The Atlanta Journal-Constitution christened Muscogee County, home to the city of Columbus, as the Democrats' bellwether in Georgia. In 2000, Muscogee Democrats picked Al Gore over Bill Bradley. In 2004, out of nine Democratic presidential candidates, they supported John Kerry to defeat runner-up John Edwards that mirrored results statewide. If the "impromptu straw poll" held at this year's Columbus holiday gathering provides an early indicator, Muscogee Democrats overwhelmingly favor John Edwards as the next winner of the state's Presidential Preference Primary. Edwards resoundingly beat Clinton, Obama, Richardson, Kucinich, and one "write-in" for Gore.
In the 29 statewide Democratic primaries or runoffs from 1996 through 2006, Muscogee County Democrats voted for the winner 28 times, the best record of any county in Georgia, according to an analysis of election results by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That includes every state, U.S. Senate and presidential primary.No wonder Muscogee Democrats can choose primary winners. County residents include a "political spectrum that is spread right-to-left with a great middle of moderate Democrats and Republicans, while the state as a whole has come to be more and more dominated by the GOP." Take a gander at what makes 'em tick:
Muscogee County is home to a disparate mix of industry, income and individuals. A redeveloped downtown features lots of brick — renovated brick mills along the Chattahoochee River waterfront, brick streets through the historic district and new bricks that make up the modern campus of Columbus State University. Columbus is also home to insurance giant Aflac and financial and technology giant Synovus financial group.
And a few miles from the historic district is Fort Benning, the massive Army base that is the sixth largest in the country, with more than 30,000 active duty military.
But Muscogee County residents also have a median household income almost 20 percent lower than the state's and have seen employment levels drop nearly 3 percent from 2000 to 2005, while the job rate in Georgia as a whole has increased slightly in the same period.
The county is also much more racially diverse than most of Georgia. Whites and blacks each make up nearly half of the population, compared with a state that is 30 percent African-American.As a former state Democratic Party chairman, Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus, since 1974) described his stomping ground as a "good barometer because of the political fishbowl that we are." But as a long-time Georgia resident I would caution, don't count your possums before they cross the road.
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Frank Myers, a Columbus attorney, said he's backing Edwards for a simple reason.
"Of the top-tier candidates, he has the best chance to win the general election," said Myers, 47. "Who is the Republicans' best candidate? It's Hillary Clinton."
Those sentiments — the need to pick a candidate who can defeat the Republican nominee and that Clinton is too polarizing — were common at the social.
"Hillary has great credentials," said Ross Marshall, 61, an advertising sales executive with Davis Broadcasting. "[But] she will energize the opposition like no one could."
Marshall, too, is supporting Edwards.
Marshall is the type of voter Democrats have tended to lose over the past decade as Republicans have dominated the state. He's also the type of voter they must regain to have a future in Georgia.
"I've been an independent since 1967," said Marshall. "I've hung out with Democrats and Republicans most of my life. Then George W. Bush was elected."
When Bush won the White House in 2000, Marshall said he gave the new president a chance. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he again got behind the president for the sake of national unity.
"And he squandered it all," Marshall said. "He wanted to go to Iraq. The more questions I asked, the fewer answers I got. George Bush made me a Democrat."
In a county with such a strong military tradition, Muscogee Democrats walk a line between supporting the troops and opposing the war.
County party chairwoman Alice Pate said there is an obvious distinction.
"This county is opposed to the war and wants to bring the soldiers home," said Pate, 50. "This county supports the military. But they're angry about how the military is being used and abused."
It's part of the dynamic that keeps Muscogee a blue county in a red state.
"I always did well there. I like Muscogee," said former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who won Muscogee in the 1998 Democratic primary and runoff, as well as in the 1998 general election that sent him to the Governor's Mansion, and in the 2002 election — when he lost to Perdue.
"It's a broad-based party there," said Barnes, who was the keynote speaker at the Muscogee Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in November. "People don't hang their heads in shame to be a Democrat in Muscogee County because the Democrats have built a vibrant community down there."
Barnes was tickled to hear that Edwards seems to have strong support in the county since Barnes is one of Edwards' top Georgia supporters.
But the straw poll victory notwithstanding, Edwards is no shoo-in. Smyre, in fact, is one of Clinton's top supporters in the state and promises to work hard for her in Muscogee, Georgia and all over the country. And if recent polls are any indication, Muscogee County Democrats could hurt their prognostication record by choosing Edwards. A recent Strategic Vision poll of Georgia Democrats had Clinton leading with 34 percent, followed by Obama at 27 and Edwards a distant third with 12 percent.
Whoever wants to win, Muscogee Democrats say, needs to present comprehensive plans for health care, job creation and economic improvement, as well as a plan for ending the war.Isn't that what Democratic voters want articulated unequivocally from their candidates?
When I examined the latest national polls comparing Democratic presidential candidates who bested Republican contenders, the only Democrat to beat them all including McCain was John Edwards. A bellwether? Stay tuned. He's ready for prime time and the Georgia primary on Feb. 5 is just around the corner.
(Hat tip J. P. Green)