As thousands gathered at Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic church, civil rights leaders shared the stage with a now-familiar figure: Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
The two-term incumbent has long spent the morning of King’s day at the civil rights icon’s church — by his count 23 times since 1983. But as he strode to the pulpit Monday past a minister who for months flirted with running a Senate campaign against him, it was a reminder of the individual path Isakson has forged in Georgia politics.
As the GOP tilts increasingly toward the right, Isakson remains unapologetic about working with the left – even at the risk of alienating some in his party as he seeks a third term in November. In short, he’s made clear he’s not bending over backward to mollify his party’s restless right flank.
“Did we make some trade-offs? Sure. Did we make some compromises? Sure,” he recently told a Georgia Chamber of Commerce crowd on the need for consensus-building. “But we don’t get our way if we don’t make some trade-offs.”
Isakson is a giant of the Georgia Republican Party, which he helped build from a bit player to the dominant force in state government. And he’s built a reliably conservative record with repeated votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, oppose tax increases and stimulus spending, boost military expenditures, and fight what he sees as the overreach of the federal government.
“As the most senior member and leader of our congressional delegation, Johnny is the principled conservative we can always call on when we’re in need,” Gov. Nathan Deal said. “Time and again he has come through for us, and I am sure his constituents will remember that this fall and reciprocate that loyalty.”
Trouble from the right
But he’s also been hit from the right flank for his stance on some divisive debates, such as his vote for the $1.1 trillion budget that passed in December. Some conservatives don’t see him as a true believer. And tea partyers who have thrived in Georgia primaries since 2009 are frustrated that he has, on occasion, charted a more centrist path.
“Basically, he’s accumulated so much money that he’s intimidated anyone who would think about running against him — it’s not because he doesn’t have any opposition,” said Conrad Quagliaroli of the Cherokee County Tea Party Patriots.
“No conservative I know has any love for Johnny Isakson,” Quagliaroli said. “The thing is, Johnny is the typical go-along to get-along Republican.”
So far, Isakson has weathered the same anti-establishment forces that have propelled the candidacies of Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and billionaire Donald Trump to the top of Republican presidential polls.
Since announcing that his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease would not prevent him from serving a full third term, he’s only attracted one challenge from little-known Republican contender Derrick Grayson, a MARTA engineer whose campaign account was “terminated” by the Federal Elections Commission.
Meanwhile, a parade of Democrats have publicly considered a bid before opting against it. With qualifying less than two months away, the latest potential Democratic candidate, U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was thinking about making a run but hadn’t made up his mind.
An AJC poll published this month showed many voters still haven’t made up their minds, either. It found about 35 percent of voters approved of how Isakson handled his job, roughly one-third disapproved, and the rest didn’t know or declined to answer.
His favorability rating hit 45 percent when the poll focused only on Republicans, although one in four Republicans said he or she disapproved of Isakson’s tenure in the Senate. About one-third of Democrats had a positive view of Isakson, in an echo of what former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes said in 2015 about him: “If all Republicans were like Johnny, I would be a Republican.”
Sets his own course
Isakson, meanwhile, has amassed more than $5 million in his campaign coffers and developed a bit of an independent streak headed into primary season.
He aired concerns about state-backed “religious liberty” proposals sought by conservative activists, telling reporters that variations of those bills should be dealt with on the federal level — he has proposed a version — and not by a patchwork of “conflicting standards.”
And he infuriated some when he called for a hearing for the appointment of Dax Lopez to a federal judgeship, which was scuttled Wednesday when Georgia’s other U.S. senator, Republican David Perdue, chose not to back the nominee. Lopez, a Republican, was at the center of criticism from some anti-immigration groups for his past membership on the board of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
“I’m disappointed with Johnny,” said Jack Smith of the North Georgia Tea Party Alliance. “I’m very disappointed that he didn’t immediately take a stance against Dax Lopez. And I’m not convinced he has always done his best for the constituency.”
Heath Garrett, a longtime Isakson adviser, said the two-term senator isn’t going to change his “positions or his style or tone to meet any perceived change in the political winds.”
“I think he’s one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate. And he’s certainly the hardest-working one,” he added. “But he doesn’t think you have to be constantly changing your tone or position to fit the short-term ebbs and flows of political temperament.”
He’s striking that balance with a wink toward the left that’s more nuanced than earlier in his Senate career.
In 2008, he was a member of the so-called “Gang of 10” — it would eventually grow to 20 — coalition of Republicans and Democrats that tried to reach consensus over energy legislation — and riled some conservatives to brand him a “sellout.”
That group has long since disbanded, but at recent gatherings Isakson has praised the benefits of bipartisanship and gone out of his way to compliment two Georgia Democrats — U.S. Reps. John Lewis and Sanford Bishop — before large crowds.
He thanked the duo for helping to stop a “nefarious” bid by Alabama lawmakers to request a Justice Department report that Georgia leaders feared could have hurt the state’s position in its ongoing water war with Alabama and Florida.
And of Lewis, who had recently been honored as the namesake of a sparkling new U.S. Navy ship, he added: “I am so proud of John Lewis. I want to be on the USNS John Lewis because it will never sink. He’s unsinkable.”
That might not seem like big news. But at a time when Cruz’s take-no-prisoners style is resonating with a restless, frustrated Republican base, the focus on consensus and cooperation can be problematic. Still, analysts say the 71-year-old is taking a calculated risk.
“He must be doing something right,” said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist. “He’s acting in ways that haven’t produced any significant opposition in the Republican Party and inaction of potential Democratic candidates.”
At Monday’s gathering at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Isakson told the thousands gathered for a King memorial service that he first attended the ceremony in 1983 as a new lawmaker “because I thought I ought to.” Since then, though, he’s joined the service “not because I thought I ought to, but because I knew I needed to.”
The crowd that erupted in applause included the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the church’s lead pastor, who briefly considered running against Isakson before deciding against it.
Democrats, should they recruit another candidate, will surely try to tie Isakson to Trump or Cruz in hopes of winning over independents who are wary of the Republican poll-leaders. Isakson, though, doesn’t seem likely to give them much of an opening.
Asked recently about which presidential candidate will get his endorsement this primary season, Isakson had a ready response.
“I have one position on 2016: I’m for Johnny Isakson.”
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Staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this article.