Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has so far managed to avoid the anti-establishment forces shaking his party’s foundation, but he could face a new sort of challenge this year from a Democratic contender who has already funneled more than $1 million into his own campaign — and signaled he could pump in much more.
Democrat Jim Barksdale, a political newcomer who is his party’s handpicked candidate to challenge Isakson, raised barely enough cash to pay yearly rent on the average Washington apartment in his first month since entering the race. But the investment manager also loaned himself $1.1 million and said he’s willing to dig even deeper to contest Isakson.
“We’re going to have the resources to make this a competitive campaign,” Barksdale said in his first interview since entering the race, adding: “We’ll be fundraising, but there will be much higher weight on getting out and meeting people and listening — and less weight on getting money, money, money.”
Barksdale, who faces several other little-known challengers in his party’s May 24 primary, has an uphill battle against Isakson. In addition to high name recognition and a fine-tuned ground game, Isakson’s campaign has much more money in its pocket — nearly $6 million at the end of March, according to federal campaign finance disclosures.
Barksdale is framing himself as the Democrats’ answer to David Perdue, a well-heeled outsider from the business world who overcame low name recognition and a crowded field to upset an establishment candidate.
But Barksdale faces major obstacles in his quest to replicate Perdue’s 2014 win, which was for an open seat.
For one, it’s much harder for a Democratic outsider to run than a Republican one. Exit polls of Democratic voters repeatedly show they overwhelmingly favor candidates with political experience. And the track record for well-funded Democratic outsiders running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia is pockmarked with warnings from the past. Just ask Michael Coles and Cliff Oxford, two millionaire Democrats who lost their bids despite formidable financial firepower.
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said fundraising prowess is critical for an unknown challenger to an incumbent that’s as recognizable as Isakson.
“If you were to go onto the street right now and start asking people ‘What you do think about Jim Barksdale?’ most people would just stare at you,” Bullock said. “A challenger to an incumbent doesn’t have to match the incumbent dollar for dollar by any means, but the challenger has to at least raise enough money to get in the game.”
Still, Democrats are hopeful that the wild Republican race for president gives them an opening to compete in what would otherwise be a solidly GOP Senate race. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, one of Hillary Clinton’s top surrogates in the South, said all bets are off if Republicans nominate Donald Trump.
“Winning the election is about money, it’s about having the money to push out those resources. And if we have the resources, we have a shot,” she said. “Johnny Isakson doesn’t have a lock on the race. If there’s a credible challenger, we have a chance.”
Republican strategist Chip Lake said the impact Trump could have on down-ballot races against Democrats in November is still not clear-cut.
“Conventional wisdom says it would, but I don’t know that it will,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t look like Trump has any coattails at all in any of these primaries.”
A political newcomer, Barksdale has shirked the media until now and struggled to make much of a splash in the weeks since he qualified. He said in the interview that he’s hired several top aides, including 2014 gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter’s political director, and that he intends to ramp up his campaign.
“It’s an election year and people are upset. There’s a movement out there saying we want independent voices,” he said. “I feel like the odds this year are much better than any other year. And if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be doing it. If this was 2014, I wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance.”
Barksdale is facing two little-known opponents in next month’s primary. The campaign finance disclosures for Democrats John Coyne and Cheryl Copeland were not publicly available as of press time.
The filings do not tally the so-called “dark money” from special nonprofits that can receive unlimited donations and don’t have to report their donors. A candidate’s campaign committees are not allowed to coordinate with those nonprofits.
Notably, more than two-thirds of the nearly $908,000 in receipts Isakson’s campaign reported from early 2016 came from individual donors as opposed to political action committees, or PACs, from company employees or industry groups. In a statement, Isakson outlined his push for better health care for veterans, called to intensify the war against the Islamic State and supported deepening Savannah’s port.
“Georgians know they know they can count on me to work hard on their behalf,” Isakson said.
Among the PACs that donated to the Isakson campaign were those from Georgia-based companies Aflac and SunTrust, the pharmaceutical corporations Procter & Gamble and Pfizer, and the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund. Isakson also attracted money from the PACs of various agriculture-related associations, including those of rice growers and peanut shellers. The money from such groups is just one of the built-in fundraising advantages enjoyed by incumbents in Congress.
Filings from Mercer University education professor Mary Kay Bacallao, who is challenging Isakson in next month’s Republican primary, indicate that she has self-funded most of her campaign so far with a nearly $7,500 loan. She kicked off April with just under $1,200 on hand.
Disclosures from Derrick Grayson, Isakson’s other primary challenger, show the MARTA engineer and Stone Mountain minister in similar financial shape. He ended March with less than $600 in the bank after loaning or donating nearly $8,000 to his campaign.
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