Dems Already Pursue House Class of '98
By John E. Yang
SOPERTON, Ga. If Democrats are going to recapture the U.S. House next year, they will need more candidates like Georgia state court Judge John Ellington.
"I'm a Georgia Democrat," the enthusiastic 36-year-old said as he sat in his chambers in the red-brick Treutlen County Court House in this small south Georgia town. "On social issues, I'm as conservative as any Republican."
In short, he is just the person party officials believe can unseat two-term Rep. C. Saxby Chambliss, one of the 40 or so House Republicans the Democrats are targeting for defeat. And 15 months before the election, Ellington has been swayed by an aggressive recruiting effort, and agreed to run.
In 1998, Democratic officials do not want to wake up the morning after Election Day with the same feeling they had last year: that their failure to find enough good candidates helped marginal GOP contenders slip into office. In the end, the Democrats fell just short of regaining the House despite a multimillion-dollar barrage of negative television ads and voter antipathy toward House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the congressional Republicans.
"They really didn't have a strong enough team to take advantage of the Democratic trend in 1996," said political scientist Gary C. Jacobson of the University of California at San Diego. "They should have taken more seats than they did." Candidate recruitment is "of critical importance. You can't win seats without pretty good candidates and you can't beat incumbents without really good candidates."
Democrats say they have learned their lesson. "It is critical that we get strong candidates and get them early," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.). "We didn't get some of the people we wanted last time. Two years ago, everybody was very down for the first six or eight months. It was very hard to recruit until September or October when the Republicans began to fall apart."
Many factors remain against them this time, but Democratic officials are optimistic they can pick up the 11 seats they need to regain the majority they lost in 1994, especially since 26 Republicans 15 of them incumbents running for reelection won with 51 percent of the vote or less last year.
To find the strongest challengers this time around, Democrats are stressing what they call "research-based recruiting" using demographic data to build a profile of the type of candidate who could best be figured to win a particular district. Once that profile is cast, they set out to find a person who matches it.
In Georgia's 8th Congressional District, a largely rural wedge running down the center of the state from just north of Macon through the Okefenokee Swamp to the Florida border, Democrats think they have found their candidate in Ellington, who has all but announced his candidacy.
"The perfect candidate is someone who has lived in the district all his life, knows the district and cares about the district," said Mike Henry, a Democratic Party operative who first met Ellington in a south Georgia restaurant five months ago while crisscrossing 14 southern states in search of Democratic House candidates. "John fits that bill."
Ellington was born in nearby Vidalia and has lived in Soperton (pronounced SOH-per-tun) since he was 8 years old. He graduated from a small, two-year agricultural college in south Georgia before going to the University of Georgia and has two farms growing hay on one and timber on the other around Soperton. "I'm a product of the district, as much as the pine trees and the cotton," Ellington declared in a thick southern drawl.
He is a deacon at the First Baptist Church, where he teaches the senior men's Sunday School class. He is president of the Soperton Lions Club and is active in the local Chamber of Commerce.
He is a hunter who asserts: "We don't need any more gun control." He is a circuit court judge, presiding in 11 of the district's 30 counties, with a reputation for tough sentences. Asked whether the crews of Georgia convicts laboring along the state's highways do any good, he replied, "I don't know if it does them any good, but it sure does me good to see them."
But Ellington will have to overcome Chambliss's advantages of incumbency and the Democratic Party's national reputation to prevail in this region.
"They may be recruiting better candidates in the South, but the Democrats need more than that," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst who tracks House and Senate races. "They need a whole mood swing."
And Democrats nationwide will have to buck a variety of historic and current trends to win back the House. Since the Civil War, the party controlling the White House has lost seats in each midterm election but one.
And this summer's balanced budget agreement, including a component that would cut taxes, is likely to benefit incumbents. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found a plurality of those questioned even before the budget deal late last month said they favored the GOP keeping control of Congress after 1998, 45 percent to 39 percent.
"If you didn't beat the incumbent last time with a year-and-a-half of negative advertising, it's going to be harder with a balanced budget and a tax cut," Rothenberg said. "If the economy stays good, it's going to be hard to dislodge these guys."
Nonetheless, Democratic candidates appear to be more optimistic this time around. Some who were wooed last time but who declined to run perhaps discouraged by the shellacking the party took at the polls in 1994 are now taking the plunge.
Las Vegas attorney Shelley Berkley, for example, passed up a 1996 race against Rep. John Ensign (R-Nev.). But the morning after Ensign won a second term with only 50 percent of the vote, she announced she would run in 1998 and had raised $206,658 by July 31, according to Federal Election Commission data.
"The '94 elections did not bode well for the Democrats," said Berkley, who maintains that the GOP tide that year was not a factor in deciding against a race in 1996. "But there's been a shift to the center. In this district, change is in the air."
Democratic officials said they believe change could be in the air in south Georgia, too.
The biggest reason stems from the 1995 court-ordered redrawing of Georgia's congressional districts that made this one more Democratic, largely by increasing the proportion of black voters from 21 percent to 31 percent.
Chambliss, elected in 1994 to replace a conservative Democrat who retired, saw his margin of victory decline from more than 36,000 votes in his first race to 9,100 votes last year. And even that slim margin of victory came against a Democratic candidate who, party officials acknowledge, ran a poor race and whom Chambliss outspent by more than 4 to 1.
But Chambliss, an amiable conservative lawyer, fits the district in personality and politics. In the House, he has used his committee assignments to tend to the district's most important interests National Security, to look after Robins Air Force Base, and Agriculture, to protect the peanut program for the district's farmers. In addition, he will have had two years to establish himself in the 10 of the district's 30 counties that were new to the district in the 1996 election.
Chambliss "still has the advantages of incumbency," said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist. "I wouldn't think there would be a large number of voters aching to throw him out."
The road to Ellington's candidacy began in a Shoney's restaurant in Fitzgerald, Ga., on March 25. Henry, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's southern campaign director, had arranged to meet this young, ambitious judge whom state party officials had been telling him so much about.
A boyish 28, Henry is already a veteran political operative who has recruited Democrats to run for the Virginia House of Delegates and for congressional races in Texas and Iowa. Since February, he has been on the road three days a week, flying out of Washington every Tuesday morning.
Once Henry had seized on Ellington, party campaign officials recruited the judge like college football scouts pursue a high school star. They spelled out what they could offer him to help raise money, organize a campaign, develop a strategy to communicate his message and identify vulnerabilities in Chambliss's record. They also went over the failed 1996 campaign against Chambliss, identifying mistakes and missed opportunities.
Fellow Georgians Sen. Max Cleland and Rep. Sanford Bishop talked with him about a moderate Democrat's life in Congress.
Ellington also met some of the House Democrats' old bulls. Encountering Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), Ellington thrust out his hand: "I'm John Ellington from south Georgia."
"With that accent, I can tell you are," the gruff Harlem lawmaker replied.
"And with that accent, I can tell you aren't," Ellington came back.
Since then, there have been more meetings, with Democratic officials making the trek from Washington to Atlanta by plane and then driving along pine tree-lined Interstate 16 to Soperton to discuss details of making a race. All signs point toward Ellington formally declaring his candidacy later this year.
No indication was better than the one Ellington gave during his June visit to the Capitol, Democratic officials said he asked each Democratic lawmaker he met for a $1,000 contribution.
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