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Should ‘incumbent protection’ help Dems defeat other Dems?



Aug. 2, 2010 — Literature denouncing candidate Graham Balch greeted voters as they opened their mailboxes in recent weeks in Georgia’s 39th Senate District.

Voters were told Balch is a Republican, that he called Atlanta’s Grady High a “ghetto” school and deserved an “F” for his positions on education. Tactics like these are common, if not predictable, before a contested election.

The difference: Balch ran as a Democrat, and a state Democratic organization paid for the attack ads.

Incumbent Sen. Vincent Fort swamped Balch by a 2-1 margin in the July 20 primary. Balch now says he feels betrayed by party leaders whose bylaws prohibit endorsements of one Democrat over another.

“This is not helping our party be a stronger party,” Balch said. “The best person should be allowed to represent the Democratic Party.” Fort said Balch — and an independent committee that supports school vouchers — forced his hand by sending negative mailings about him.

“I didn’t think that was a smart idea to have a unilateral armistice and let him tell lies about me,” Fort said. “I thought it was necessary to tell the truth about him.”

Fort and party officials say no bylaws were broken because the Senate Democratic Caucus, not the state Democratic Party, paid for the mailings. The caucus is legally a part of the party, officials say, but it operates independently.

Campaign finance records filed with the State Ethics Commission make no such distinction, though. Party officials say the commission told them in 2007 to report the caucus’ spending on the party’s reports to avoid confusion.

So, the party’s July 8 disclosure itemized payments for three mailings in June with no mention of the caucus’ involvement. (The mailings’ fine print said the Senate Majority Fund, “a project of the Democratic Party of Georgia,” paid the costs, and they give the party’s headquarters as the return address. Again, the word “caucus” never appears.)

Regardless of who paid, statutory limits on campaign contributions still apply for spending on behalf of a single candidate. In a legislative primary, the limit is $2,400.

But the party may spend an unlimited amount to support a slate of candidates. In the Senate race, the party spent $35,000-plus on mailings backing a “slate” of Fort and Rep. Kathy Ashe.

Not only was Ashe unchallenged in her race, she was running for re-election to the House, not the Senate.

So why was the Senate Majority Fund promoting an unopposed House member? If you think the Democrats were trying to sneak around contribution limits, you’re wrong, said Michael Jablonski, the party’s general counsel.

The Democrats are advertising candidates outside their districts to build name recognition for those who might run for higher office one day, Jablonski said.

“We want people in South Georgia to hear the name Kathy Ashe so if she decided to run statewide, they would already have heard the name,” he said. Lifting the limit on campaign contributions, he agreed, is a side benefit.

Sen. Robert Brown of Macon, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said the caucus stepped up for Fort as part of an “incumbent protection” policy adopted after the GOP took control of the Senate in 2003.

“In selected races where we determine there may be some chance we might lose a member, we intervene,” he said.

This year, that meant protecting incumbent senators not just from Republicans, but from fellow Democrats as well. The caucus also helped Sens. Donzella James and Valencia Seay, who both defeated two Democratic opponents last month, with technical assistance and campaign appearances, Brown said.

To Balch, regardless of the funding source, voters who received the mailings about him thought the Democratic Party was officially backing Fort in the primary.

“They violated their bylaws to help an incumbent because they have an incumbent protection policy,” he said. “Americans don’t want an incumbent protection policy. Americans want democracy.”





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3 Responses to “Should ‘incumbent protection’ help Dems defeat other Dems?”

  1. tom watson says:

    If dem machine was as efficient as some local GOP machines, they sure as heck wouldn’t let a challenger sign up against the anointed candidate. They’d settle that mess internally.

    “I don’t belong to an organized party — I’m a Democrat!”

  2. Deb A says:

    Tom, I disagree. And I don’t want a “machine”. If a Democrat in a district thinks she/he can do it better than the current person, they SHOULD run, and the “good old boy” network shouldn’t keep that from happening. Balch had alot of support, that tells you that not everyone was/is happy with Fort. While Fort got 2/3s of the vote, Balch got 1/3, which for a new comer with no name recognition at the start is pretty darn good and shows that alot of folks weren’t happy with their current representation. Plus competition keeps the incumbents honest. The party should have stayed neutral. They didn’t. Which is why I will never give them a dime.

  3. Concerned says:

    You should talk to Mary Norwood. The Dems did the exact tactic to her during the Mayoral Race. They just took the Norwood ad and changed her picture with Balch picture. The two should get together and stop this machine. Unless we vote them out it will never happen. And it is people like you that must educate the public so they can change what is going on.