ATLANTA --- Georgia's representation in Washington could be different if the polls predicting a Democratic rout hold true.
Most observers point to two districts as possible GOP upsets, Rep. Sanford Bishop's 2nd District centered on Albany and Rep. Jim Marshall's 8th District centered on Macon. Other Georgia Democrats are facing serious challengers, including Rep. John Barrow of Savannah and Rep. Hank Johnson of Decatur, but they seem safer so far.
Much of the outcome depends on turnout. If Republicans become overconfident and stay home, then incumbents will be safer. If the voter anger remains intense with heavy turnout, then even some of the safer seats could change hands.
Several factors are combining to make Marshall and Bishop nervous. Besides facing a powerful anti-incumbent, anti-Democrat tide, the two moderates have credible challengers coming out of the state House of Representatives.
Republican control of the legislature has transformed it into a GOP "farm system" similar to how major-league baseball teams rely on their minor-league affiliates to train up-and-comers, notes Ralph Reed, a political advisor to Republicans and former state party chairman.
"These are better candidates. They are smarter. They are tougher," he said.
State Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton not only spent years rising through the ranks of the legislature, he also started the 2010 election season campaigning for governor before he changed his target right before the candidate-qualifying period. A governor's race exposed him to more scrutiny from the press and more barbs from the seven others seeking the nomination at the time, sharpening his skills in the mean time.
Scott is very conservative, but he was also the lone Republican willing to stand up in support of reducing the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag when then-Roy Barnes proposed it. That is indicative of a stubborn streak of independence which has sometimes been a thorn under Gov. Sonny Perdue's saddle, especially from his post on the House Appropriations Committee.
Marshall hasn't followed his party in lock step either. For example, he voted against the unpopular federal health reform and has generally followed the path of a moderate.
In a district that evenly divided politically, he has little choice, according to former Congressman Buddy Darden, D-Marietta.
"I keep telling Democrats in Washington that Jim Marshall is the only Democrat who can win there, so they'd better be happy with him, even if he doesn't support the party on many votes," Darden said. "The fact that Jim survives is remarkable."
However, he did vote to make Nancy Pelosi House speaker, and he cast another "aye" for the president's stimulus package, two positions hard to defend this year, according to Reed.
"I would be very surprised if he goes back to Washington," Reed said.
Marshall has had some close calls in previous midterm elections when Democratic turnout is usually weak, notes Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia.
On the other hand, Bishop hasn't had many scares.
"It looked like it was a safe Democratic district," Bullock said.
Bishop is trying to fend off a challenge from another state legislator, Mike Keown of Coolidge, which is between Thomasville and Moultrie. Keown, a Baptist pastor and one-time prison official, has less legislative experience than Scott, but he's getting a boost from two scandals involving Bishop.
One was sparked by an angry message Bishop's aide left on the answering machine of a farmer vowing never to help the man. By the time talk radio grew tired of replaying the message, reports surfaced that Bishop had steered scholarships to relatives which were intended to help the needy.
The heart of his troubles, though, is his support for health reform, which polls show fewer than one in three Georgians support.
"If Sanford Bishop loses, it can be attributed to a vote for Obama healthcare," Bullock said.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is reportedly diverting more than $140,000 from swing districts to Bishop's race.
The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, calls that a sign of how worried Democrats are by having to defend members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
"When you're having to go support your CBC members, which you've never had to do, that should show you how deep this is," Sessions told Congressional Quarterly Thursday. "... I think it is an indication that they are seeing poll numbers and the turnout models that are happening where they are in trouble across the country."
The defeat of Marshall and Bishop would change the makeup of the state's congressional delegation from a nearly even split of seven Republicans and six Democrats to 9-4. It may coincide with a GOP sweep of statewide offices, placing Georgia solidly in the "red state" category.
Both districts will have to take in more territory next year when the legislature redraws the district maps, making it easier to find more Republican voters that could safeguard against future swings back into Democratic hands.
(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com or (404) 589-8424.)