May 18, 2019 Savannah - Governor Brian Kemp speaks during 2019 GAGOP State Convention at Savannah International Trade and Convention Center in Savannah on Saturday, May 18, 2019. More than 1,000 conservative activists gathered Saturday to plot the Georgia GOP's strategy for next year's presidential election and select a new leader who will help steer the party's course. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: The reality TV contest for U.S. Senate in Georgia

We have been unable to confirm that a rose will be involved, but Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday announced what could be construed as the reality TV phase of the race for U.S. Senate in Georgia.

Kemp wants a public application process for those who want the job.

Chances are, Kemp and his advisers already have whittled a list of top contenders for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat down to a handful -- and that the online application process unveiled Tuesday will be largely for show.

But encouraging potential U.S. Senate wannabes to publicly declare their ambition will force some tough decisions on would-be contenders.

For starters, requiring potential appointees to fill out an online application will make those who are not openly jockeying for the post signal their intent if they’re interested -- or remain on the sidelines if not. Which could be part of the strategy.

When he picks Isakson’s replacement, Kemp will make one Republican happy -- and disappoint more than a few others. An open contest could vastly shrink the disappointment pool.

Consider the cases of Attorney General Chris Carr or Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, both newly elected Republican officials who could be seen as overly ambitious ladder-climbers if they openly urge Kemp to appoint them -- only months into their terms.

Or former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, who would be pilloried by her GOP rivals in Georgia’s Sixth District if she publicly angled for a Senate seat while she’s competing for a rematch against Democrat Lucy McBath in 2020.

(We haven’t heard from any of those potential candidates quite yet this morning.)

To further complicate matters, Kemp’s office didn’t announce a deadline when it unveiled the process. That means prospective candidates can’t wait until the last minute to apply -- since Kemp can shut down the applications whenever he wants. 

This is all good news for the handful of Republicans who have made their ambitions clear, notably U.S. Reps. Doug Collins and Tom Graves. It’s murkier for a host of others, particularly those in apolitical gigs like business executive Kelly Loeffler. 

We already have one potential candidate take himself out of consideration: U.S. Attorney BJay Pak texted this morning that he doesn’t plan to apply. “I have a great job here.”

Former congressman Paul Broun confirmed in an interview Wednesday that he planned to apply for the position.

“What I offer the people of Georgia is somebody who has worked very hard to stop out-of-control government, to send powers back to the states and the people and leave money in people’s pockets,” said Broun, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2014. “I think that’s why they voted for President Trump, and I offer them the same kind of candidacy as somebody who’s going to fight for the people.”

Governor Kemp said the goal was to ferret out potential applicants his team might not come up with on their own. “I felt like it was good to have a transparent process. We are in a pretty unique circumstance,” Kemp told WGAU (1340AM) in Athens this morning. Said Kemp:

“We’ve got a deep bench to choose from, a lot of good people I have high regard for and will certainly consider. But there may be others out there that are willing to serve that we haven’t thought of or that bring something different to the table. And I’d just be interested in seeing if there are any of those folks out there and potentially considering them as we go through this process.”

What’s even more intriguing is that the applications will quickly become a public record. Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said the office will publish submissions “as quickly as possible” once cellphones, addresses and other personal data is redacted.

Some Republicans are quietly grumbling about the format, saying it seems too much like a headline-grabbing move, that it opens Kemp to potential embarrassment, and that it confines the “deep, deep bench” Kemp touts to a smaller pool of applicants. 

But others say a more novel approach is needed to help Kemp tap a nominee who could face three separate races over a two year span: A November 2020 contest to fill out the rest of Isakson’s term, a potential January 2021 runoff and a 2022 bid for a full term. 

“If this were a different governor, I’d think it was a savvy public relations stunt,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist and former deputy to Gov. Nathan Deal. “But Gov. Kemp has shown Republicans and Democrats alike that he’s earnest and does what he says he’s going to do - whether they like it or not.”

The reality TV approach also has one other advantage: Because they, too, will be on the Georgia ballot next November, it’s a given that President Trump and the Perdue cousins will have some influence over who replaces Isakson. They have worked in tandem before.

This public selection process would ensure that some of the focus remains on Governor Kemp. And a bit of imitation might flatter that fellow in the White House, who isn’t immune to such blandishments.

One more thought: This process could also discourage a Republican rival from entering the “jungle” primary contest in 2020 -- by posing the question: “If you wanted the job so badly, why didn’t you speak up last year?”

***

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, had one of the more viral moments during Tuesday’s spicy five-hour House Judiciary Committee hearing with Corey Lewandowski, comparing President Trump’s former campaign manager to “a fish being cleaned with a spoon.”

The Democrat also got Lewandowski to admit he went on vacation after Trump told him to pressure then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the scope of the special counsel investigation. “You chickened out,” Johnson told Lewandowski. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, the top Republican on the panel, unsuccessfully used procedural tactics to try and adjourn the hearing. He slammed Democrats for convening what he alleged was a publicity stunt. Democrats are trying to turn the Mueller report into an audiobook, he said, by “talking about things that we’ve been talking about ad nauseum, ad nauseum, ad nauseum.” 

***

Our AJC colleague Ernie Suggs was at the Carter Center last night to witness former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn deliver an annual report on Carter Center doings.

Carter took aim at President Donald Trump, calling him “a disaster” – but the former president also outlined how his Atlanta-based center will operate once he’s gone.

The Associated Press took a different tack on Carter’s remarks – with the 2020 Democratic presidential contest in mind:

Weeks shy of his 95th birthday, former President Jimmy Carter said he doesn’t believe he could have managed the most powerful office in the world at 80 years old.

Carter, who earlier this year became the longest-lived chief executive in American history, didn’t tie his comments to any of his fellow Democrats running for president in 2020, but two leading candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, would turn 80 during their terms if elected.

Biden is 76. Sanders is 78. [Republican incumbent Donald Trump turned 73 in June.]

“I hope there’s an age limit,” Carter said with a laugh as he answered audience questions on Tuesday during his annual report at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “If I were just 80 years old, if I was 15 years younger, I don’t believe I could undertake the duties I experienced when I was president.”

***

Earlier this week, Attorney General Chris Carr announced that Georgia will join in a $10 billion deal with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma for its role in the current opioid crisis. These are two highly important paragraphs contained in a follow-up by our AJC colleague Ariel Hart:

“I want to see it used for recovery programs across our state. And I think there should be tight oversight to make sure that that’s done,” said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, the chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Like others, she cited the example of the nationwide tobacco settlement of 1998, when tobacco companies — who did not declare bankruptcy — agreed to pay more than $200 billion to states and programs. Much of that money wound up funding general state services. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids ranks Georgia among the lowest states for spending of its tobacco money on smoking cessation programs recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

***

Religious News Service has taken a keen interest in Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico’s faith-based campaign for U.S. Senate. A taste:

Centering her left-leaning political message on faith is a bold strategy that experts say is not only attracting accolades from liberals and conservatives alike, but also hinting at a new faith-fueled trend among Democrats running for office in the Deep South.

“I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state, but if you’re going to bring your faith to the forefront, I think we need to remember who Christ was,” Amico [said].

“This was a brown-skinned Jewish refugee and a wrongly convicted death-row inmate who told people to give away their possessions and help the poor and ministered specifically to the marginalized … bringing people together, not ripping them apart.”

***

Need more evidence that Democrats in ruby-red parts of Georgia are energized? Than look no further than Clarkesville, a rural north Georgia town in solid GOP territory where Stacey Abrams drew hundreds on Tuesday evening. Clarksville is a mere 30 miles or so from Dahlonega, where that rally organized by white supremacists was held on Saturday.

***

“I’d rather scratch my eyeballs [out].” That’s just one of the colorful assessments GOP senators gave to the National Journal, when asked if they might want to replace Johnny Isakson as chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee.

The assignment, made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is known as one of the chamber’s most delicate and undesirable, since it requires you to quietly investigate complaints against colleagues without any of the public glory – or potential donors – that every other committee chairmanship brings.

National Journal’s assessment of Isakson’s five-year tenure atop the panel:

Isakson’s time as chairman has been quiet, with the notable exception of an admonishment of Sen. Bob Menendez last year after a jury failed to convict the New Jersey Democrat on charges of accepting undisclosed gifts from a benefactor and then working to advance his interests.

Of the 380 complaints of Senate rules violations the committee received over the first four years of Isakson’s five-year tenure, committee staff conducted preliminary inquiries only 10 percent of the time. That includes an early investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against former Sen. Al Franken before he resigned.

***

Speaking of Johnny Isakson, by now he must be feeling a bit like Tom Sawyer, the boy whom Mark Twain had witness what was said about him at his own funeral. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. David Perdue paid tribute to his departing colleague in a speech on the Senate floor. Watch the entire address here. A taste:

“As he and Dianne head into this next chapter of their life, I have no doubt that Johnny will continue to serve others and help make our world a better place because that's exactly who he is. Scripture tells us in Matthew 23 that ‘the greatest among you will be a servant.’ When you consider all that Johnny has done, it's clear to me that Johnny Isakson truly is the greatest among us.”

 ***

The House unanimously passed a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, on Tuesday that would offer incentives for the installation of carbon monoxide alarms in schools, public buildings and the homes of low-income and elderly people

***

In a remembrance of the late Cokie Roberts, the ABC and NPR veteran who died this week of complications from breast cancer, our WSB Radio colleague Jamie Dupree had this:

While many knew that Cokie was married to veteran political reporter Steve Roberts, her experience in politics came directly from her family. Both of her parents were members of the U.S. House.

Her father, Hale Boggs, might have been speaker of the House, but a plane he was traveling on in Alaska -- disappeared 47 years ago next month -- and was never found.

Also aboard was U.S. Rep. Nick Begich of Alaska. His son, Mark Begich, would later serve in the U.S. Senate.

When the plane carrying Begich and Boggs disappeared on October 16, 1972, Boggs was House majority leader. Once presumed dead, Democrats in the House elected U.S. Rep. Tip O'Neill (D-MA) to be the new majority leader.

O'Neill would later succeed Rep. Carl Albert (D-OK) as House Speaker.

Boggs was succeeded in his House seat by his wife, Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-LA), the first woman ever elected to Congress from Louisiana.

Lindy Boggs retired after the 1990 elections.

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