An inside look: Who could seek Johnny Isakson’s seat in 2020

Thursday, August 29, 2019 @ 6:00 AM
By Greg Bluestein

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s decision to retire at the end of the year paves the way for two separate U.S. Senate elections in 2020 – and two separate battles over who should replace the third-term Republican. 

The first will involve quiet jockeying to sway Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who will soon tap someone to fill out the next year of Isakson’s term. Already, Republicans are making behind-the-scenes moves to position themselves for an appointment – or rule themselves out. 

The second will be a much noisier Democratic race to fill the seat. Three Democrats have already launched challenges to U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is seeking a second term next year, and the list of potential candidates for Isakson’s seat is growing.

It’s likely to be Kemp’s most important political decision of the year – maybe of his first term. It’s also one of his most complex. Not only will his pick share the ballot with President Donald Trump and Perdue in 2020, he or she would also be on the same ticket with Kemp in 2022 if Republicans hold the seat.

The outcome has vast implications. Democrats already consider Georgia a must-win to flip control of the Senate, where Republicans have a 53-47 edge. A second Senate race will only mean more attention and money focused on Georgia. 

» MoreIsakson’s retirement makes Georgia ‘ground zero’ for politics in 2020

» Photos: Johnny Isakson through the years 

» Timeline: Key moments in Johnny Isakson’s public life 

» Related: How will U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s replacement be chosen? 

“Georgia is now ground zero in national politics and there’s no doubt about it,” said Chip Lake, a veteran Republican strategist and adviser to Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. “How often can we say we’re the center of the political universe? Well, right now we are.” 

The governor was succinct when asked Wednesday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution what qualities he’s seeking in a candidate for Isakson’s successor: “Somebody who is going to represent our values in the state, that’s going to fight for us, fight for Georgians in the U.S. Senate.” 

Kemp’s advisers say they are starting from square one and that they won’t be beholden to anyone from his 2018 campaign. That’s important because he picked up several key endorsements, most notably Trump’s support at the behest of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

He’ll be among the candidates rumored for the job, as will other high-profile Republican officials: Attorney General Chris Carr, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and U.S. Reps. Doug Collins and Drew Ferguson. 

But Kemp seems just as likely to select a Republican who doesn’t fit the traditional Georgia GOP mold. 

The governor has already surprised critics with his early appointments, including his pick of acting Insurance Commissioner John King, a low-profile local police chief who became the state’s first Hispanic constitutional officer. He’s also made a string of diverse, history-making selections for judicial posts.

State Republicans were clobbered in the Atlanta suburbs the last two elections, suffering a defection of suburban white women. He might aim for an outsider candidate – or at least a lesser-known figure – who can appeal to suburbanites, women or minorities. 

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Crowded contest

He’ll have to weigh a range of other fraught considerations. Because a special election will determine who serves the final two years of Isakson’s term, there won’t be a party primary to hash out a nominee. Instead, candidates from all political parties will share the same November ballot. That also means far higher turnout – and far more unpredictability. 

Whoever Kemp picks will have to scare off – or fend off – rival Republicans in the free-for-all contest. He’ll also seek someone who can raise campaign cash and unite the GOP base against Democrats who see Georgia as a swing state. 

The format of the race could be an opening for Democrats squeamish about challenging Perdue, a formidable fundraiser and Trump ally, but more willing to take their chances against a GOP appointee. 

More moderate Democrats who wouldn’t stand a chance in a party primary also might figure they have a better shot with a broader November electorate. 

It’s likely to be a jumbled race no matter what. The last federal special election in Georgia was the 2017 contest for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, when 18 candidates competed to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Price. That contest, won by Republican Karen Handel, was the most expensive U.S. House race in history. 

And only a few top potential candidates have ruled out a race, among them Stacey Abrams, who seems likely to position herself for a 2022 rematch against Kemp; and Nick Ayers, a former top aide to Vice President Mike Pence who will stay in the private sector.

Meanwhile, the list of potential candidates who are credible contenders for the seat is only growing. And the maneuvering is well underway. 

Here’s a look at some of the candidates who could emerge.

 

Republicans:

Photo: David Barnes/DAVID BARNES / AJC

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr

Carr might as well be a member of Isakson’s family. He was Isakson’s top aide before he became Georgia’s economic development commissioner, and he’s married to the senator’s current chief of staff. He’s fresh off a close election victory to win a full term in 2018. He’s said to be not actively campaigning for the role.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins

The charismatic congressman from Gainesville has emerged as a hero to Trump supporters because of his sharp defense of the president in Congressional hearings. The ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Collins represents the most conservative district in Georgia and is a robust fundraiser with close ties to the White House and the Perdue family. Collins has applied for the role.

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan

The former Georgia Tech baseball star waged a longshot bid for lieutenant governor last year – and scored an upset victory over the Republican favorite before a narrow general election victory. Since then, he’s emerged as a staunch Kemp ally, and their partnership shaped the legislative session. 

Photo: Greg Bluestein/Political Insider

U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson

A rising star in Georgia’s congressional ranks, Ferguson won a senior spot in House GOP leadership last year and is seen as one of the state’s most ambitious and energetic politicians. 

Photo: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves

The former state lawmaker is the senior-most Republican in the Georgia delegation, and he’s transformed his reputation from a rabble-rousing bomb thrower to a more pragmatic politician who has become one of the state’s more powerful politicians. 

Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel

Handel might have one of the best-known Republican names in Georgia. She served as secretary of state and then ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 and U.S. Senate in 2014. Her political comeback came in 2017 when she won the nationally-watched 6th District special election, a seat she lost last year to Democrat Lucy McBath. She’s angling for a rematch, but people close to her say she wouldn’t rule out a Senate bid. 

Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones

One of the most powerful Republicans in the Georgia House, the Milton lawmaker is an influential, if sometimes under-the-radar, force in every major legislative decision under the Gold Dome. First elected in 2002, Jones has cultivated a broad base of support across the Atlanta suburbs. She has applied for the role.

Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com


Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston

The ex-Savannah congressman was the runner-up to Perdue in the 2014 GOP runoff, and has transformed himself into a cable TV pundit - and defender of Trump - since his defeat. He’d focus a campaign on his grassroots organization skills and ties to Trump; he’d get dinged for his recent lobbyist work

About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.