Third-party voters could send Georgia Senate contest into overtime

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to this article.

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Elizabeth McCoy doesn’t hesitate for a second when she says she’ll support Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. But ask her about the U.S. Senate race, and the lifelong independent is just as quick to say she’s open to a third-party candidate.

“I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I want something different,” said McCoy, a 45-year-old from Cobb County. “We all do, don’t we? It’s about who has the best solutions. So many candidates make so many promises — and never live up to them.”

McCoy and others considering casting a ballot for a third-party candidate could shake up Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's battle for a third term. With polls showing Democrat Jim Barksdale in striking distance, both campaigns are quietly bracing for a possible Jan. 10 runoff.

And Libertarian Allen Buckley is hoping voter disgust with both Clinton and Republican Donald Trump — each has made an unfavorable impression with 58 percent of Georgia voters — buoys a campaign that barely surpassed 3 percent in 2008 when he last ran for a Senate seat.

He warns of an impending fiscal collapse driven by out-of-control federal spending and a refusal to deal with the nation’s mounting debt. And he’s tailoring his message to disaffected conservatives and independents who see Republicans as slightly more conservative versions of Democrats.

“There’s a lot more interest because the problems have gotten a lot worse,” he said in a recent interview. “More people are aware of the problems, and the two major parties are showing they are just interested in being in power, staying in power and taking care of special-interest groups.”

Runoff possible?

A third-party candidate has not won statewide office in recent Georgia history, and Buckley seems unlikely to end that streak.

An attorney and accountant from Smyrna, he relies on a small band of volunteers as his campaign staff and has raised less than $16,000 since he entered the race last year. He stumps mostly at law firms, carrying giant posterboards that show in stark black and white what he sees as the nation’s coming budget problems.

“If I can get in the runoff, I’ll win the race,” Buckley said. “The only way anything gets accomplished in this race is if I win. Jim Barksdale shows nothing about a new direction. Johnny Isakson doesn’t, either. I’d be the only third-party senator, and I could fight for what’s right.”

Even notching just a few percentage points could be enough to push the contest into a runoff between the top two candidates, which is required if no candidate can secure more than 50 percent of the vote. Buckley did just that in 2008, the last time a high-turnout presidential election coincided with a Georgia U.S. Senate contest.

In that race, he thrust Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin into an overtime battle after siphoning off 3.4 percent of the general election vote.

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey of Georgia voters put both Isakson and Barksdale below the 50 percent threshold, with the Democrat trailing the incumbent by 6 points. The same poll found 12 percent of voters undecided in the Senate race and an additional 6 percent planning to vote for someone other than Isakson or Barksdale.

Trying to minimize Trump, Clinton

Publicly, Barksdale and Isakson each maintain that they have the political muscle to avoid a runoff. But both campaigns appear to be gearing up for a possible round of overtime behind the scenes.

“The Isakson team has been preparing for the most volatile presidential election cycle in modern history,” longtime Isakson strategist Heath Garrett told the AJC. “That means anything can happen.”

Isakson in recent weeks has walked a delicate political line as presidential politics have seeped into the Senate contest. On the one hand he’s distanced himself from the presidential race, rarely evoking the name of either Trump or Clinton. But he also hasn’t budged on his endorsement of Trump.

Two Atlanta Democrats, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Mayor Kasim Reed, have slammed Isakson for failing to denounce Trump, but Barksdale has steered clear of confronting his Republican opponent on the issue. He's instead focused on policy and attacking Isakson's support of the Iraq war and past trade deals.

“People can talk about how he’s a nice guy, works across the aisle or any of these sorts of things, but what I think you hear from the left and the right in this election is that the policies that Johnny Isakson has represented are not policies that have worked,” Barksdale said in an interview. “On the big votes, he’s been wrong.”

Despite that message, some Barksdale backers said their support was an extension of the presidential fight.

“I’m supporting him because he’s a Democrat,” Juan Bonilla said of Barksdale. An 18-year-old student from Dougherty County, Bonilla said the GOP’s embrace of Trump “just really demeans their policies and party as a whole.”

Others said they plan to vote based on Isakson’s record.

“He’s been there for us, one of the guys in politics who has stuck with what he should be doing: his job. I’ve never really heard anything bad about Johnny Isakson,” said Bob Mayfield, a 60-year-old Republican from College Park. “He stands up for the state of Georgia.”

Pivoting campaigns

After spending much of their campaign trying to rally their bases, both candidates have recently stepped up their messaging to independents and other swing voters.

Isakson's first campaign ad of the cycle, unveiled on Monday, is aimed squarely at Democrats and women with a pitch on legislation he shepherded that gives American Peace Corps volunteers abroad enhanced whistleblower protections.

Barksdale has similarly underscored what he sees as his bipartisan appeal on issues such as trade and government spending.

The race remains Isakson’s to lose. He has broad name recognition, more money in the bank and the support of many of Georgia’s leading politicians, including a handful of Democrats.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said for Barksdale to win he will need to build up his name recognition and “define himself before Isakson does it for him.” She said the political newcomer may still lose even if Clinton carries Georgia in November.

Duffy said a January runoff is certainly possible, a scenario she said that would put Democrats at a disadvantage.

“There tends to be a backlash against whichever party wins the White House,” Duffy said. “If the election were held today, certainly Clinton would win given her lead in the polls, and there would be this backlash against Democrats in a runoff that happens weeks after the general election.”

“I think the party that wins gets a little complacent and the opposing party gets a little fired up,” Duffy said.