State Rep. Earl Erhart is retiring after three decades in the Georgia House. His wife, Ginny, is seeking his seat. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Qualifying in Georgia opens with a few surprises

Former state Superintendent John Barge is making a comeback bid. The longest-serving Republican in the Georgia House is stepping down. And his wife is running for his seat.

Those were among the surprising developments Monday for the start of the qualifying in Georgia, a weeklong period that will draw hundreds of candidates for legislative races and statewide offices to the state Capitol.

The Gold Dome was abuzz Monday with contenders filing paperwork for seeking office, with each party staking out office space on opposite sides of the Capitol Rotunda for their candidates. Long lines snaked out from each as qualifying opened early Monday.

Democrats hope to capitalize on frustration with President Donald Trump and upset victories in last year’s special elections to chip away at GOP control of the state Legislature and every statewide office. The party expects a wave of first-time candidates to compete for seats in the Atlanta suburbs and other competitive areas.

The GOP is trying to defend vulnerable seats by fortifying incumbents with more campaign cash — Vice President Mike Pence is raising funds for the state party this month in Atlanta — and is aiming to retake a trio of legislative seats that Democrats flipped last year.

Many incumbents rushed to file paperwork, wary of leaving any opening for an opponent. Among them were much of the congressional delegation, including U.S. Reps. Sanford Bishop, Doug Collins, Karen Handel, Jody Hice, Hank Johnson and John Lewis.

And many candidates for higher office wasted no time in filing. Republican Hunter Hill, a former state senator running for governor, arrived at the Capitol with his wife and a group of supporters and campaign aides. Former Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans qualified later Monday.

“It kind of feels like preseason is over and we can start the real game now,” Republican state Rep. Buzz Brockway said shortly after he filed to run for secretary of state. “This is a new phase.”

There was little shake-up in the crowded races for governor and most other statewide offices, which started taking shape last year. But further down the ticket, a handful of high-profile decisions could spice up those races.

Barge showed up at the Capitol with no fanfare to reclaim his former office.

He made a stunning decision in 2014 to challenge Gov. Nathan Deal in the GOP primary, and he took a job running the school system in coastal McIntosh County after he was easily defeated. Barge is leaving that job after increasing tensions with the school board, and on Monday he stood in line beside the incumbent, Superintendent Richard Woods, as he filed his paperwork.

The biggest development, though, may have come in the Georgia House. State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a conservative and sometimes controversial voice for Cobb County, is retiring after three decades in the Legislature. His wife, Ginny, is running to replace him.

Ehrhart, who once was chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, now leads the appropriations panel that handles funding for higher education. He’s been referred to as the 20th regent — as in the University System Board of Regents — because of his frequent involvement in college issues.

Loved by conservatives and often loathed by liberals, Ehrhart has been outspoken on a host of system issues — such as campus rape and freedom of speech — and he has regularly used his political power to influence policies at Georgia’s colleges and universities.

Shortly after he broke the news about his resignation, word spread that his wife, Ginny Wahlbom Ehrhart, will seek the same seat. A chef and author of two cookbooks, Ginny Ehrhart hosts a weekly lifestyle show and is an advocate for domestic violence victims.

She won’t have an easy path to the Legislature. While her husband was rarely challenged over decades in state office, she is already facing a contender. Democrat Jen Slipakoff has prepared for months to run for the conservative-leaning seat based in Powder Springs.

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