Georgia’s U.S. Senate primary races feature two heavy favorites

Tuesday’s primary

Voters will go to the polls Tuesday to select party nominees for congressional, legislative and local seats across the state. For information about key races and the issues driving them, check out The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage on and

Tuesday’s Republican U.S. Senate primary features three candidates: an incumbent seeking a third term after revealing an illness; a challenger trying to capitalize on the senator’s disease; and another who has staked her campaign on opposing a federal takeover of the education system.

Across the aisle, an unknown millionaire who claims his headgear qualifies him as an outsider is trying to position himself as the only Democrat who can win the seat. First, though, he must beat an opponent who sued his own party over favoritism claims and another who said Georgia can’t afford to send a “rich businessman” to Washington.

Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson is expected to trounce his two rivals on Tuesday, even though he faces middling approval ratings and questions about his Parkinson’s disease. And Democrat Jim Barksdale, the aforementioned millionaire, is the favorite to win his first electoral test after blanketing the state with introductory ads.

Anything short of a victory on Tuesday would be a huge letdown for either campaign — a July 26 runoff looms if the leading candidate fails to win a majority of the vote.

But in this first vote in Georgia since Donald Trump rode an insurgent wave to the Republican presidential nomination, the sleepy Senate race has gotten a jolt from rivals urging voters to buck the party favorites.

Rocky Republican contest

A giant of the Georgia GOP, Isakson enjoys high name recognition, a reliably conservative record and a history of working across the aisle that’s buffered him from the anti-establishment backlash plaguing other long-serving politicians.

As he prepared for another run, though, the 71-year-old revealed last year that he suffered from Parkinson’s disease, though he said it’s in early stages and that his physician advised it wouldn’t prevent him from serving another full term in office.

His reputation — and a war chest of nearly $6 million — helped scare away high-profile Republicans from challenging him. But two lesser-known GOP figures joined the race.

The first is Derrick Grayson, a MARTA engineer and unsuccessful 2014 Senate candidate who calls himself "The Minister of Truth" and casts himself as the true conservative in the contest. Grayson has faced criticism over his checkered past — he was convicted in 1990 on cocaine charges — but he points to a pardon and a permit to carry concealed weapons as proof of his rehabilitation.

Grayson also upset many fellow Republicans when he tried to use Isakson’s illness as a fundraising tool. The incumbent, he said, will retire shortly after he wins re-election, thus letting Gov. Nathan Deal appoint his successor.

“May God be with Mr. Isakson in his illness, but he will not complete a six-year term,” Grayson said in a pitch to voters. “That is just it. And it is what it is.”

Isakson's camp brushed aside the accusation as a "ridiculous and false notion" and soon cited a scheduling conflict to opt out of a televised debate with Grayson, saying he refused to share the stage with a convicted felon.

Mary Kay Bacallao, the second GOP challenger, is a college professor from Peachtree City who finished third in the 2014 GOP race for state school superintendent and has focused most of her message this year on her opposition to Common Core and her distrust of federal education policy.

“We will not allow the government to take our children,” she said. “No amount of money can stop the truth from being told, and that is what I plan to do.”

Isakson, meanwhile, has stuck to a strategy of reaching out to the left even as his party tilts further to the right — as well as his customarily busy schedule as chairman of two Senate committees. Mixed in with trips to military bases and rubber-chicken luncheons, Isakson has appeared at historically black churches and employment training centers.

“I don’t campaign in churches,” he said Sunday at The House of Hope, a black church in south DeKalb County, to a crowd that gave him a standing ovation. “But I do bring a message of how I can help.”

Yet his approval ratings show a potential chink in his armor — an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed that about 42 percent of voters give him a favorable rating, and an additional one-third have no opinion or still don't know enough about the veteran lawmaker.

‘Don’t be fooled’

The Democratic side of the aisle is far more unsettled.

Barksdale, an equity fund manager, assumed the mantle as his party’s preferred candidate after a slew of better-known personalities — including preachers, prosecutors and politicians — sidestepped a tussle with Isakson.

After assiduously staying out of the spotlight for nearly a month, Barksdale has had a shaky debut in his party's spotlight. He favors expanding Medicaid, lowering student debt and raising the minimum wage, though he refuses to discuss specifics. He's also faced a mixed reception from some skeptical fellow Democrats.

He’s tried to calm doubts by pumping $1.1 million of his own fortune into the campaign, using a chunk of that to finance a barrage of advertisements in Georgia’s main media markets. Each prominently features Barksdale’s gray cap, fast becoming the calling card of his campaign.

In one, he declares that his cap proves he's an outsider. In another, he asks supporters to pony up $100 to buy their own version of the "Barksdale hat" to help finance his campaign. Barksdale has acknowledged his campaign may seem quixotic, but he said his odds are better than they appear.

“It’s (a presidential) election year, and that normally brings out more voters favorable to Democratic candidates,” he said. “And there’s more at risk.”

To win the party’s nomination, he must avoid a runoff against two low-profile contenders both running shoestring campaigns. Cheryl Copeland, a Hiram project manager, said her experience as a middle-class worker struggling in this economy sets her apart, and she criticized Barksdale for his past as a Republican voter.

“Georgia, don’t be fooled,” she said.

The other is John Coyne, an Alpharetta real estate manager who also emphasizes his background as a political outsider — and has taken aim at Barksdale with both campaign attacks and legal complaints.

He claimed in a lawsuit this month that the Democratic Party of Georgia defrauded him by accepting his qualifying fee of $5,220 even though its leaders had an implicit agreement with Barksdale as their preferred candidate. And he's tried to paint Barksdale as a blank slate.

“He has no agenda,” Coyne said. “He’ll tell you and give you a stump speech like Donald Trump.”