Georgia’s political qualifying season starts Monday

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

Georgia’s presidential primary is history, but politics moves back to the forefront at the Capitol on Monday when state candidates start qualifying to run for office this year.

Expected to show up over the five-day sign-up period are U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, most of Georgia’s congressional delegation, and hundreds of hopefuls and incumbents either wanting a crack at the state Legislature or looking to keep their seat there.

Most of the action will be at the state Capitol, where the major political parties set up shop starting at 9 a.m. Monday and running through noon Friday. State lawmakers will also be in session for four of those five days, putting potential rivals within arm’s distance of each other as the General Assembly barrels toward the end of its annual session later this month.

At least 15 state lawmakers have already announced their retirements ahead of qualifying, including rising Republican star B.J. Pak, a state representative from Gwinnett County, and longtime GOP state Sens. Bill Jackson and Tommie Williams. Another no-show will be veteran Republican U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who is quitting Congress but could be a possible candidate for governor in 2018.

This will also likely be old-home week for some candidates trying to make a comeback, with the possibilities including former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun — who could be eyeing a challenge to two-term U.S. Rep. Doug Collins — and former state Senate Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour, who lost re-election two years ago after being cleared of criminal charges that he improperly claimed travel expenses as a state lawmaker.

Westmoreland's decision not to run for another term in November gave way to a wide-open race for his conservative west Georgia seat. State Sen. Mike Crane,R-Newnan, West Point Mayor Drew Ferguson, developer Jim Pace and entrepreneur Richard Mix are among the contenders.

The most highly watched race, however, is likely that of Isakson, who is seeking a third term after disclosing in June that he has Parkinson's disease. Both parties have keyed on that race with the presumption he will have a Democratic challenger, although no one has raised his or her hand yet.

No matter who runs against him, Isakson will be a huge favorite to win another term.

“While the Georgia Republican Party is excited to qualify so many strong, community-minded conservatives next week, we are waiting with bated breath to see the ‘mystery candidate’ that the Georgia Democrats prop up to run against U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson,” state party spokesman Ryan Mahoney said. “After 15 months and multiple failed attempts to persuade Democrats around the state to run, we are certain that Senator Isakson’s challenger will be nothing short of disastrous.”

Several high-profile Democrats — including former U.S. Rep. John Barrow and ex-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin — have already passed on the chance to face the 71-year-old Isakson, who enjoys high name recognition and more than $5 million in his campaign coffers.

Democratic possibilities include former state Sen. Regina Thomas of Savannah and Ed Tarver, a former state senator who is now the U.S. attorney in Savannah. State party officials said Friday that they are looking to field their “best crop of candidates yet.”

“While Republicans spend the rest of the year trying to run away from Donald Trump, Democrats — whose priorities match the values, hopes and dreams of Georgia families — will focus on the issues that matter most to voters,” party spokesman Michael Smith said.

Statewide, all 236 seats in the Legislature are up for consideration. Georgia voters elect state lawmakers every two years.

Crane, Jackson and Williams so far are the only announced retirements from the state Senate. Williams’ seat in South Georgia already has one declared contender, former state Rep. Delvis Dutton.

In the House, Pak’s announced departure has already prompted one former lawmaker to raise his hand for the seat: Clay Cox represented the Lilburn area in the state House from 2005 to 2011 and served as chief deputy majority whip and chairman of the Human Relations Committee during that time. He opted in 2010 to run for the 7th Congressional District seat but missed a spot in the Republican primary runoff.

He served on the Georgia Board of Community Health for several years before resigning in February to run for his old legislative seat.

Among other House incumbents not expected back next year: House Majority Whip Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City; Motor Vehicles Chairman Tom Rice, R-Norcross; Higher Education Chairman Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville; State Properties Chairwoman Barbara Sims, R-Augusta; Rep. Stephen Allison, R-Blairsville; Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons Island; Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek; Rep. LaDawn Jones, D-Atlanta; Rep. Hugh Floyd, D-Norcross; Rep. Margaret D. Kaiser, D-Atlanta; and Rep. Ronnie Mabra, D-Fayetteville.