Georgia was already right on the edge of becoming a major battleground state in 2020. Like Arizona, another potential sunbelt target, it has been slowly but steadily trending Democratic, making it an increasingly plausible presidential prize among the states carried by Donald Trump in 2016. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s impressive 2018 midterm showing was another sign of Georgia’s increasingly purple hue; she also proved you don’t have to run away from the national party’s progressive issue stance to do well in this former Blue Dog bastion. Republican senator David Perdue is up in 2020, and he’s thought to be potentially vulnerable. There are also two highly competitive U.S. House races on tap in north metro Atlanta, where Democrats picked up one seat in 2018 and are aiming for another next year.
Now, veteran Republican senator Johnny Isakson (who has Parkinson’s disease) has announced he will resign his seat at the end of 2019, which means the state will hold a special election in conjunction with the 2020 general election to fill the last two years of his term. That race, along with Atlanta’s status as a regional media center, should guarantee major bipartisan political spending in the state in 2020.
The Republican candidate to succeed Isakson will likely be chosen by Governor Brian Kemp, who will appoint an interim senator when the incumbent steps down at the end of the year. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein reports that a list of familiar statewide GOP pols is likely under consideration for the appointment:
It’s not yet clear who Kemp will appoint to fill Isakson’s seat, though potential candidates include Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, state Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
This last name will surely raise eyebrows. The former governor is the cousin of that other Senator Perdue, and while two Perdues in the Senate would accurately reflect this extended family’s domination of the Georgia GOP, it would be a mite risky, too. This possibility could depend on how badly Sonny wants to get away from the angry farmers he is facing as Agriculture secretary, thanks to his boss’s trade policies. He’s also 72 years of age, a bit long in the tooth for a freshman senator.
The name of a much younger man with impeccable GOP credentials may also eventually come up: Nick Ayers, who, as a college student, was Sonny Perdue’s “body man” during his first gubernatorial bid. Ayers moved on to become a national Republican operative and wunderkind, and was most recently chief of staff to former political client Vice-President Mike Pence. His knack for being in the right place at the right time would certainly be enhanced by a Senate appointment, and he knows how to raise money.
Kemp has a while to ponder his choices, but Democrats looking at a second 2020 Senate race need to get it in gear. The candidate most Democrats in Georgia and across the country would have preferred (for this Senate race, or as a challenger to David Perdue) instantly ruled it out, preempting a world of pressure:
Some Democrats probably won’t give up on Abrams for a while, but it might be time for them to accept that she really doesn’t want to be a U.S. senator (or perhaps she’s decided her best option would be to enter the Senate as its presiding officer should she join a 2020 presidential ticket).
One immediate question is whether any of the three initially viable Democrats who have been considering running against Perdue — former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson (likely the front-runner), outspokenly progressive Clarkston mayor Ted Terry, or 2018 nominee for Lieutenant Governor Sarah Riggs Amico — will switch to the other Senate race. But as Bluestein notes, the prospect of an open seat (or at least one occupied by an appointee) could attract some even more familiar names from the not-so-distant Democratic past:
Among the potential Democratic contenders for the seat are the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church; Jon Ossoff, a former candidate for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District; Jason Carter, the runner-up for governor in 2014; and Michelle Nunn, who was defeated by David Perdue in the 2014 Senate race.
Ossoff, Carter, and Nunn are known as formidable fundraisers, but all lost after stirring up a lot of local and national Democratic excitement.
One important wrinkle about the race to fill Isakson’s seat is that, as a special election, it will not be part of the standard party primaries but a single “jungle primary” on general-election day, followed by what is likely to be a low-turnout runoff in January. So among Democrats in particular, there will be an effort to clear the field to give a single candidate a clear shot at a November win. It could all get crazy.
The impending end of Isakson’s career represents a landmark of its own. Arguably his retirement (along with that of Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander) removes one of the last vestiges of an old-school, moderate southern Republicanism that wasn’t based on racism and didn’t involve snarling partisanship. He’s gone along to get along in the Trump era, but he was increasingly a rather sad figure from an increasingly distant past. You can be sure that whoever the self-styled “politically incorrect conservative” Brian Kemp chooses to replace Isakson will not be his equal in basic decency.