Georgia Democrats maneuver amid awkward Senate waiting game

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor Ebenezer Baptist Church

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor Ebenezer Baptist Church

Four years ago, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta stood before a crowd of 1,000 Democrats at the party's signature fundraiser and gave an "everything but" speech – as in, he did "everything but" announce his bid for a U.S. Senate seat.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock returned to the same stage at the same hotel on Tuesday night to address another crowd of 1,000 partisans amid talk he was again weighing a candidacy for the same seat held by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

This time, though, Georgia Democrats are facing a vastly changed political dynamic. Party leaders aggressively courted Warnock to run in 2016 and wound up turning to a little-known business executive who got clobbered after he decided against it.

This election, though, there’s a crop of ambitious candidates – some younger, some of the more grizzled variety – who are positioning themselves for a 2020 run after Stacey Abrams and other high-profile figures have passed on the race.

You could hardly walk through the cramped hotel floor without spotting them.

There were state Sen. Jen Jordan and DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, chatting in the middle of the crowded ballroom.

Former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver and DeKalb chief executive Michael Thurmond traded notes about their recent trips to Washington to meet with Senate Democratic leaders near the double-doored entryway.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, the chair of the Democratic party, was on massive TV screens and on the stage throughout the chicken dinner. And Warnock revved up the crowd with a fiery invocation after the cocktail hour.

All are possible contenders for the seat to be vacated by Isakson, who is stepping down at year’s end because of health concerns. And none have jumped in the race yet, a surprisingly slow start to a contest that seemed destined to quickly take shape.

“People are being thoughtful regardless of whether it’s a U.S. Senate run or a city council race,” said Liz Flowers, director of the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus. “Democrats have opportunities across the board, and it’s a matter of understanding how we choose the right candidates for the right races.”

A rush of resumes came in shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp, left, announced that he would be accepting applications to fill the U.S. Senate seat that Johnny Isakson will vacate at the end of the year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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No ‘cakewalk’

There are reasons for the limbo. The vote is a “jungle” special election in November 2020 that will lump candidates from all parties on the same ballot, and the Democratic establishment will try to unify behind one party-approved candidate to better the chances of an outright win.

Democrats might also want to wait until Gov. Brian Kemp appoints Isakson's successor before promoting their own candidate who could match up better against his pick. Kemp has doesn't them any favors, taking longer than many Republican officials expected to tap a replacement.

“No one in their right mind would throw their hat in the ring until they know who the Republican will be,” said Ben Myers, the Democratic chair of the 6th Congressional District.

Still, there’s a decided downside to the waiting. October is one of the better fundraising months for political candidates, and it gets incrementally harder to raise cash closer to the holidays.

The uncertainty over who will run for Isakson's seat is complicating the calculus for the four top Democrats competing to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, since some donors and activists are staying on the sidelines waiting for both races to firm up.

And the waiting-game is giving other candidates an opening to enter with or without the party's backing. Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur who is the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, took the political plunge a few weeks ago.

“There’s going to be a Republican in the race that the governor appoints, and there might be another Democrat,” Lieberman said, after mixing with activists near a bank of TV cameras. “I’m not expecting a cakewalk, but I’m doing what a candidate has to do to win.”

‘He sounds like a candidate’

Democratic insiders are split over how soon the race for Isakson will gel. Some were convinced the national Democrats would settle on their man or woman by early November, regardless of whether Kemp had made his pick yet. Others thought it could take longer, maybe into early next year.

Count Warnock as one of the more intriguing possible contenders. The senior shepherd of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic church opted against a 2016 run after sending numerous signals he was leaning toward a campaign.

This time, some operatives are doubtful he’ll run, some believe he can be convinced and see him as a dream candidate – and some would rather focus on a Democrat who doesn’t need to be egged on.

At Tuesday’s event, Warnock tailored his message around a call to “stand up and fight for the soul of our democracy” and an admonition of a president “who is actively courting the support of foreign adversaries.”

“That’s a scandal and a scar on the soul of America,” he said, as many in the crowd nodded in approval.

As soon as he finished, the chatter among tables of Democrats heated up. Texts went flying, some glib and some serious, with the hashtag “#Warnock2020.” And one prominent activist hotfooted to the back of the room to share her instant analysis.

“He sounds like a candidate.”