Voters cast their ballots in Georgia's 6th Congressional District special election at a polling site in Sandy Springs, Ga., Tuesday, June 20, 2017. The most expensive House race in U.S. history heads to voters Tuesday in suburban Atlanta. Either Republican Karen Handel will claim a seat that's been in her party's hands since 1979 or Democrat Jon Ossoff will manage an upset that will rattle Washington ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Photo: David Goldman/AP
Photo: David Goldman/AP

Proceed with caution: Ballot-building underway in Georgia

Ballot-building, the effort to construct a slate of candidates most appealing to a specific crowd of voters, is an enterprise fraught with peril.

Yet this is currently the chief activity of both Democrats and Republicans in Georgia, all with an eye toward November 2020. Advice from Washington — of the highest quality and entirely welcomed, without a doubt — is cascading in torrents down to each side.

The law of unintended consequences looms large in ballot-building. When done badly, it can resemble a game of Jenga. So the fewer decisions, the better – which gives Republicans the advantage.

The Georgia GOP knows that President Donald Trump, regardless of any damage that four primary challengers do to him in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond, will be at the top of its ticket next year.

Incumbent David Perdue, seeking a second term in the U.S. Senate, will be right under him. The only question is who will be named by Gov. Brian Kemp to replace Johnny Isakson. The U.S. senator intends to resign effective Dec. 31.

The appointee will become the incumbent in a special nonpartisan election, also to be held on Nov. 3, 2020. Constitutionally, the selection belongs to Kemp. But don’t kid yourself. Whoever the governor chooses will already have the Donald Trump seal of approval.

“The partner that I want is someone who can take this fight passionately to the voters,” Senator Perdue said in a radio interview this week.

Consider that a strong hint that the search is on for a fierce, Trumpian campaigner who might allow Perdue to turn a friendlier face toward north metro Atlanta – suburban territory that Republicans sacrificed last year to push Kemp across the finish line in the race for governor.

When it comes to ballot-building, Georgia Democrats are in another world entirely. Former Vice President Joe Biden is a favorite but has no firm lock on a presidential nomination contest still five months away from a first vote.

Which complicates the dynamics of Senate Race No. 1 (the Perdue seat) and Senate Race No. 2 (the Isakson seat).

There exists a Democratic dream ticket that could clear the field in both Senate races: Sally Yates, the former deputy U.S. attorney general quickly fired by President Trump after warning the White House that a top aide had been compromised; and Democrat Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for governor.

Both women have said they’re not interested. Though, curiously, it is only Abrams who has been on the receiving end of Washington criticism for declining the fight.

Until Monday, Senate Race No. 1 had three Democratic candidates: Former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson; Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry; and Sara Riggs Amico, the former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

Then Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who lost that very expensive Sixth District contest to Republican Karen Handel in 2017, became the fourth Democrat in Senate Race No. 1.

Another sign of a fluid situation: U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, is also considering a U.S. Senate run. But whether she would run in the No. 1 or No. 2 contest, her advisors won’t say.

In other words, more than two weeks after Isakson announced his pending resignation, no Democrat has committed to the contest that will replace him.

“Senate Race No. 1 has sucked all the oxygen out of the conversation,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, the senior-most Democrat in the state Legislature. He was in Washington when we caught up with him.

Governor Kemp bears some responsibility. Until he names Isakson’s immediate successor, Democrats can’t know who the best candidate of contrast might be.

But a larger, more delicate problem looms for Democrats. Let us suppose Biden wins the presidential nomination. Unless he picks a Kamala Harris, Cory Booker or some other running mate of color, it will be important to have an African-American near the top of the Georgia ticket.

Two years after the gains made during Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign, the absence would be obvious – and potentially dispiriting.

Four white progressive Democrats are now in Senate Race No. 1. That would argue for an African-American emphasis in Race No. 2 – perhaps DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, or DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston, or McBath.

Here’s the rub: There’s a reason that all the announced candidates are in Race No. 1. It may be the easier one to win. Yes, there’s a Republican incumbent. But a Democratic primary in May will give the eventual nominee considerable exposure. A post-November runoff isn’t impossible if there’s a Libertarian candidate, but it’s unlikely. And if you win, you don’t have to run again for six years.

Race No. 2 will be a special election to fill the final two years of Isakson’s term. The Nov. 3 vote – the very first balloting in the contest — could feature a dozen candidates of both parties or no party, trying to be heard over the roar of a presidential contest.

A Jan. 5 runoff is likely. If so, the outcome could be a first backlash to the result of the 2020 presidential contest. Should Trump lose, Georgia Republicans will be out for blood. And vice versa if Democrats lose. In that situation, neither candidate in a Senate Race No. 2 runoff would have much control over his or her own fate.

Then, even if you win, you get to do it all over again in 2022.

All that aside, an economy of scale now puts Georgia in play: A presidential race and two U.S. Senate contests is a three-fer that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee can’t ignore. It will most likely play a larger role in fielding a candidate for Senate Race No. 2.

Already, we’re told that several potential candidates have gone before an ad hoc committee of state and national operatives.

The objective is to avoid a Jan. 5, 2021 runoff by naming a single candidate, backed by endorsements by the DSCC and Georgia leaders such as Abrams.  

Much diplomacy and hard promises of financial support will be required to delicately pull a single candidate from the middle of the stack and place him or her near the top – without bringing the entire slate tumbling down.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.