Both candidates are playing to their bases, with Barksdale at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last week introducing himself to delegates and party activists who had hardly heard of the Buckhead investment manager before he entered the race in March.
And Isakson was at the GOP's Cleveland convention meeting with party officials ahead of a statewide fly-around last week where he drummed up media attention for his re-election bid. He's got more than $5.7 million in the bank, and this week he unveiled the support of powerful business lobbies who are prepared to chip in more.
“He’s demonstrated he’s willing to write a giant check, and I’m sure there are probably more giant checks to come,” Isakson said of Barksdale, adding: “I believe you earn your way through, you don’t buy your way through. This race ought to be about the issues, not the amount of money you have.”
Left unknown is Donald Trump’s impact on the race. Trump’s divisive candidacy could swell turnout from Democrats — and prod some Republicans disillusioned with his campaign to stay home. But it could also prod more conservatives to go to the polls out of worry that Georgia could turn blue for the first time since 1992.
Barksdale has already pumped more than $3 million of his own fortune into his campaign, while raising less than $100,000. And his low-profile, unorthodox campaign could work to his advantage as he tries to cast himself as a Democratic outsider — albeit one who can stroke another check at any moment to blanket the airwaves.
It explains why the Georgia GOP is stepping up attacks on Barksdale, mocking his coffee breaks at Philadelphia’s airport and challenging him to “reject the most progressive platform” in Democratic history. And why the Democrat is trying to tie Trump to Isakson, who urged delegates in Cleveland to “volunteer for the Army of America” and help the nominee.
Libertarian Allen Buckley is also in the race, hopeful that voters are so turned off by Republican and Democratic policies that they give a third-party candidate a shot.
An epic foreign policy clash
Unlike Georgia's 2014 U.S. Senate race, when Democrat Michelle Nunn stuck to a mostly centrist approach to reach independent voters, this contest features more sharply contrasting ideological divides. And nowhere is the clash more evident than over foreign policy.
After terror attacks at home and abroad, Isakson renewed his call for a full-scale war on "radical Islam" that would send more ground troops into conflict zones around the globe to take aim at the Islamic State.
“There’s only one thing you can do with people who will kill themselves to kill you, burn you in a cage on the town square or blow themselves up,” Isakson said. “We’ve got to kill them first. That ought to be our mantra.”
In an interview, he advocated for sending in more special forces in parts of Syria, Iraq and other areas where the Islamic State has seized control.
"Not an invasion force, not a surge like we had in Iraq. With 13 people we took out Osama bin Laden once we found out where he was. We know where a lot of these ISIL leaders are," he said, using an acronym for the terror group. "It should be untenable for them to continue to exist."
Barksdale has taken a starkly different view. His campaign said the Islamic State is our enemy “and should be dealt with accordingly” — his aides did not elaborate on what that means — but he has cast broad foreign interventions as a costly waste.
“We need a new path in terms of the foreign wars,” Barksdale said. “Let’s face it, that’s a place we’ve been doing nothing that’s made us safer. And basically it’s cost us trillions, trillions of dollars.”
After a meeting in Philadelphia, he added: “I’m not comfortable that the policies we’ve been following have made us more safe. Johnny Isakson favored the invasion of Iraq. I opposed it.”
Buckley, the Libertarian, would follow a more nuanced strategy.
“If an extremely well-thought-through strategy created by our nation’s military and intelligence leaders aimed at defeating terrorism and exiting the Middle East within a reasonable amount of time calls for more ground troops now, then we should use more ground troops,” he said. “Otherwise, we should not do so.”
The Trump effect
Trump looms large over every facet of the race.
Democrats are banking their election hopes on a Trump meltdown, and they have been vigorously trying to tie Isakson to the New York businessman. The two-term incumbent gave Trump his full-throated endorsement two weeks ago in Cleveland, but he has maintained that his top focus is on his re-election battle.
“Johnny Isakson follows his party wherever they want, shown again by his endorsement of an unqualified nominee like Trump,” the Barksdale campaign said in a statement. “It is time someone stood for all Americans and Georgians, not division and party.”
And Isakson is ready to embrace a different sort of role.
“The Clinton Machine would love to make Georgia a battleground state — that is only possible if Republicans become complacent,” said Heath Garrett, an Isakson adviser. “The key is to unite Republicans, independents and Libertarians to make sure Georgia is not in play. Johnny Isakson’s campaign is the rallying point to avoid a Georgia problem.”