Race looks tough for Isakson's competitors

As Washington incumbents who are up for re-election across the country quake before voter insurrections, Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson is sitting pretty -- if you believe the pundits and the polls.

Spoiler alert: Democrat Michael Thurmond and Libertarian Chuck Donovan, who are after that Senate seat, say they don’t.

Isakson isn’t taking anything for granted. One thing he agrees on with his challengers: Polls don't vote, voters do.

"There's only one poll that matters," Isakson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "and it's on Nov. 2."

To those who do put stock in polls, the story is stark in the race between Isakson, whose experience includes work as a real estate executive, Georgia legislator and member of the U.S. House; Thurmond, the state's labor commissioner and also a former legislator; and Donovan, an airline pilot and former Marine fighter pilot. With four weeks to go before the election, Isakson’s position is an indicator of his own personal popularity as well as the Republican Party's standing in Georgia.

“This year the Georgia Republicans look like they’re in a position to do the best in statewide elections than in years, with the one exception of the governor’s race,” said Merle Black, an Emory professor and expert on politics and Republicans.

Kerwin Swint, a professor of politics at Kennesaw State University, is an expert on negative campaigning. He hasn't seen much of that in the Senate race -- or much of anything else in the contest, he said.

"It’s sort of the forgotten race," Swint said. "No one’s really paying attention to it because it seems like it’s been over for so very long."

In August, CQ Politics declared Isakson’s seat “safe.”

A poll last month by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia Newspaper Partnership, concluded that Isakson was leading Thurmond 52 percent to 33 percent.

A Sept. 21 Rasmussen Reports poll found Isakson still with 52 percent to 36 percent for Thurmond and 5 percent for Donovan. Six percent were undecided, with 1 percent going for some other candidate. Both Isakson’s and Thurmond’s percentages had sunk a bit since Rasmussen’s August poll, which didn’t include Donovan.

A Sept. 27 Insider Advantage/WSB poll found Isakson even stronger, with 61 percent to 29 percent for Thurmond and 3 percent for Donovan.

And then there is the eye-popping difference in cash, the engine of campaigns and an indicator of how many people think a candidate is good enough and strong enough to financially back.

As of the June 30 federal reporting deadline, Isakson had $4.9 million in campaign funds, while Thurmond had $101,204. Donovan didn’t have enough to make the $5,000 reporting threshold, he said. He’s better off now, he added.

Thurmond noted that he couldn't raise money while the Georgia Legislature was in session, giving him only a few weeks to put that sum together since he only announced his intention to run in April. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not yet contributed anything to him, he said.

Between Jan. 1, 2009, and June 30 of this year, Isakson’s campaign spent $2.1 million, while Thurmond spent $21,165, according to the Federal Election Commission.

None of that accounts for the excitement Thurmond and Donovan have seen talking to voters, they said. They say independents and Democrats will turn out for them in ways the pollsters are missing.

Thurmond points out that he has won statewide election as the state's labor commissioner three times. He recently won national notice in Newsweek and on ABC's "World News with Diane Sawyer" for the "Georgia Works" program to help out-of-work people get hired. And he, like Donovan, is running against Washington. The closest Thurmond came in an interview to criticizing Isakson is saying Washington has been overcome with partisanship and special interests and "I think he might have become a victim of that if anything."

"The polls in midterm elections always deal with likely voters, not registered voters," which may not give an accurate picture of the eventual turnout, Thurmond said. "It’s almost as if there’s this desire, a need, a fixation with concluding the election before it’s even held."

All three candidates agreed that jobs and the economy are issue No. 1.

If social issues were higher on the agenda, Donovan's reluctant stance "for now" in favor of abortion rights might be a hard sell with some conservatives.  Thurmond says abortion should be "rare and safe."

Donovan has tried to paint Isakson as “posturing” as a fiscal conservative. He brings up Isakson's 2008 vote for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program and other votes.

Indeed, Isakson is known not as a grenade-throwing populist, but as a negotiator with Democrats on issues from immigration to education. He won praise in 2005 for the amount of federal tax dollars he brought to Georgia in the last major multiyear transportation bill, loaded with the famous 6,000 earmarks, and he spoke in favor of government funding for high-speed rail infrastructure. (He voted against President Barack Obama's stimulus package, which included $8 billion for high-speed rail.)

“Johnny’s posturing as a fiscally responsible small-government free-market type,” Donovan said. “His record shows quite the opposite.”

However, Isakson had no opposition in the Republican primary. “His overall voting record is quite satisfactory to Georgia conservatives,” Black said.

"I think he’s been trying to make amends for some of those votes," said Debbie Dooley of Dacula, who co-founded the Atlanta Tea Party. "He’s made it loud and clear he hears the tea party message."

Some tea party voters may prefer Donovan but fear that a vote for him would only strengthen Thurmond, Dooley said. However, she believes the majority of the people she has spoken to will vote for Isakson on the merits. And if he wins, they will "absolutely" be watching to see that he meets their expectations.

"If the conservatives take control of Washington, of Congress, our job is just beginning," Dooley said. "... We want to make sure they don’t go back to the way they were before with some of these bills."

Candidates' biographies

John Hardy "Johnny" Isakson

Party: Republican

Age: 65

Education: University of Georgia

Professional: former president, Northside Realty

Campaign website: www.johnnyisakson.com

Cash raised: $4.8 million

Cash on hand: $4.9 million

Michael Lamar "Mike" Thurmond

Party: Democrat

Age: 57

Education: Paine College; University of South Carolina law school

Professional: state labor commissioner, owns a radio station

Campaign website: www.mikethurmondforussenate.com

Cash raised: $122,369

Cash on hand: $101,204

Charles Edward "Chuck" Donovan Jr.

Party: Libertarian

Age: 53

Education: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Professional: pilot, Delta Air Lines

Campaign website: www.donovanforsenate.com

Cash raised: less than $5,000 as of June 30

Cash on hand: less than $5,000 as of June 30