Gender becomes a factor in the sweepstakes to replace Johnny Isakson

1/17/19 - Atlanta - Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones waits for the governor to enter the house chamber.  Gov. Brian Kemp delivered his first state of the state address.   Kemp released his first budget, which is expected to include a $5,000 pay raise for teachers Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
1/17/19 - Atlanta - Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones waits for the governor to enter the house chamber. Gov. Brian Kemp delivered his first state of the state address. Kemp released his first budget, which is expected to include a $5,000 pay raise for teachers Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

There is no way to confirm it, because no Republican would dare admit the possibility, but the U.S. House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump may be having its first impact on political decision-making in Georgia.

On Monday, nearly four weeks after U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., announced his decision to retire on Dec. 31, and two weeks after Gov. Brian Kemp invited all comers to apply for the job, the most powerful woman in the state Capitol submitted her name.

Speaker pro tem Jan Jones of Milton, the No. 2 ranking Republican in the House, is a cautious woman, not known for rushing in where angels fear to tread. Nonetheless, gender and north Fulton geography make her an immediate contender — right up there with U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who has become one of Trump's top defenders in Congress.

Kemp’s pick will become the Senate incumbent on the November 2020 ballot, then — if successful — a top-of-the-ticket companion with the governor in 2022, when a full six-year term is at stake.

Dozens of other candidates have applied, but Jones and Collins share a specific advantage. Both are veterans of the state Capitol and close allies of Speaker David Ralston. Either one could, with Kemp’s blessing, count on a statewide network of Republican legislators for immediate support.

Washington could make the difference.

If the president can fend off charges that he sought political dirt from Ukraine’s president in exchange for $391 million in military aid, Collins would seem a natural choice for Kemp.

If attitudes against impeachment are changing, and early polls indicate this might be the case, then the better pick may be a female appointee who has pledged herself to Trump, but isn’t identified with the president.

“I will work tirelessly as your partner on behalf of all Georgians in support of conservative policies that will bring greater prosperity and opportunity,” Jones wrote in her application letter to the governor.

She has an established relationship with Kemp. In the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Jones was one of several women to play the role of Democrat Stacey Abrams in debate prep sessions staged for the GOP gubernatorial nominee.

Earlier this year, the governor named Jones a co-chair of a commission to combat sex trafficking, along with first lady Marty Kemp and GBI director Vic Reynolds.

And we’re told that Kemp and Jones spoke shortly after Isakson announced his resignation on Aug. 28. The governor’s office confirmed the conversation but could not say who called whom.

Last November, Kemp relied on rural voters for his slim, 55,000-margin victory — an emphasis that conceded voters in the traditional GOP suburbs of north metro Atlanta to Abrams and other Democrats. More than a dozen GOP seats in the Legislature were lost.

President Trump and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., will need those voters to return to the Republican camp next year. Women voters, in particular.

“There’s no question that gender will play a role in those suburbs in the next couple of election cycles,” said Heath Garrett, a longtime Isakson adviser.

“Jan’s an interesting applicant,” he said. “The candidate has to be able to run statewide, but needs to add something to the ticket in 2020 and 2022. You can’t be a dud in rural Georgia, but at the end of the day, Trump, Perdue and Kemp are going to get 100 percent of that vote. They need someone to round them out in the northern suburbs.”

There is the question of whether Jones' strong conservative credentials would appeal to college-educated women in Georgia who are drifting away from the GOP. She supported the anti-abortion "heartbeat" law, signed by Kemp in May, that threatens to end the procedure in Georgia. (In a preliminary ruling on Tuesday, a federal judge blocked implementation of the law.)

Jones also sponsored the 2014 measure that put Medicaid expansion in the hands of the GOP-controlled Legislature rather than the governor.

Yet there is also the fact that, for women, the Republican Party of Georgia has been a difficult place to gain – and keep — a foothold. Jones is one of 14 Republican women in the state House, in a GOP caucus that numbers 105.

By contrast, 43 of 75 Democrats in the House are women.

With the exception of Tricia Pridemore, a member of the state Public Service Commission, every elected constitutional officer in Georgia is a Republican male. Every GOP member of Congress from Georgia has one Y and one X chromosome.

Only in 2017 did Karen Handel, a Roswell neighbor of Jones, become the first Republican woman sent to Washington from Georgia. Handel was defeated by Democrat Lucy McBath last year, and is attempting a 2020 comeback.

Late last month, Handel attended a local event hosted by the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative LGBT group. Remarks she made about the challenges faced by Republican women were recorded and made their way to a Democratic website.

“Women have to be better about being willing to lean over to another woman and straighten up her crown without blasting it to the world that it was crooked in the first place,” Handel said. “We just have to be better, especially in the GOP, about helping to lift one another up.”

Time is one problem for Republican women, Handel implied. “Really, if you think about it in the grand scheme, women are still kind of new. We don’t have as big a network.”

Last year, state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, survived a re-election challenge with fewer than 800 votes to spare. Another close race looms. I asked Cooper what she thought of Jones, her House colleague.

“Jan is extremely smart, and she’s very thoughtful and very thorough when she researches an issue. She doesn’t make rash and quick decisions,” Cooper said. “All of these are traits I think would be beneficial to a U.S. senator.”

Then I asked Cooper if she thought having Jones — a Republican woman from metro Atlanta — at the top of the 2020 ballot might increase her own chances of winning next year. Cooper recoiled.

“I do not want a woman appointed just to appoint a woman. I want the best person for the position to be appointed. But I certainly think we have two or three women, including Jan, who are certainly qualified to hold the position of U.S. senator,” Cooper said.

Yes, diversity for diversity’s sake can annoy the purists. But if women voters are running away from you in droves, maybe a dab of identity politics makes sense.

About the Author