Online ‘help wanted’ sign sets off Senate scramble in Georgia

A rush of resumes came in shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp, left, announced that he would be accepting applications to fill the U.S. Senate seat that Johnny Isakson will vacate at the end of the year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A rush of resumes came in shortly after Gov. Brian Kemp, left, announced that he would be accepting applications to fill the U.S. Senate seat that Johnny Isakson will vacate at the end of the year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Within hours of Gov. Brian Kemp’s unusual decision to invite the public to apply to succeed U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, his office was blitzed with resumes — some serious and some silly — from wannabe Washingtonians.

Lawyers. Doctors. Local government officials. Serial jokesters. IT specialists. A well-known pundit. As of Wednesday evening, 158 people had applied — and many, many more are expected to join in.

Count Martha Zoller among the serious.

“I’ve given voice to people all over Georgia,” said the radio host and former Kemp aide, who submitted her application shortly after the website went online. “Senator Isakson cannot be replaced by anyone, but I believe I have earned an opportunity to be considered.”

Welcome to the next phase of the race for the U.S. Senate in Georgia.

Chances are, Kemp and his advisers already have whittled a list of top contenders for Isakson’s seat down to a handful — and that the online application process unveiled late Tuesday will be largely for show.

But encouraging would-be U.S. senators to publicly declare their ambition might just expand the scope of his search even as it forces some tough decisions on potential contenders.

For starters, requiring those seeking Kemp’s blessing to fill out an online application will make those who are not openly jockeying for the post signal their intent if they’re interested — or remain on the sidelines if not.

Consider the cases of Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr or Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, both newly elected Republican officials who could be seen as overly ambitious ladder-climbers if they openly urge Kemp to appoint them only months into their four-year terms.

Or former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, who would be pilloried by her GOP rivals in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District if she publicly angled for a Senate seat while she’s competing for a rematch against Democrat Lucy McBath in 2020.

None of them would comment publicly about whether they planned to apply.

A new Senate scramble

To further complicate matters, Kemp’s office didn’t announce a deadline when it unveiled the process. That means prospective candidates can’t wait until the last minute to apply — since Kemp can stop taking applications whenever he wants.

This is good news for the handful of Republicans who have made their ambitions clear, notably U.S. Reps. Doug Collins and Tom Graves. Collins, a four-term Gainesville lawmaker, said he’ll soon submit his application.

“We’ve expressed interest, and so if that’s the way the governor wants to do it, we’ll go through that,” said Collins, who has privately talked to both Kemp and President Donald Trump about his interest.

It’s made for a murkier decision for a host of others, particularly those in apolitical jobs in the private sector or law enforcement. U.S. Attorney BJay Pak, a former Republican state legislator considered by some Kemp aides to be a strong candidate, said Wednesday that he wasn’t going to apply.

“I have a great job here,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Others raced to declare themselves in the mix. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, a staunch conservative who lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2014, said he would soon send in his application.

“What I offer the people of Georgia is somebody who has worked very hard to stop out-of-control government, to send powers back to the states and the people and leave money in people’s pockets,” said Broun, who is highly unlikely to get the appointment.

‘Something different’

Kemp said the goal of the online application process was to ferret out potential applicants his team might not come up with on their own, adding that the “unique circumstance” of Isakson’s surprising announcement to resign at the end of the year led him to adopt this strategy.

“We’ve got a deep bench to choose from, a lot of good people I have high regard for and will certainly consider,” he said Wednesday in a WGAU interview.

“But there may be others out there that are willing to serve that we haven’t thought of or that bring something different to the table,” Kemp said. “And I’d just be interested in seeing if there are any of those folks out there and potentially considering them as we go through this process.”

The applications will quickly become a public record. Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said the office will publish submissions “as quickly as possible.”

The format makes it easy: Applicants must submit their resume, address and contact information on the governor office's website. They must also meet the three requirements set out in the U.S. Constitution: Each candidate must be 30 years old, a U.S. citizen for at least nine years and a resident of Georgia.

But there’s no request for a cover letter, a mission statement, a letter of reference or a policy paper.

"Am I the only person disappointed that there's no essay question on the application?" asked state Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a Smyrna Democrat. "Any college admissions professional will say that you need to see beyond the resume to really understand whether an applicant is the right fit."

Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan rails against a bill that would outlaw most abortions in Georgia. (Photo by Bob Andres / AJC)

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A ‘stunt’?

Some Republicans are quietly grumbling about the unusual move, saying it opens Kemp to potential embarrassment and that it limits the “deep, deep bench” he touts to a smaller pool of applicants.

But others say a more novel approach is needed to help Kemp tap a nominee who could face three separate races over a two-year span: a November 2020 contest to fill out the rest of Isakson’s term, a potential January 2021 runoff and a 2022 bid for a full term.

“If this were a different governor, I’d think it was a savvy public relations stunt,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist and former deputy to Gov. Nathan Deal.

“But Governor Kemp has shown Republicans and Democrats alike that he’s earnest and does what he says he’s going to do — whether they like it or not.”

Democrats quickly poked fun at the process. State Sen. Jen Jordan, a potential candidate for the seat, tweeted a video of Collins at a U.S. House hearing above the caption: "Maybe this explains why the governor's office solicited folks to apply for the job today."

Others applauded the approach.

“Stunt or not, the governor clearly has a sense of humor,” said Saba Long, a Democratic strategist. “He’s giving us the appearance of an equitable process and, to be honest, that’s more than anyone expected.”

With that process comes a blizzard of paperwork. A few minutes after his office released the names of the first round of applicants, five more people had already applied. The total pool of applicants could easily exceed 1,000.

And many of them could be fake. Mixed in with the names and resumes of applicants was a filing by “Hillary Clinton” — complete with what appeared to be the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate’s resume.

Then there are others who want to send a different sort of message to Kemp’s office. Matthew Borenstein, a digital guru at Turner Sports, turned in his crisp one-page resume soon after Kemp’s website went live.

“The whole thing is a joke and I just wanted to see what would happen,” Borenstein said. “I mean, who puts up a job posting for U.S. senator?”

Here is the first round of applications: