Freshman Rep. Hank Johnson conscious of potential primary

Rep. Hank Johnson’s (D-Ga.) mild-mannered style will never be mistaken for that of his outspoken predecessor, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D). But that doesn’t mean fellow Democrats are going to let him cruise to a second term without another heated primary.

Democrats in the Atlanta area say Johnson is keenly aware that McKinney’s departure has opened a door to any number of ambitious would-be members of Congress. Johnson, wary of pronouncing himself reelected, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he’s hearing several names.

Anti-McKinney Democrats largely coalesced behind Johnson last year to knock off McKinney for the second time in the last three cycles. Now some of them — and possibly McKinney — apparently have turned their eyes on the quiet freshman as well.

“He’s certainly hearing rumors,” Johnson spokeswoman Deb McGhee Speights said. “But he wouldn’t be surprised, certainly, at this point if there is a challenger.”

Pervasive speculation has it that DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones will drop his U.S. Senate bid to enter the race, and Democrats are not counting out repeat bids by McKinney or former Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.). Majette beat McKinney in 2002 but vacated the seat for a failed bid for Senate in 2004, at which point McKinney retook her old seat.
Jones’s campaign dismissed the rumors and spoke highly of Johnson. But many Democrats are dumbfounded by Jones’s flirtation with running for Senate.

Jones, who has said he is running but is still technically in an exploratory phase, raised a meager $18,000 in the first quarter and has a spotty personal history that might be hard to overcome statewide. At the same time, he has crossover appeal because he is conservative and black.

A Strategic Vision poll from last month showed current Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) up 57–29 in a head-to-head match-up.

As a black Democrat in Georgia, Jones figures to have a strong shot at the Democratic nomination and could scare off other candidates, according to Georgia political operatives and observers.

Atlanta Democratic consultant Angelo Fuster, who has worked for Jones in the past, said people underestimate Jones at their own peril, and Johnson surely wouldn’t.

“I think that [Johnson] has some concerns that Vernon is going to run against him,” Fuster said. “The general consensus is that Hank would have a difficult competition if Vernon decided to run for the House.”

University of Georgia political science Professor Charles Bullock said Jones, who is term-limited in his current job at the end of 2008, is much better known than Johnson is.

Before entering Congress, Johnson served as a DeKalb commissioner beneath Jones.

“That would certainly be a much more winnable seat for him,” Bullock said. “There was some thought when McKinney was in there that he might run against her once his term was up. So this is not novel speculation that he might run in the 4th district.”

Jones spokesman Jamie Grey said the speculation is unfounded and based on race, but he also suggested Jones would have beaten both Johnson and McKinney.

“You’re hearing that from some naysayers and some ne’er-do-wells that really want to look for a person of a different hue to run under the Democratic banner for the Senate,” Grey said. “If Vernon wanted to be the congressman from the 4th congressional district, he would be it now.”

Grey also said any of the other names being mentioned likely would not be able to beat Johnson.

Johnson won in 2006 partially thanks to the backlash from McKinney’s dust-up with a U.S. Capitol Police officer. The officer didn’t recognize her and tried to make her go through a security check, from which members are exempt.

Johnson gained a primary runoff with McKinney and defeated her 59–41 in August. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic, and he went on to sail through the general election.

Democrats say they believe McKinney might be interested in running for her old seat now that another year has passed since the event. McKinney has remained a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq and has been giving speeches, including at a peace conference in Malaysia in February where President Bush was labeled a “war criminal.”

Johnson hesitated to support the Iraq war supplemental last month, but eventually decided to join Democrats. Speights said though Johnson wants the troops out soon, it was the best option and Johnson wasn’t concerned about a primary challenge from the left.

McKinney, for her part, tried to position herself toward the end of the 2006 runoff as the No. 1 opponent of Bush.
She has been working to retire a $60,000 campaign debt and has updated her website in recent months to reflect her progress. She’s about one-sixth of the way there, according to the site.

Majette ran for state school superintendent in 2006 after losing her Senate bid and again lost by a wide margin. Like Johnson did in 2006, she won in 2002 with an assist from McKinney’s antics.

McKinney and Majette could not be reached for comment.

DeKalb County Commissioner Burrell Ellis said McKinney loyalists have rallied around Johnson in the early going and that he looks ready if a challenge heads his way.

“I think he’s now making his own mark and looking strong,” Ellis said.