Rumors and posturing: The shadow campaign for Isakson’s Senate seat

As Gov. Brian Kemp, left, considers who to fill the U.S. Senate seat Johnny Isakson is leaving for health reasons, the governor’s allies have been flooded with messages from potential candidates for the appointment. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

As Gov. Brian Kemp, left, considers who to fill the U.S. Senate seat Johnny Isakson is leaving for health reasons, the governor’s allies have been flooded with messages from potential candidates for the appointment. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Intense rounds of phone calls with supporters and donors. Soul-searching conversations with relatives and dear friends. Strategy sessions with advisers to map out the next decade on an uncertain playing field.

On the surface, the jockeying for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's seat has seemed quiet in the week since the Republican upended Georgia politics by announcing he would step down later this year as he struggles with his health.

But just out of sight, the maneuvering for Isakson’s soon-to-be-vacated spot has intensified as ambitious Republicans position themselves for Gov. Brian Kemp’s blessing and aspiring Democrats assess whether they should make a statewide run.

Interviews with more than a dozen potential candidates, operatives and elected officials showed the shadow campaign is well underway, though few were willing to talk publicly. Many Republicans are wary of looking too eager or upsetting Kemp; many Democrats are waiting for the field to gel.

Still, what they described was a blitz of behind-the-scenes activity to accompany the more overt developments in Georgia’s other U.S. Senate race, where three Democrats are challenging first-term Republican David Perdue’s re-election bid.

Kemp’s allies have been peppered with a barrage of messages from hopefuls and their supporters about the appointment to fill Isakson’s seat, which runs through 2020. Unfounded rumors have sparked frantic calls. And potential candidates — both likely and long-shot — have encouraged journalists to float their names.

The interest is so intense that the Democratic Party of Georgia quickly arranged a meeting in Atlanta next week with national operatives to help hone their 2020 strategy now that Georgia has two competitive U.S. Senate races.

And on the GOP side a perceived front-runner has emerged: U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, a former state legislator and chaplain who is the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and staunch ally of President Donald Trump.

What's been missing so far from the equation is Kemp, who has said little publicly about the Senate seat as his administration has raced to prepare for Hurricane Dorian's Atlantic onslaught. As the storm fades and forecasts improve, though, he'll soon shift more attention to filling the seat.

President Trump, center, with U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, left, and U.S. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia. (AP)

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Rumors and surprises

Isakson’s surprise announcement gave the governor and others in Georgia’s political class little time to prepare. Kemp was only informed of the three-term Republican’s decision shortly before his office issued a press release, and no pre-arranged deal was cut to anoint someone both men agreed upon.

That leaves the race open to an array of potential contenders. Some are tried-and-true options, such as statewide elected officials and congressional leaders. Others are less conventional, including criminal justice figures and business executives.

Whoever the governor picks would have to run an intensely scrutinized and immensely costly race in 2020 to fill the final two years of Isakson’s term and, if he or she wins, wage another campaign in 2022 for a full term on a ticket with Kemp.

What's less talked about is the race that will probably be sandwiched in between: a Jan. 5, 2021, runoff if no candidate on the November 2020 ballot gets a majority of the vote. That means Kemp's selection will have to carry the ballot alone in a contest that could be at the center of the nation's political spotlight if control of the Senate is at stake.

More than a dozen Republican hopefuls are seen as strong candidates and are busily assessing their ties to both Kemp and Perdue, who has a vast network of influential donors and operatives likely to weigh in on a decision.

Kemp's selection will also likely have to pass muster with Trump, since the Senate races are bound to affect his chances in Georgia, where Republicans have won every presidential contest since 1996. A single tweet from the president could make or break the pick's popularity with Georgia's GOP faithful, the thinking goes, so he'd have to be on board.

Strategists and politicians are trading info on early favorites, talking up their ability to collect campaign cash or personal wealth, their knack for firing up the party’s base, their talent for bipartisanship, their voting record, their loyalty to Trump and their connection to Kemp.

Some are circulating potentially problematic details about rivals, too: nasty quotes about Trump during the 2016 campaign, financial problems that have surfaced in previous runs for office, votes that could turn off conservative supporters, lackluster fundraising numbers.

And false rumors are spreading fast — so fast that even people close to Kemp can’t help but laugh at what they hear: that the governor would immediately make the decision (he didn’t), that he has already whittled down a shortlist (he hasn’t) and that he’s considering untested or off-the-wall picks for the seat.

(One doozy floating around GOP circles had Kemp ready to tap his onetime archrival, former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, for the seat.)

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, speaks during a hearing on July 12, 2019. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)


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‘You’re honored’

Many Republicans, including some of his rivals, see Collins as one of the most formidable candidates if Kemp decides to seek someone who can mobilize the party’s conservative base.

Collins' lead role on the House Judiciary Committee has made him a household name to supporters of Trump, who complimented him in a tweet last week. His Gainesville-based district is one of the most conservative on the Eastern Seaboard and is home to the state's largest trove of GOP primary voters.

He and his allies are intensely lobbying for the appointment, though Collins has declined to comment on his interest beyond saying that he’s “humbled” to be considered.

Others could also make a solid case, including U.S. Reps. Tom Graves and Drew Ferguson, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel. Another name that's made the rounds is state Sen. Burt Jones, who could potentially pump some of his family's petroleum fortune into the race.

“It’s going to be an interesting process. We haven’t seen anything like this in Georgia in quite some time, and there are plenty of people jockeying for consideration,” said Jones, one of the first state officials to endorse Trump.

“I’ve been getting a lot of calls from friends and supporters inquiring about whether I’m putting my name in the hat,” Jones said. “And when your name gets out there, you’re honored.”

Kemp’s aides are also expected to explore tapping a less conventional candidate who could appeal to voters in the suburbs, such as business executive Kelly Loeffler.

Another figure considered a top-tier possibility is U.S. Attorney BJay Pak, a former GOP state legislator from Gwinnett County of Korean descent who left politics in 2017 when he was appointed by Trump.

Outside groups are trying to exert pressure on Kemp. A supporter of former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston launched a "Bring Back Jack" Facebook page. The conservative Georgia Republican Assembly passed a unanimous resolution urging Kemp to tap former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun to the seat, something he is highly unlikely to do.

And some are distancing themselves from the process entirely. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a former top aide to Isakson who considers the U.S. senator a trusted mentor, is said to have not made any calls or promote any talk of a potential appointment to his former boss' seat.

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia’s 6th District. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

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A surplus of candidates? 

Several of the Democrats eyeing the Senate contests are grappling with dueling challenges.

On one hand, the prospect of running in a free-for-all race in November 2020 without a party primary opens the door to more centrist candidates. On the other, the idea of running against a yet-to-be-named Republican who could have limitless resources is agonizing.

One potential candidate spoke of conflicting emotions — wanting to run in the morning, thinking better of it by nightfall, wanting to run again the next day. Others say they’re waiting until more candidates decide whether they’re in or out until they make their move.

With Stacey Abrams not in contention — she ruled herself out hours after Isakson's announcement — the biggest of those names might be U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who used her platform as a national gun control advocate to flip a suburban Atlanta district last year. It was the party's biggest victory in 2018.

She's said to be seriously considering a run, though some state and national Democrats are urging her to stay in the U.S. House, where she has the advantage of incumbency against Handel and several other Republicans looking to win back the seat.

There are numerous other contenders kicking the tires. They include Michelle Nunn, a nonprofit executive who lost to Perdue in 2014; Jason Carter, the party's gubernatorial contender the same year; and DeKalb County Chief Executive Michael Thurmond, a three-time state labor commissioner.

There's also a crop of rising party leaders who have never sought statewide office before weighing a potential bid, a list that includes state Sens. Jen Jordan and Nikema Williams, former 6th Congressional District candidate Jon Ossoff and DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston.

And some state Democrats are escalating their efforts to recruit the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and a nationally known civil rights leader. Warnock flirted with a campaign against Isakson in 2016 and hasn't ruled out a run this cycle.

‘Shaping’ 2020

The question many of those candidates face is not just whether to run — but which race to enter.

Suddenly, the Democrats who passed on the chance to challenge Perdue are exploring whether to run against him now that the national party seems guaranteed to pour unprecedented resources into Georgia.

Those who are toying with challenging Perdue say they aren’t fazed by the three candidates who are already in the race, and they figure it will be easier to defeat the first-term Republican in 2020 than to try to win a runoff against a Kemp appointee in 2021.

That presents a monster headache to Democratic leaders worried that a glut of candidates could jeopardize their chances at nabbing either seat. It’s one reason why national party operatives are headed to Atlanta next week to hash out strategy and meet with potential contenders.

“We are making sure the party infrastructure is strong for whoever runs. We are going to sit down with candidates to make sure they know what it takes to run,” said Williams, who is chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“I want to make sure we’re set up for the best outcome for the party. What happens in Georgia will shape the 2020 election.”