Georgia Democrats still searching for a 2016 Senate contender

As Georgia Democrats try to convince national strategists and funders that the state is in play for 2016, they are confronting a problem: Finding a challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

“Even Democrats like me like Isakson,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who launched a comeback bid in 2010. “If all Republicans were like Johnny, I would be a Republican.”

Their struggle to find a star candidate against the two-term incumbent is the latest discouraging sign for Georgia Democrats still trying to come to grips with humbling defeats in 2014. The party pinned its hopes on changing demographics, youthful candidates and an all-out voter registration effort. But the GOP still swept every statewide office and no Democrat topped 45.2 percent.

With a long-awaited “autopsy” of the party’s troubles nowhere in sight, state leaders are focused on next year’s presidential contest. But some party insiders don’t want to concede a seat they believe could be winnable.

“If Democrats invest early and seriously, they can win both the presidential race and the Senate race in Georgia,” said Jason Carter, the party’s gubernatorial candidate last year. “But it requires real work to continue what was started in 2014: building a forward-looking, multi-racial coalition in every community in the state. It’s a big project, but we are on the way.”

In Washington, Democrats eye Georgia as a tantalizing prospect.

“I sometimes feel like Georgia flies under the radar,” Ruy Teixeira of the liberal Center for American Progress said this month. “But things are changing there so quickly.”

Teixeira released a study of demographic changes in the American electorate along with scholars from the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute. The analysis showed that minorities could outnumber whites in Georgia’s total population by 2025 and among eligible voters by 2036, a shift driven by growth in African-Americans — who are more reliable Democratic voters than Hispanics.

Those real changes remain several years away, but Democrats argue that they can harness the larger turnout of a presidential election and the history-making candidacy of Hillary Clinton as the party’s likely nominee. Last year Democrats and allied groups mounted a multimillion dollar campaign to register minority voters — that’s now facing tough scrutiny for its results — but Atlanta Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson estimated that 750,000 registered non-white voters did not turn out.

“2014 showed us we cannot only focus on voter registration,” Johnson said. “We need to put a bigger emphasis on voter turnout. That’s the key.”

That takes money, and it’s unclear if and how much the Clinton campaign or other national Democrats will want to spend in Georgia. The state will not be as critical in the path to the White House as Southern battlegrounds Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.

A hard-fought Senate race would attract outside interest in the battle for which party controls the chamber, as Michelle Nunn’s campaign did in 2014, when she raised $16 million. But Nunn is taking a new job as CEO of the Atlanta non-profit CARE, a signal that she is not interested in an immediate return to politics. Carter won’t be running in 2016 either.

Former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, an Augusta Democrat who lost his seat last year, has been laying low and has so far resisted entreaties to run. Ditto for former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. Atlanta’s current mayor, Kasim Reed, has vowed to serve out his term through 2017.

Other potential candidates include ex-Decatur school board member Valarie Wilson, who lost the superintendent’s race last year; former U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, a conservative Democrat from Macon; and state Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta lawyer and military veteran.

“After the results in 2014, Democrats have a lot of work to do,” said Holcomb, who lost his party’s primary in 2006 for Secretary of State. “But we also have a lot of energy and motivation to win statewide. I’d also expect Democratic performance to be stronger in a presidential election year.”

Isakson, 70, is making early moves to raise money and organize support. He’s sitting on nearly $4 million to ward of potential rivals, and he raised $1.6 million in the first three months of the year. By comparison, at this point in his last re-election cycle, Isakson raised just $379,000 and had $2.47 million on hand.

He got an early jump on the 2016 cycle by announcing his candidacy for a third term in November to combat rumors that he would retire like his close pal Saxby Chambliss. And he quickly returned to the campaign trail after he recently suffered three cracked ribs, which started the rumor mill once again.

“There are rumors, all right, and your opponents are always trying to create fiction where there’s not,” said Heath Garrett, Isakson’s longtime chief political strategist. “But Johnny is traveling the state and working hard. We always like to say Johnny is the turtle, not the hare in the parable.”

Isakson has a generally conservative voting record, though has has voted for a handful of spending deals and debt ceiling increases that make some Republicans queasy, and his conciliatory style does not always stoke the base.

Still, he has no formal challengers. Republican Stone Mountain minister and MARTA engineer Derrick Grayson, an also-ran in the 2014 Senate primary, has said he is exploring a run but has not reported any recent fund-raising to the Federal Election Commission.

Several rising Republicans seem focused on future races. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Attorney General Sam Olens are often mentioned as candidates in the 2018 governor’s race, as is U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland.

But U.S. Sen. David Perdue proved last year that political experience is no pre-requisite for a Senate run. Garrett pointed out that a wealthy self-funding candidate or a dark horse with a billionaire friend and a Super PAC could come out of nowhere to challenge Isakson.

And then there’s former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, an Isakson ally who lost a runoff to Perdue last year, presenting himself as a backup plan in case Isakson unexpectedly decides not to run. Kingston recently took an advisory job with Washington lobbying giant Squire Patton Boggs, but he’s also appeared at a range of rallies and GOP meetings of late.

“We need to be more aggressive, ” the Savannah Republican said to applause at one GOP gathering on a recent Friday night. “And we need to quit preaching to the converted. We need to start talking to other people.”

Democrats have similar concerns about broadening their appeal. U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, said the incumbent’s work across the aisle means “there’s no way you’re going to beat Johnny Isakson.”

The immediate goal for his party, Scott said, should be to reach out more to white voters. Scott suggested a push for a statewide passenger rail network to connect population centers, while also building stations at NASCAR tracks.

“If the Democratic Party continues its slide into just becoming a black party or a gay, immigrant, Hispanic (party), that’s not good for the state,” Scott said. “And it ain’t winning.”

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