Republican we need to attract more dedicated public servants to politics and less self serving politicians.

However, it will be a tough year for any Democrat in the general election. (The first off year election after a new Presidency is always tough on the Presidents party).


April 22nd, 2010
8:54 am

slim and none; question: what are his chances?

Stand Watie

April 22nd, 2010
9:00 am

I agree with ????’s comments above, but President TelePrompTer has insured that no dem will win state-wide office in Ga. this year.

Georgia is racist

April 22nd, 2010
9:08 am

Thurmond would not win in this racist state. Good Luck Thurmond


April 22nd, 2010
9:19 am

To Georgia is racist: Don’t make this about race please!!! Thurmond has won statewide races before and I think that he has always been black.


April 22nd, 2010
9:32 am

“President TelePrompter”?? Dubya used teleprompters all the time and still spoke b.s. but I guess President Obama should write his words on his palm like the darling of the Repub party Sarah Palin..

Joy S. Jones

April 22nd, 2010
9:56 am

Commissioner Thurmond will represent Georgia quite well. I like my elected officials versed in real world-dom– you know the ones who know what it means to HAVE to work for a living, and have family members and friends of all social strata so they really know what’s going on. Folks like that make and support policies that contribute to the common good.

The person who writes that anyone associated with President Obama won’t do well in Georgia has a tone of boastfulness. However, it is exactly that type of sentiment that has others throughout the country and the world view Georgia as a bastion of backwoods, racist bigotry.

Just Nasty & Mean

April 22nd, 2010
10:22 am

“Racist”—so overused and abused such to be defined as: “I don’t have the mental faculties or logic to defeat your argument—so that makes you a “Racist”.


April 22nd, 2010
12:32 pm

From one who knows – this man is just another politician at work – he’ll treat his senate job with respect in his beginning term then, after comfortably taking his position – he’ll ignore the people just like he ignores his employees with the GDOL.


April 22nd, 2010
1:39 pm

I agree with Linda as a former Labor Dept employee I know how Thurmond works. BUT have so much to tell Johnny regarding Thurmond.

I know you

April 22nd, 2010
4:42 pm

@sam&linda, I know you. You’re the folks that got thrown out of the department of labor because you’re sorry government workers that want something for nothing. you’re the folks that could care less about helping people. So I guess you will be telling Isakson, how you got over. Thurmond transformed the Labor Department so individuals can get back to work. Unfortunately, that was not your agenda during your tenure. You wanted to be paid attention. Well, you were paid by my tax dollars–that should be enough!


April 22nd, 2010
5:31 pm

Thurmond’s gamble is no gamble at all. He loses, he gets a new job in DC. If the President can endorse Hank Johnson in a primary, he will give Thurmond a job in Dec. Guaranteed. Who wouldn’t like those odds? And I’m not surprised that Thurmond decided to get in the race while sitting near an old outhouse. All of this smells.


April 22nd, 2010
7:35 pm

I am Black and I am for Thurmoo and Barnes. Go Democrats


April 22nd, 2010
7:37 pm

Democrats for Governor, Attorney General, Lt Gov, and the U S Senate. Go Dems


April 22nd, 2010
7:41 pm

Genalow Wilson still touch me. I like Barnes and the Attorney General. Let one of the them grab the ticket first. But my vote is reserved for the Dems no matter what.


April 23rd, 2010
11:45 am

I would vote for him. I liked the way he represented Athens! Class act.


April 23rd, 2010
12:37 pm

This is great news for the voters of Georgia, who will now have a true choice in this fall’s US Senate election. I’m proud of our state and our democracy.

[...] observers — ourselves included — said he’d be a formidable opponent. But they also said he’d face an uphill battle trying to chip away at the Republican’s name recognition, [...]

[...] filed to take on Sen. Johnny Isakson, who’s been having some health problems. Thurmond’s move should help keep Georgia’s Democratic biracial coalition intact if former Gov. Roy Barnes, who is [...]


April 24th, 2010
11:48 am

@I know you… you are so far off I retired with 34 full years. Thurmond would never had thrown me out….Knew to much.


April 25th, 2010
9:32 am

Where does my organization sign up to help with your campaign, Mr. Labor Commissioner? You are the ONLY one in Georgia’s politics that are doing your constitution duty for WE THE PEOPLE! This is going to be good. Isakson is a leach that has gotten caught up in the political game. It’s time for him to GO! The first time homebuyer credit was good legislation HOWEVER what have you done for me in 8 years, Johnny. It’s time for you to go. Your pink slip is on the way! Not to mention,just for the fact that you’ve tried to work to enhance our Job position in Georgia and not vote with the Party of NO…you have our votes. HANDS DOWN! Rasmussen never polled the RIGHT PEOPLE…understand it’s a NEW DAY in Georgia!