Inside the slow start in the race for Isakson’s Senate seat

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson announced two months ago that he would leave office at the end of the year. But who will fill his Senate seat in the future remains a murky picture. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson announced two months ago that he would leave office at the end of the year. But who will fill his Senate seat in the future remains a murky picture. JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s decision to step down at year’s end jolted Georgia politics like a thunderous storm. But the race for his job is developing as slowly as a quiet summer shower.

Two months since the announcement, Gov. Brian Kemp has yet to pick from among the roughly 500 people who have applied for the coveted seat — or even signaled when the online application process will close.

Georgia Democrats haven't moved much faster on finding someone to run against Kemp's choice in 2020. No high-profile politician has yet jumped in the race, partly because the crowd of candidates is waiting for party leaders to bless a favorite.

The limbo has some potential candidates from both parties grumbling about what's taking so long. They worry that they're missing valuable fundraising time and, possibly, the chance to capitalize on November moments such as President Donald Trump's visit and the Democratic presidential debate.

The maneuvering just beneath the surface, meanwhile, is as intense as ever. Some Republicans have made their case to Kemp and his advisers, others are the talk of calculated publicity campaigns focused on their fundraising prowess or vote-getting abilities.

Top Democrats have embarked on a revolving door of meetings in Washington and Atlanta with party leaders who hope to unite behind a single candidate in a November 2020 special election with no primary to hash out a nominee.

Still, a rat-tat-tat of recent developments shows how the delays could frustrate efforts from both parties to rally behind one contender.

Democrat Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, announced his Senate campaign earlier this month without support from the party establishment. And Wayne Johnson, a high-ranking Trump administration official, said he could run as a Republican on a campaign of overhauling student debt if Kemp doesn't pick him.

"The fact that I resigned my position at the U.S. Department of Education in order to pursue this appointment and this objective should convey how serious I am about this," said Johnson, who was one of the federal government's top student aid officials before he stepped down Thursday.

A ‘fighter’ 

Kemp's office has been inundated with applications from Johnson and others since the governor posted his online "help wanted" sign for Isakson's job in September, though the number of submissions has slowed in recent weeks.

The list is studded with big names — including current and former officeholders, business executivesa U.S. ambassador, decorated military veterans and radio commentators. There are also everyday people who believe they're worthy of Kemp's consideration.

Others who could be strong contenders have stayed on the sidelines, either because it would be politically damaging for them to apply, it could complicate their professional or personal life, or they're flat-out not interested.

Some Kemp allies see the vacancy as an opportunity to grow their party’s appeal after last year’s narrow midterm victories. U.S. Sen. David Perdue said in an interview he’s discussed several criteria with the governor for the pick, including tapping someone who is a strong communicator and is “on our side” backing Trump.

“And the third thing is: Georgia is a growing state and the Republican Party needs to broaden with it,” he said. “And that’s been my mantra since the very beginning.”

Though there's a chance Kemp could surprise with his pick, many Republican handicappers list three names as top contenders: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins; state Rep. Jan Jones, the No. 2 Republican in the Georgia House; and Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton.

Jones, a former journalist-turned-marketing executive, has represented a slice of Alpharetta-based suburbia since 2002, and she could bring hope to Republicans desperate to regain traction with college-educated women in north metro Atlanta.

A four-term lawmaker, Collins has become a household name to Trump supporters because of his lead role on the House Judiciary Committee and his outspoken opposition to Democratic-led impeachment proceedings.

A fundraiser last week in his North Georgia district — home to the largest number of GOP primary voters in the state — provided a reminder of his close ties to the White House. It was headlined by Donald Trump Jr., who raised about $300,000 for Collins and called him "the kind of fighter we need in the Senate."

‘All you can ask’

Melton hasn't yet applied for the job, and there's a chance he won't. Judicial canon forbids sitting judges from engaging in political activity, and some legal analysts believe Melton would have to resign from the bench to formally apply.

Still, Melton met recently with Kemp to express interest in the job, and his supporters cast him as the type of unconventional candidate that the governor has said he wants to consider as Isakson's replacement.

The first black student body president at Auburn University, Melton has carved out a conservative judicial track record and penned a string of high-profile decisions. He has a powerful ally in U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who appointed Melton to the bench when he was governor in 2005.

Melton also has a lack of political experience that could help or hurt his chances, depending on Kemp’s viewpoint. He’s never taken a stance on many of the issues that will shape the 2020 race, including his level of support for Trump. And he’s never run in a competitive statewide race before, scaring off opponents in all three of his elections.

Kemp’s choice faces a series of much-scrutinized elections, starting with the November 2020 race to fill out the remaining two years of Isakson’s term and potentially a January 2021 runoff that would draw even more national attention.

Then, he or she would be expected to run again in 2022 when Kemp is seeking a second term. That means, in effect, Isakson's retirement gives Kemp the chance to pick his own running mate. It's one of many reasons the governor is not rushing the process, said state Rep. Terry Rogers of Clarkesville.

“I’ve said from the beginning that the governor is going to be methodical and thorough about this process,” said Rogers, a Kemp ally. “He will vet every one, and in the end, he’ll make the pick that’s best for Georgia. And that’s all you can ask.”

‘Stand up and fight’

Democratic insiders are split over how soon the race for Isakson’s seat will gel. Some were convinced the party would settle on a candidate to get behind by early November; others thought it could take longer, maybe into early next year.

The lag has only fueled the speculation. The delicate Democratic dance for Isakson's seat was on vivid display last week at the party's major annual fundraiser, where a half-dozen potential candidates worked the crowd in a cramped hotel ballroom.

There were state Sen. Jen Jordan and DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, chatting and posing for selfies in the middle of the crowded floor.

Former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver and DeKalb Chief Executive Michael Thurmond were near the double-door entryway, where they traded notes about their recent trips to Washington to meet with Senate Democratic leaders.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, was on massive TV screens and on the stage throughout the chicken dinner. And the Rev. Raphael Warnock revved up the crowd with a fiery invocation after the cocktail hour.

Warnock, the senior shepherd of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic church, opted against a 2016 run after sending numerous signals he was leaning toward a campaign. He dropped fresh hints last week that he was open to a 2020 run with a call to "stand up and fight for the soul of our democracy."

Still, the only Democrats to make formal announcements about the race are the big-name folks who have publicly ruled out a run: Stacey Abrams, the 2018 gubernatorial contender; U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath; and Michelle Nunn, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

“People are being thoughtful regardless of whether it’s a U.S. Senate run or a city council race,” said Liz Flowers, the director of the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus. “Democrats have opportunities across the board, and it’s a matter of understanding how we choose the right candidates for the right races.”

No ’cakewalk’

Another reason for the delay: Some Democrats want to wait until Kemp taps Isakson’s successor before promoting their own candidate who could match up better against his pick. That could be particularly important if the governor goes with a nontraditional appointment.

“No one in their right mind would throw their hat in the ring until they know who the Republican will be,” said Ben Myers, the Democratic chairman of the 6th Congressional District.

Still, there’s no denying the downside to the waiting. It means a later start to fundraising and the painstaking work of crafting messages, raising name recognition, recruiting a team of staffers and volunteers, and building a statewide apparatus.

The uncertainty also complicates the campaigns of the four Democrats competing to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is also on the 2020 ballot, since some donors and activists are staying on the sidelines waiting for both races to firm up.

And the waiting game gives other candidates an opening to enter with or without the party's backing. Lieberman took the political plunge in early October and is eager to make the most of his head start. His campaign said it raised $250,000 within a few weeks.

“There’s going to be a Republican in the race that the governor appoints, and there might be another Democrat,” Lieberman said. “I’m not expecting a cakewalk, but I’m doing what a candidate has to do to win.”