Looking for a Democratic upset? The race for school superintendent has possibilities.
Todd Rehm writes the blog known as GeorgiaPundit.com and is a Republican consultant who sometimes joins me in front of a TV camera. Michael Thurmond is the DeKalb County school superintendent and owner of a long Democratic resume.
The two men live in separate worlds and have never met, so far as I know. But they agree on at least one thing:
If you want to lay a wager on the Democrat who might be celebrating election to a statewide office on the first Tuesday in November, don’t place your money on Michelle Nunn or Jason Carter.
It will be difficult for either to escape a runoff.
Instead, bet on Valarie Wilson of DeKalb County, the down-ballot candidate for state school superintendent who is locked in a tight, two-person race with Republican Richard Woods of Tifton.
Wilson, an African-American, is a former president of the Georgia School Boards Association, and a former member of the Decatur city school board. Woods, who is white, is a former teacher and administrator from Irwin County who has emphasized his opposition to new Common Core standards for k-12 public school students.
A SurveyUSA poll commissioned by 11Alive this week had Wilson and Woods locked in a dead heat, 46 to 46 percent.
Obviously, Rehm and Thurmond come at the possibility of a Wilson win from two different directions. The Republican is warning that it could put an end to a long GOP winning streak. The Democrat, meanwhile, embraces it as a sign that a 12-year exile from power may be coming to a close.
We’ll deal with the pessimist first. It is entirely possible, Rehm argues, that Republicans could win the larger stampede to the ballot box on Nov. 4 – but forfeit the contest for state school superintendent out of pure laziness.
Voters leak from a general election ballot like air from a pin-holed tire. But peculiarly, Republican voters are more likely to drop away than Democrats.
In 2008, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was thrown into a runoff against Democrat Jim Martin because he received 181,662 fewer votes than Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who took Georgia. The Democratic drop-off was less than half that.
In 2010, Republican newcomer John Barge won the race for school superintendent with 8 percent fewer votes than Johnny Isakson, the GOP senator seeking re-election.
Democrats had a down-ballot increase that year. The Democratic candidate for school superintendent, Joe Martin, actually won more votes than the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate – the aforementioned Michael Thurmond.
“Traditionally, I think Democrats have done a better job of urging their voters to vote the entire ticket,” Rehm said. “If it’s going to be close enough to drive a runoff in either of the top-of-the-ticket races, we could easily give that one back.”
Thurmond comes at the school superintendent’s race not as a number-cruncher, but as a political historian. In 1998, by winning election as labor commissioner, Thurmond became the first African-American in Georgia to win a statewide election to an open office. There has not been another since.
Wilson could become the second – and a rallying point for African-Americans who are being asked to back white Democrats for governor and U.S. Senate. “This race is not important just in a racial sense, it’s important strategically,” Thurmond said.
He sees another parallel. Like other lesser statewide races, the contest for state school superintendent is a cash-starved affair. As of Sept. 30, Wilson had raised a total of $147,414. Woods had raised $42,720.
In the absence of large sums of money, something else is needed. In 1998, Thurmond had just left his job as head of the state Department of Family and Children Services – a thankless position, but one that had him supervising field offices scattered across the state.
Wilson has “something similar,” Thurmond said – a network of Georgia school board members across the state. “Unless you come to the table with some sort of organization, you can’t survive. That’s how you beat the down-ballot drop off,” he said.
Already, Wilson has the support of Alvin Wilbanks, the longtime superintendent of public schools in the GOP-haven of Gwinnett County. More Republican supporters have been hinted at.
Other factors could benefit Wilson. Or rather, maneuvers intended to benefit a Republican nominee have not played out.
Our GOP-led Legislature has tacked to the end of the November ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would cap the state income tax at 6 percent. But as an invitation for Republicans to stay engaged as they plow through the ballot, the referendum has failed to stir excitement.
Possibly because the Legislature hasn’t tampered with the state income tax rate since 1955.
Then there is Common Core, the multi-state effort to set grade-by-grade bars for elementary and high school students. Woods won his GOP primary contest in large part by emphasizing his wariness of Common Core – which many Republicans believe amounts to the federalization of education.
But a spring fever over Common Core hasn’t carried into November. That SurveyUSA poll we mentioned earlier? Thirty-five percent of Georgia voters surveyed said they opposed Common Core. Sixty-five percent said they favored it, or didn’t know enough about it to care one way or another.
Major political shifts don’t always start off with a bang. The rise of Georgia Republicans began in 1992 when Bobby Baker won a seat on the state Public Service Commission; two years, later Linda Schrenko followed with a victory in the contest for state school superintendent.
Democrats will want to avoid following the model too closely. Schrenko was only released from prison last year, completing an eight-year sentence for embezzlement of federal funds.
By Political Insider – Jim Galloway