Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Denise Majette: Political Comeback in Progress

Georgia Democrats can put another race in the potential win column. Denise Majette, former Congresswoman, and 2004 candidate for U.S. Senate announced that she is running for State Superintendent of Schools.

Now, the Democrats didn’t have a whole lot going for them in this race until today. We’re sure Carlotta Harrell is a nice lady and everything, but we weren’t sure that she had what it takes to run statewide. For what it’s worth, Denise Majette, we believe, does.

It takes experience. Majette knocked off Cynthia McKinney in the 2002 primary, no easy feat. In 2004, she took on Cliff Oxford, who while better funded, didn’t have the experience that Majette had, and beat him handily. In the general election, she held her own and did respectably against Johnny Isakson when Johnny was holding all the cards. What we’re saying, in a roundabout way is that Majette has been around the block a few times as far as elections go, and she’s a good campaigner who connects well with voters across the spectrum.

It also takes money. We’ll be the first to tell you that Majette’s fundraising for her Senate race was somewhat underwhelming, but we’d also tell you that it takes far less to run for State School Superintendent than it does to run for Senate. One advantage that Majette has over her primary opponent, and we believe over the incumbent as well, is an existing network of donors that can be persuaded to pony up again thanks to her previous runs for office. Granted that even with a tried and true donor, they’re usually going to shell out less dough for a State School Superintendent race than a Senate race, but the numbers are going to work out in Majette’s favor. Not to turn this into a big lecture on fundraising tactics, but the key concept is access. Majette has a bigger list of people who will take her call the first time than her opponent in the primary and, we would wager, her opponent in the general as well. So even if they donate less, we maintain that Majette has a better list.

So yes, we’re excited to see Majette in the race, but we can’t help but wonder about the politics side of it. You go from Judge to Congresswoman to candidate for US Senate to candidate for State School Superintendent. It seems like something of a demotion, and makes us wonder what’s going on. If you want our rampant speculation, here goes.

To use a sports analogy, this is a “rebuilding year” for Majette. It’s a winnable race for her, and one that proves that she can get elected statewide. If she wins here, especially by knocking off a Republican incumbent in a very red state, her political career is back on track. Perhaps she learned a lesson from another Georgia politician who gave up his State Senate seat to run for Governor and got trounced in the primary. Said politician could have given up and gone back to his lucrative law practice, but instead he ran again – this time for State Representative, a demotion, some folks said. A few years later, having been successfully elected and re-elected a few times, that politician became governor of Georgia. His name was Roy Barnes, and that’s where the parallel ends, unfortunately.

All we’re saying is there’s always room for a well-timed, well-planned comeback, and Denise Majette for State Superintendent of Schools has all the hallmarks of such a comeback.

13 comments:

Dawg Corleone said...

Well, she's blessed by her opponent, as was the case when she beat McKinney in '02.

But this is going to be a tough climb. She angered her "base" (ie Republicans) who helped put her in Congress by handing the seat back to McKinney 2 years ago, and, frankly, labeled herself as a something of a flake in the process. Why she did it remains a mystery--my best guess is that she was angling for a federal judgeship in a Kerry administration.

I don't see any "connecting with the voters" in her background. She beat McKinney because she came across as someone who wasn't crazy, and she got the same 40 percent that you or I or any other warm body would have picked by running as a Democrat in a Georgia Senate race.

As I say, she's lucky to be running against a perceived dim bulb in Kathy with a K, but if had to bet a Diet Coke on this race, I'd still put it on the incumbent.

Jmac said...

It's a tough call. I like Majette a lot and wish she had not sought the Senate seat, but it's still hard for blue to win in a red state. Not to say she can't, and as Corleone pointed out, Kathy Cox is the type of opponent you want to run against. A lot of folks across the state are unhappy with her, and the public education system in general, so Majette should count on 5-10 percent boost of additional votes based on a rebellion vote.

Publius said...

Not much argument, and I certinaly didn't mean to imply that her victory is ensured, but she's got as good a chance as anyone in Georgia to win this seat.

As far as connecting with the voters, I don't know if you've seen her "live," as it were, but she's pretty good.

Anyway, if she runs a smart campaign, she wins, I think. I can count the number of "smart" campaigns I've seen in my life on the fingers of one hand.

bulletdawg said...

As a Democrat, I'm glad to see we have a "credible" candidate. But Majette has a steep hill yet to climb.

I have seen Majette in person and she leaves alot to be desired. Her debate performance against Cliff Oxford in 2004 was only slightly better than pathetic. And she did not handily dispose of Mr. Oxford, needing a pesky runoff to get the Democratic nomination. The fact that she, as an African-American member of Congress, needed a runoff against a political novice who admitted during the course of the campaign to abusing his spouse is amazing.

In the general election, she performed poorly, garnering only 40% of the vote (nearly 600,000 less than Isakson). Even Democrats like Michael Cole ('98 v. Coverdell) were able to do better in a state-wide race.

I would like to see some sitting members of the General Assembly running to be our state's education czar.

And remember, Kathy Cox benefited greatly in 2002 from sharing the ballot with Cathy Cox. If that happens again, Majette is going to need a Democratic tidal wave. Hopefully, that wave is on its way.

Jmac said...

Well, to be fair bulletdawg, Majette ran about as competitive of a campaign she could have run against Isakson. But she was having to deal with a GOP surge in the South, which is something Michael Cole didn't have to contend with in 1998 when Democrats still controlled the state government in Georgia.

bulletdawg said...

Jmac,

Majette, as a sitting member of Congress got 40% for an open Senate seat, this paltry result achieved with near-universal name ID as compared to cookie millionaire Cole. A typical Democrat, even a losing Democrat should get at least 43-45% of the vote in Georgia.

The voters saw the flaws in Majette. While she may be a nice person, she is a poor campaigner. She is a political newbie and it comes across when she speaks in front of groups. Not only does she lack stump skills, but her fundraising ability leaves me wondering if she can raise even the small sums necessary to run for Education Czar. In 2004, Majette barely raised $2.0 mil v. Isakson's $8.5 mil. $2 mil was not nearly enough to compete actively against Isakson. If she has difficulty raising Senate-type funds ($5-10mil) for a Senate race, I doubt she can get donors to pony-up for her quixiotic run for School Supt.

Kathy Cox is a formidable opponent for two reasons: (1) She is the incumbent, and (2) her name sounds like another Georgia politician, one that is somewhat popular.

In 2002, KC, a nobody, ran and soundly defeated a great Democratic candidate, Barbara Christmas. Ms. Christmas had ample resources and a slew of support from teachers and teachers' unions. But that support wasn't enough to trump one thing, her opponent's name. Many uninformed Georgia voters went to the polls hell-bent on voting for that "nice Cox lady." And when faced with two Coxes: Kathy and Cathy, they choose both. If Cathy Cox is the Democratic nominee for governor, this may happen again, albeit in less force since Cathy Cox will be more defined as a gubernatorial candidate.

Kathy Cox also benefits from the power that is incumbency. Ask any political scientist, political reporter, or political junkie and they will tell you that incumbency is good for 3-6% on election day. Why? Voters don't know anything about the office/job/candidates, so they vote for the one already in office. This phenomenon is magnified for down-ballot races (the Supt. of Education race's placement on the ballot is somewhere between Ag. Commish and County Zoning Inspector).

Again, I am glad Democrats have a credible candidate for this office. I think we as a party need competent candidates for every office in case the Democratic tidal wave develops. But until that wave begins to crash down, Majette is in for a difficult race.

RandomThoughts said...

This is all very interesting but does anyone think she may be elected or not elected on her ability to do the job? What are her qualifications for this position? I hear they are slim. Maybe that doesn't matter to you political types but to us regular folks, we want our candidates to be qualified.

Publius said...

Couple of things. You can't blame DM for having to go to a runoff in the Senate primary, seeing as how there are about 436 Democratics running for that seat.

Second, the 1998 Michael Coles is not a good comparison here; there are just too many different dynamics. (Aside: looking at any race through the prism is earlier races is often a bad idea.) But, if you want to compare Majette in 2004 to Coles six years earlier, here's what you need to know.

In 1998, the White House was occupied by a Democrat with relatively high job approval ratings (in the week before the 1998 election, Clinton was at around 68%). In 2004, the White House was occupied by a Republican with middle of the road approval ratings. (In the week before the 2004 election, Bush was around 48% nationwide, but significantly higher in the South.)

Even more important than that, Bush was up for re-election in 2004, while 1998 was a midterm election. In fact, looking at the Georgia results, you see that the Bush/Kerry race broke at just about the same place that the Isakson/Majette race did. (If you want numbers, Bush/Kerry broke 58-41.4, while Isakson/Majette broke 57.9-40, while Libertarian Allen Buckley ran a strong race and picked up 2.1%) That's the real ballot-related issue that Bullet should have mentioned, not any perceived falloff from name similarity. In fact, you can test the effect of having a President who is extremely popular on the ballot - we just did. As to the effect of Kathy with a K versus Cathy with a C, that's just speculation. Did it happen? Probably, but I doubt it happened to the extent that people imply that it did.

The third major difference between Michael Coles - or any previous Senate candidate - and Denise Majette is the one that no one, including me, wants to talk about. But you've got to face facts. Denise Majette is a black women. Michael Coles was, well...not. That, unfortunately, still makes a difference.

Finally, the electoral dynamic has changed dramatically since 1998, for the reasons I enumerated above. In 1998, Democrats controlled the Governor's mansion and both houses under the Gold Dome. Democrats had a majority in the US Senate. All of these make a difference too.

I want to go back to the Kathy/Cathy thing for a minute. Giving credit where credit is due, I think Bullet implies that that's going to be less of a factor as Cathy moves into a more prominent race, and I would mention that it isn't a done deal that Cathy will even be on the ballot to help Kathy in November. But more importantly, I wanted to address this comment:

"Many uninformed Georgia voters went to the polls hell-bent on voting for that "nice Cox lady." And when faced with two Coxes: Kathy and Cathy, they choose both."

I've got a problem with this line. First of all, it completely underestimates the power of the R next to a candidate's name - which, I submit is far more important than the C vs K argument. 2002 was a good year for Republicans, and as Bullet might tell you too, having the support of the teachers' unions ain't always a good thing in the South. But, more than that, I don't like the tone of what Bullet is saying. I'm guessing that Bullet has probably seen the inside of a campaign office or two in his day, and I have too. I think the sooner folks who work in politics stop assuming that the vasy majority of voters are uninformed morons, the better off our political discourse will be.

Anonymous said...

"...I think the sooner folks who work in politics stop assuming that the vast majority of voters are uninformed morons, the better off our political discourse will be."

I don't think most political operatives think the voters are morons but, the uninformed label is one that they have most assuredly earned! A great way to lose a close election is to assume that the majority of the voters are going to have studied the candidates - their positions and their records. I can hardly write this without laughing out loud.

Sure, the folks reading this blog are probably about 10,000 times more informed than the average voter and many of them with noble hearts want to believe that voters know what they are doing when they get to the polls. I don't think that will happen in our lifetimes. That is the main reason that I usually keep my mouth shut around good-hearted folks who are trying to register everyone to vote - we really shouldn't let everyone vote. If I've spent years learning about the parties and the players and the issues and my vote counts no more than somebody who gets their "news" from Rush Limbaugh or gets no news at all other than sports and who is married to Jennifer Lopez at the moment then, sheesh!

It's enough to make me want to institute some kind of basic test for voting privileges. Like can you name at least one of your Senators? Can you tell me how many Senators represent you? Can you name anybody who is currently in Congress? Who is the Lt. Governor?

Stop registering idiots! If we stop registering idiots then maybe we'll stop electing them! You get the government you deserve.

There! I said it. Now everyone will hate me. *sigh*

bulletdawg said...

"Publius' comments in quotes"

“You can't blame DM for having to go to a runoff in the Senate primary, seeing as how there are about 436 Democratics running for that seat”

There were eight candidates, but only two were serious: Majette and Oxford. I brought up the runoff because your original posting had stated that Majette “handily” defeated Oxford. It just seems hard to beat someone handily when you need a runoff to get the party nomination.

"Second, the 1998 Michael Coles is not a good comparison here; there are just too many different dynamics."

I agree the 1998 race is a tenuous comparison at best. However, it remains noteworthy that Majette, a sitting member of Congress received less support (on a percentage basis) than an unknown cookie-maker six years earlier. As you aptly describe, this fact may be due to the tectonic shifts in Georgia’s political landscape during period from 1998-2004.

”The third major difference between Michael Coles - or any previous Senate candidate - and Denise Majette is the one that no one, including me, wants to talk about. But you've got to face facts. Denise Majette is a black women. Michael Coles was, well...not. That, unfortunately, still makes a difference.”

Unfortunately, race and gender do matter in Georgia politics to this day. BUT, and a big BUT, Georgia has elected women and African-Americans to statewide elected office before. (Women: Schrenko in 1994 and 1998; Cox in 2002; Blacks: Thurmond in 1998 and 2002; Baker in 1998 and 2002; Black Woman: Sears in 2004).

”Finally, the electoral dynamic has changed dramatically since 1998, for the reasons I enumerated above. In 1998, Democrats controlled the Governor's mansion and both houses under the Gold Dome. Democrats had a majority in the US Senate. All of these make a difference too.”

No argument here, just some clarification…Democrats did not control the US Senate in 1998.

”I want to go back to the Kathy/Cathy thing for a minute. Giving credit where credit is due, I think Bullet implies that that's going to be less of a factor as Cathy moves into a more prominent race, and I would mention that it isn't a done deal that Cathy will even be on the ballot to help Kathy in November.”

Thanks for the credit. And if you want to have the Taylor v. Cox discussion, I’m ready anytime you are.

“it completely underestimates the power of the R next to a candidate's name - which, I submit is far more important than the C vs K argument.”

Possibly so, but doesn’t this undercut your belief that Denise Majette is poised for a political comeback? If voters made their decision in 2002 based on the R, rather than the K v. C confusion, isn’t that likely to happen again thus dooming Majette’s chances.

“2002 was a good year for Republicans, and as Bullet might tell you too, having the support of the teachers' unions ain't always a good thing in the South.”

As Publius is aware, there was little to no mention in the media during the course of the 2002 campaign of Christmas’ support by teachers’ unions. Union backing was not a negative going against Christmas. It was a positive, driving the votes and small checks of teachers towards the Democrat.

“But, more than that, I don't like the tone of what Bullet is saying. I'm guessing that Bullet has probably seen the inside of a campaign office or two in his day, and I have too. I think the sooner folks who work in politics stop assuming that the vast majority of voters are uninformed morons, the better off our political discourse will be.”

You can take umbrage at my tone, but my tone reflects the political reality that exists in Georgia and throughout the nation. Most voters are not well versed in the duties of the state’s Superintendent of Education. When making their decision on whom to vote for, the voters utilize other cues leading them to support a particular candidate. The most important cue, mentioned previously, is party ID. I agree that a lot of Kathy Cox’s support came from voters’ “knee-jerk” preference for a Republican candidate. But that knee-jerk reaction did not doom other down ballot Democratic candidates like Thurbert Baker, Mike Thurmond, Tommy Irvin, and Cathy Cox. Something else was going on in this race, very likely name confusion.

Ignoring the fact that voters do not research every race that appears on the ballot and that voters tend to vote based on cues such as party ID, name familiarity, gender etc. seems equivalent to political naivety.

It does a disservice to political discourse to ignore the realities in which modern political campaigns operate.

Patrick Armstrong said...

Back to the (alleged) resurgence of Denise Majette:

I have no idea why she ran for Senate last time around. That speaks to me of not having any really hot Democratic candidates to face Isakson (a lackluster Republican) in Georgia, which is alarming as well.

The reason she is viable for statewide office, and very much so, is name recognition. She was the woman who beat Cynthia McKinney for Congress in the district Cynthia McKinney & Co drew up specifically for Cynthia McKinney. That goes a long way towards solidifying someone's underdog credibility.

Then she went up against Isakson (lackluster Republican) in a race for the United States Senate.

Because of that, she is a name that many primary voters already know, esp. Democratic primary voters.

That name is already associated with something a lot of voters outside Atlanta consider a good thing: beating Cynthia McKinney & standing up against lackluster Republicanism.

Her name has also been in the news enough without scandal that people don't fear giving her political power.

Qualifications? Other than those listed above, I can't name any real ones, and that is what makes me angry. Politics is something of a high maintenance hobby and it requires a great deal of free time to keep up with. Even us 'political types' out here who try to pay attention go to the ballot box and have to guess at some of our choices.

bulletdawg said...

I wasn't debating Ms. Majette's ability to win the Democratic nomination. She's a shoo-in for that. I'm questioning her chances of winning in November.

I'd posit that her name ID is much, much, much lower in the rest of the state than in the metro Atlanta area, where her defeat of McKinney has some resonance. Even her statewide run in 2004, did little to boost her ID in south, central, north, and west Georgia.

On the qualifications front, I think it would do this state some good to have a non-educator running the Superintendent's office. We need new blood, a competent attorney who has served as judge and member of Congress could do this state some good.

And I admit I vote for some candidates solely because of the "D" by their name. Most people have jobs, families, church, hobbies, etc. that make it difficult to follow the ins-outs of government. That's a good thing. We don't need a state full of people who read the minutes of the PSC meetings, that would be odd.

Patrick Armstrong said...

Well, Ms. Majette has plenty of name recognition in the South & Coastal Georgia that I live in. Maybe Island City is the exception rather than the rule. Could she stand to have more? Sure. But she's the big name I've heard plenty of folks talkin bout 'round these parts.

As far as "new blood" - I don't care if their chosen profession is underwater basketweaving - just as long as they prove themselves to be competent.