Chuck Williams

Chuck Williams: An important decision to make

State Sen. Josh McKoon, a Columbus Republican who has gained a statewide reputation for his stands on ethics and religious liberties legislation, faces a career decision he did not see coming a week ago.

And it is an important one.

Thursday afternoon, Congressman Lynn Westmoreland announced he was retiring from the U.S. House of Representatives. Westmoreland's move leaves a vacant seat in Georgia's Third District, where McKoon resides.

Many, including McKoon, were not expecting Westmoreland to walk away from the seat this year.

Westmoreland's surprise announcement could be opportunity knocking for some people. One of those is McKoon. And he is very careful when asked if he is "thinking about" a run for Congress.

"That is a great way to describe it," he said Monday morning before the start of the Georgia legislative session.

He's not in and he's not out, but he is thinking about it. And why wouldn't he?

As the Georgia General Assembly session started Monday, McKoon is one of the most high-profile members. He vows to continue his three-year fight for the state to adopt controversial religious liberty legislation that is favored by many in the right wing of the state Republican party. He is leading a group that has taken a stand against legislation that would allow for sales tax breaks to attract the NFL's Super Bowl to Atlanta's new domed stadium. As he has since he got to the General Assembly, he is pushing ethics reform, this time aimed at lawmakers who help pass legislation then resign and take positions within state government.

Another reason he is considering it is he would likely have a fighting chance to win. The smart money would bet that the person who replaces Westmoreland will come out of the Georgia General Assembly. That is where Westmoreland came from 10 years ago and where McKoon has been the last five years. There are 12 state representatives and six state senators who represent a piece of the Georgia Third. The most formidable of those would likely be Sen. Mike Crane, a Newnan Republican. Crane comes from the

same part of the district that launched Westmoreland.

One thing is almost certain, the person who wins the seat will be a conservative Republican in the same vein as Westmoreland. The district, which stretches from just south of the Atlanta airport to north Columbus, is overwhelmingly white and Republican. It is as close to a Republican lock as you can get.

But the voting power in the district rests in Coweta, Fayette and Carroll counties. And McKoon's district and his residence are on the southern fringe of the district.

Whoever seeks the office is going to have to make a decision quickly. Qualifying is March 7-11, when the General Assembly will likely still be in session. The Republican primary is May 24.

"You can't dilly-dally around," McKoon said.

The downsides are obvious and offer serious challenges for McKoon and others. First, those who know the district say it will take about $500,000 to run a competitive race. That is a lot of money to raise in a short time, Also, if McKoon runs, he would not be able to run for both seats at the same time, thus taking him out of the senate for the next two years.

It will be difficult, but not impossible, for someone from Columbus to get elected in a district that leans heavily toward metro Atlanta.

"I feel like I am fairly familiar to the Republican activists in various parts of the district," McKoon said.

One of the reasons is McKoon works hard. If there is a gathering of two or more Republicans anywhere in the state, he is willing to make the trip. He is well known throughout the state GOP ranks.

Does that translate into a congressional run? Looks like we are about to find out.

Chuck Williams, senior reporter, at chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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