State senator aims to duplicate rival’s unity in Ga. special election

State Sen. Jim Whitehead has gained an early upper hand in Georgia’s 10th district special election by clearing the field in the Augusta region. His main opponent, fellow state Sen. Ralph Hudgens, is holding out hope for unity in Athens so that regional infighting won’t cost the area a congressional office.

Observers are designating Whitehead (R) as the early favorite in the special election, which was called last month following Rep. Charles Norwood’s (R-Ga.) death. Hudgens, also a Republican, is aiming to make it a two-horse race by clearing the field in his own area and is banking on Athens-area voters to trump those in Augusta.

Former Athens Mayor Doc Eldridge, who could play a spoiler for Hudgens, currently is dealing with family issues, but has been in talks with Hudgens and others about possibly stepping aside and uniting behind one Republican candidacy in Athens, Hudgens said.

“People keep telling me that he’s not going to run, but until I hear from Doc and, really until the end of qualifying, you don’t ever know,” said Hudgens, who narrowly lost a primary runoff to Norwood in 1994 and said he definitely will run this year.

With the special election three and a half months away and a qualifying period that has yet to be announced, there is still plenty of wiggle room in the field. Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) last week set the special election for June 19, with a possible runoff to follow on July 17 if no candidate receives a majority.

The election period is longer than usual so Hudgens and Whitehead can finish the current session in the state Senate. With an adjournment date in flux, so is the qualifying period. Candidates likely have until about two months before the election to qualify.

The field continued to grow during the last week with the entry of several minor candidates. Most potential candidates that could have a significant impact on the race would work against Hudgens since they are from the Athens area.

Eldridge, who was a Democrat when he was mayor of Athens but would run as a Republican, has strong support in the business community and appears to pose the biggest threat. Fellow Athenian Paul Broun, a former long-shot U.S. Senate candidate and son of a longtime state legislator, could also garner some votes from staunch conservatives and the religious right. Broun has declared his candidacy.

Another potential candidate, former NFL player Willie Green, is from the Athens area, too. Green, who is black, could also siphon votes from the lone major Democrat in the race, 2006 Norwood opponent Terry Holley.

State Rep. Alan Powell, a conservative Democrat from the northern part of the district, has been mum about his prospects. He told The Hill this week that if he decides to run, he would announce his candidacy when he qualifies.

Democrats aim to unite around one candidate in hopes that he or she can make the runoff, though the exercise appears futile in the strongly Republican district.

Though slightly more Democratic after 2005 redistricting, the 10th district gave President Bush 72 percent of the vote in 2004. And if any state trended Republican in the 2006 election, it was Georgia.

While the Republican field grows in the Athens region in the western portion of the district, Whitehead is thus far the only major candidate in the southeastern region based in Augusta, from which Norwood hailed.

Norwood’s supporters largely have been rallying around Whitehead, who is positioning himself as the logical successor to the seven-term congressman, who died Feb. 13 after battling cancer and lung disease.

There is no mistaking that the location of a congressional office is at stake.

“They feel like it’s time that they had a member of Congress that was calling Athens home,” Hudgens said of Athens-area voters. “That’s where my main office would be.”

Hudgens stressed that two-thirds of the district’s vote comes from the Athens area and north, whereas the Augusta area dominated the district in 1994, when he last ran. Athens is also where most district Democrats reside.

An Augusta-versus-Athens match-up will force the candidates to venture toward the northern border to get the rural voters, who could be decisive and don’t have a “friends and neighbors” candidate, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, which is based in Athens.

Bullock also said Hudgens faces strong opposition among Democrats in Athens for his role in the 2005 redistricting, which tilted a local state Senate seat for Republicans. The Democrat who lost a state Senate bid thanks to Hudgens’s redistricting, Jane Kidd, is now chairwoman of the state Democratic party.

The state Democratic Party said it won’t play in the race, but Kidd “would probably do whatever she could, speak wherever she could, to defeat Ralph Hudgens,” Bullock said.

Whitehead scored a coup last week when state Rep. Barry Fleming, an up-and-comer in the Republican Party, yielded to the elder state senator and endorsed him. Not only had Fleming been considered a frontrunner, but the move cemented Whitehead as the candidate of Augusta, which should be anxious to keep its congressional office.

Another potential spoiler in the Augusta area, state House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ben Harbin, has also decided against running.

Observers say Whitehead is ahead of the game as far as his campaign organization and fundraising, and his fast start helped him push aside Fleming, who will now run for Whitehead’s state Senate seat.