I don’t know what it is about my home state of Georgia. In recent decades, it has produced more than its share of unusual political figures.
There was Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer who came out of nowhere to be elected president in 1976. Then there was Newt Gingrich, the wonky right-wing tactician who improbably stood athwart Washington for a brief time in the mid-1990s. Then there was Zell Miller, the populist Democratic governor and senator who morphed into George W. Bush’s attack dog in 2004.
This year Americans are being treated to the antics of not one but two former Georgia members of Congress who are heading up fringe-party presidential candidacies: Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr and Cynthia McKinney, the odds-on favorite to win the Green Party nomination this weekend in Chicago.
Barr and McKinney have long had parallel careers. Both were elected to the U.S. House in the early 1990s (McKinney in 1992, Barr in 1994), and quickly became known in Washington as ideological firebrands. Both lost their seats in primaries the same day in 2002 after many constituents got tired of their acts (Barr’s loss to colleague John Linder was aided by gerrymandering).
Barr went on to a media career. McKinney managed to regain her House seat in 2004 when her vanquisher, Denise Majette, unexpectedly launched a quixotic Senate campaign, but then promptly lost it again to Hank Johnson in a primary in 2006.
Both Barr and McKinney developed a reputation for zaniness. During his 2002 campaign, Barr somehow discharged a firearm in a meeting with gun rights advocates (no one, fortunately, was hurt). McKinney’s long habit of confrontational behavior finally got her into trouble in an altercation with a House security guard that contributed to her 2006 defeat.
But both these Georgians have to be given credit for political survival skills. Barr managed his semihostile takeover of the Libertarians rather adroitly; the onetime ally of the Christian right confessed a hitherto-unknown devotion to the philosophy of hyper-atheist Ayn Rand. And McKinney’s worldview, including a distinct taste for conspiracy theories, is not a bad fit for the Greens in their current state.
Barr could actually be a factor in some close states; McKinney, probably not so much. But as a Georgian, I’m pleased the Peach State is continuing its tradition of offering up some of its odder sons and daughters to national politics.