Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur who is the son of former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, became the first Democrat to enter the race for retiring Republican Johnny Isakson’s seat on Thursday with a promise to be a voice for frustrated Georgians.
“I’m running as a fed-up citizen of Georgia and for the fed-up citizens of Georgia,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I feel like I have to get off my butt and do something. I feel this is a calling. The gap between what Georgians want and what Republicans reflect in Georgia is huge.”
A political newcomer, Lieberman said he will advocate for new gun restrictions, push for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, back abortion rights and support a “public option,” which would make a government healthcare plan available as an alternative to private insurance.
He said he expects his father to factor into his campaign as an informal adviser. A four-term Connecticut senator, Joe Lieberman served as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 but was an independent by the end of his political career.
“Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone respected the integrity he had in public life,” said Lieberman. “If people were fans of my dad, maybe they’ll give me an extra hearing. And for people who aren’t fans, I want them to remember we’re different people and to hear me out as well. I’m confident they will. That’s all I can ask for.”
While Lieberman is the lone Democrat running to succeed Isakson, who is retiring at the end of the year, he won’t be the last. About a dozen prominent Democrats are considering a run, including state Sens. Jen Jordan and Nikema Williams, DeKalb chief executive Mike Thurmond and ex-U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver.
Lieberman faces an array of challenges. He has little name recognition, unproven fundraising ability and he won’t have the support of party leaders, who are likely to rally behind someone with a higher public profile and political experience.
Lieberman said he aims to quickly prove he’s a credible contender, and that he’s already assembled a team of media consultants, pollsters and strategists. He said his six-figure campaign account will help him “hit the ground running.”
“Facts on the ground speak louder than anything. All I can do is run the best campaign that I can,” he said. “That ranges from raising money as well as I can to spreading my message and connecting with as many people as I can. The people and politicians will look at that and make their judgments.”
Lieberman had considered joining the four Democrats challenging U.S. Sen. David Perdue, but decided to enter the race for Isakson’s seat after the three-term Republican shocked Georgia’s political world by announcing he would step down in December because of health reasons.
Those dual U.S. Senate races cement Georgia’s status as a 2020 battleground state and could be key to Democratic hopes of erasing the 53-47 GOP edge in the U.S. Senate.
His candidacy also presents a challenge to the party. The race for Isakson’s seat will be a “jungle” special election that will feature candidates from all parties on the same November 2020 ballot – and no party primary to sort out a nominee.
Some Democratic strategists have quietly hoped to settle on one candidate to better the chances of avoiding a January 2021 runoff, since Democrats have long struggled to win those head-to-head matchups. Multiple Democratic candidates could complicate that electoral math.
The biggest unknown is who Lieberman and other Democrats could face. Gov. Brian Kemp has invited the public to apply online to fill Isakson's seat, and so far about 500 candidates have submitted their resumes.
Lieberman joins a long list of Georgia candidates with famed political roots, including the top of the Democratic ticket in 2014: gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter; and Senate contender Michelle Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.
A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, Lieberman was the founder of one of the nation’s first homelessness voucher programs in New Haven and in 2000 was an adviser and surrogate to the Gore-Lieberman campaign. He also advised and campaigned for his father.
He and his family moved to Atlanta in 2005 to serve as the head of a Jewish day school and, two years later, started a group benefits consultant firm and then two tech startups. He wrote a novel in 2018 called “Lucius” focusing on race and friendship in the South.
His campaign also plans to emphasize his role as the single father of two daughters. They are featured prominently in Lieberman's debut video pressing their dad on his policy stances over a pancake breakfast and a ride in their minivan.
“I grew up in a political family and I’ve seen government function up close and personally, I know it doesn’t have to be this way,” Lieberman said. “I know it can be done better, and I want to be a part of that. The first step to achieve that is to flip the Senate.”
Here are excerpts from the AJC interview.
On why he’s running:
I have been in Georgia for 15 years and I’m focused on living my life and minding my business like most citizens do, raising my two daughters and growing my business. But I’m fed up with a government that frankly does nothing, and it’s reached a point of such deep dysfunction that I feel called to serve.
On Trump and GOP policies:
“What pushed me over the edge is a sense that not only do we have a president who will say anything at any time for any hard to discern reason, but we have a Senate that is the most do-nothing Senate in modern political history.”
On his father’s role in the campaign:
“He’s obviously a wise political elder statesman, and he can give me good advice as we go through the campaign. Among my most valued political experiences in my life is how I’ve offered him whatever advice I can through his campaigns, and he can do the same.”
On what he can bring to the table that higher-profile candidates cannot:
“I bring a unique combination of running as an outsider. I’m not a professional politician but I understand politics and will be ready to hit the ground running. I’m also more connected to the frustration we feel toward a government that does nothing.”
On his lack of elected experience:
“When you’re spending a lot of your energy posturing and angling for political position, you might fall out of touch with the original reasons that you were interested in serving the public in the first place. For me, this is, in the purest sense, a call to service. I am completely at peace with the outcome, whatever it will be. I expect to win, but ultimately it’s about speaking to the people and giving them a real choice of something different and something that connects with their frustration and their hopes.”
On his policy stances:
“I’m strongly pro-choice, I’m strongly in favor of gun control, including a ban on assault rifles and universal background checks. I want to expand on the success of Obamacare and include a public option. We need to protect our environment, seize this last moment of opportunity to avoid irreversible damage, and I’m in favor of policies that will get us to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”
On the impeachment of Trump:
“I’m in favor of the impeachment proceeding going forward. If I could wave a magic wand, I would remove him from office. If I were in the Senate, I would presumably vote to remove him from office after hearing the testimony. We can’t have the most powerful person in the world using that power that we have given him for his private political purposes.”
On his elevator pitch to voters:
“I would emphasize how extraordinary it is that the people we’re paying to represent us in the United States Senate don’t even think they’re going to get anything done. We’re paying them to dress up and play senator. And that simply has got to change.”
About the Author
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.