The Buddy Darden RuleNeighbor Newspapers August 18 2010 By Randy Evans
The rule of George "Buddy" Darden has incumbent Democratic Georgia Congressman James Creel "Jim" Marshall (8th District) worried and he should be. So what exactly is the rule of Buddy Darden?
Well, from 1983 (when he was elected to fill the unexpired term of Congressman Larry McDonald who was killed in the downing of Korean Air Flight 007) until 1994, Buddy Darden represented Georgia's 7th Congressional District. He was an immensely popular congressman. After winning the special election in 1983, he was re-elected five times by impressive margins with between 57 percent and 65 percent of the vote in the 1988, 1990 and 1992 elections.
There was a reason for his popularity. Buddy Darden was a former Cobb County district attorney and state representative. More impressively, he was one of the most likeable people in Georgia (and still is). He attends weddings, funerals, and celebrations. He greets everyone with a smile and everyone knows who he is.
In 1994, his opponent was Robert Laurence "Bob" Barr Jr. As the son of a West Point soldier, Bob Barr was no Buddy Darden. Instead, Barr became quite well known for his "dour" image. He often told his constituents that "you don't send me to Washington, D.C., to smile." (To drive this point home, Congressman Barr once said, "I don't consider politicians who smile to be worth a heck of a lot," so he didn't.) The Darden/Barr contest looked like a mismatch.
Basically, it was a competition between a very popular incumbent five-term Democratic congressman and a "dour" Republican challenger who did not smile in a still decidedly blue state. Everyone — insiders, pundits, state officials, and the media — thought it would be no contest.
But that is, of course, not what happened. In 1994, Barr defeated Darden with over 52 percent of the votes. How is that possible?
Well, voters in 1994 decided that there were things that were more important than how well they liked their congressman. What were those things? First, the election became a referendum on the first two years of President Bill Clinton's presidency. Second, voters wanted a new direction for the country and the Congress based on the “Contract With America.”
Across the United States, Republicans gained 54 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and regained control for the first time since 1954. In addition to the 7th Congressional District in Georgia, there were many upsets that year as popular incumbent Democrats unexpectedly lost to unknown and under-funded Republican challengers.
In Georgia, Barr was not the only Republican to defeat a popular incumbent. Congressman Charlie Norwood defeated incumbent Democratic Congressman Don Johnson. In addition, Congressman Saxby Chambliss won the open seat after Congressman Roy Rowland retired. In all, Georgians ended up with eight Republican congressmen when the Congress convened in 1995.
1994 turned out to be an election about issues, not people, and especially not incumbents.
Now, folks look forward toward the 2010 election. In the 8th Congressional District, incumbent Democratic Congressman Jim Marshall looks very much like Darden did in 1994. He is well-regarded and well-connected. (Indeed, he often boasts of his relationship with Gov. Sonny Perdue.) He is well-funded.
Unlike Darden, Marshall has not routinely cruised to re-election. He had very close calls (barely over 50 percent) against Calder Clay in 2002 and Mac Collins in 2006 (both midterm elections). And, unlike 1994 when it was still blue, Georgia is now a decidedly red state. Yet, in other regards, things are very much the same. Like 1994, Congress' approval rating is in the tank with just 20 percent of Americans approving of the way Congress is doing its job. Generically, Americans favor Republicans to control Congress by a 46.2 percent to 41.8 percent margin.
Overwhelmingly, Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction (61 percent). And, President Obama's approval rating heading into the midterm election after his first two years is at an all-time low.
Adding to this mix, Marshall has given his Republican challenger some political ammunition. For example, he has opposed repealing the death tax. And, his opponent is no "dour" Bob Barr.
Instead, state Rep. Austin Scott is a small businessman and Georgia bulldog from Tifton.
Nationally, political experts are predicting huge Republican gains on Nov. 2. With unemployment staying at 9.5 percent, a federal deficit over $13 trillion, and higher taxes on the horizon, issues have started to dominate voter decision-making just like 1994.
Once voters decide that the 2010 election involves something more important than how well they like their own Member of Congress, then the rule of Buddy Darden will almost certainly come into play, and popular, well funded, and well-connected incumbents are in trouble. That is what has Congressman Jim Marshall worried.
Randy Evans is an Atlanta attorney with McKenna Long & Aldrige LLP. He is the former General Counsel of the Georgia Republican Party and remains active in the party on both the state and national level. He can be reached at www.mckennalong.com or McKenna Long & Aldrige LLP, Suite 5300, 303 Peachtree St., Atlanta, GA 30308.