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Weekend Amusement: Is Roy Barnes Fighting History?

Although most Americans aren’t into political history, the chattering classes often adopt “rules” derived from history to make judgments–or simply sound knowledgeable–about ongoing political campaigns.

Earlier this month I did a fairly exhaustive analysis of the “rule” that the party controlling the White House is fated to lose gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, concluding that it probably has little or no predictive value this year. Today I’ll take on the “rule” in my home state of Georgia that says former governors never win “comeback” campaigns. This became relevant on June 3 when Democratic former governor Roy Barnes entered the 2010 gubernatorial race.

The “no comeback” rule was nicely summarized last week by the dean of Georgia political historians, Charles Bullock of the University of Georgia:

In recent generations, only the Talmadges have managed to do encores in the governor’s mansion after an absence. Gene won a third two-year term in 1940, lost in 1942 and then won a fourth time in 1946 although he died before assuming the office. The 1946 Democratic primary actually featured two former governors as E. D. Rivers (1937-40) placed third.

In the confusion following Gene’s death, the General Assembly named son Herman governor and he held the office for a couple of months before the state Supreme Court invalidated the legislature’s act and allowed the lieutenant governor, M. E. Thompson, to serve as acting governor until the next general election. The younger Talmadge defeated Thompson and won the remainder of his father’s term in 1948 and then a full four-year term in 1950.

After this discussion of the pre-history of what he calls the tradition of “no second acts,” Bullock goes on to cite Marvin Griffin (1962), Ernest Vandiver (1966), Ellis Arnall (1966), Carl Sanders (1970) and Lester Maddox (1974) as Georgia governors who tried to make comebacks and failed, all during the era when the state constitution barred consecutive terms. Since terms limits were extended to two terms in the late 1970s, every Georgia governor except for Barnes has been re-elected to a second term, so “comebacks” weren’t necessary.

So, goes the lesson, Roy Barnes is bucking over a half-century of Georgia political history in attempting to regain the governorship after being out of office for four years. As if winning a (currently) crowded Democratic primary, and then overcoming the recent pro-GOP trends in GA weren’t difficult enough, poor Roy is battling the Forces of History.

As is often the case with such precedents, this one doesn’t withstand much examination.

Marvin Griffin’s failed comeback in 1962 had less to do with hostility towards “second acts” than with the fact that it was the first statewide election held after the “one person, one vote” Supreme Court decision in Baker v. Carr, which led to the abolition of Georgia’s county unit system (a heavily rural-slanted and vastly unrepresentative version of the national electoral college). Griffin would have won easily if the old system had remained in place. Ernest Vandiver’s attempted comeback in 1966 was thwarted not by voters, but by his own decision to withdraw from the race for health reasons. Ellis Arnall’s attempted comeback that same year occurred after he had been out of office for twenty years; he lost in no small part because runoff opponent Lester Maddox benefited from a large Republican crossover vote (GOPers back then didn’t do primaries, and Maddox was considered the weakest Democratic candidate). Maddox actually lost the popular vote in the general election, and was elevated to the governorship by the heavily Democratic legislature because neither candidate won a majority; his “comeback” defeat eight years later came as no surprise, particularly since the period of segregationist agitation that made Maddox famous had long since ended.

This leaves just one failed comeback that can plausibly be explained as something other than sui generis: Carl Sanders’ comeback campaign in 1970, when he lost to a guy named Jimmy Carter, a pretty fair country politician.

The “no comeback” hypothesis also ignores GA governors who failed in earlier races and “came back” to claim the governorship. Jimmy Carter finished a close third in the Democratic primary in 1966 (another victim of Republican crossover votes for Maddox), and came back to win in 1970. And Roy Barnes himself finished third in 1990, before coming back in 1998 to win. Looking a bit deeper, you have Zell Miller’s comeback from two losses in U.S. House races in the 1960s and a senatorial defeat in 1980 to win the governorship in 1990, when he defeated Johnny Isakson, who came back to win a U.S. House seat in 1999 and then a Senate seat in 2004. And then, as always, the exception to every “rule” was Lester Maddox, who lost two Atlanta mayoral races and also a runoff for Lieutenant Governor before the legislature awarded him his gubernatorial victory in 1966.

The more you look at it, Georgia political history over the last half-century or so is chock full of comebacks. If Roy Barnes loses in 2010, it won’t be because history dooms his candidacy. And the “no comeback rule” should be definitively dropped from coverage of the campaign.