With two Senate races, Georgia becomes a top political battleground

Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s decision to step down at the end of this year sets Georgia up for two Senate races in 2020, making it a key battleground for control of the chamber. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s decision to step down at the end of this year sets Georgia up for two Senate races in 2020, making it a key battleground for control of the chamber. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

For the past decade, there was a familiar dance in Georgia politics: Democrats promised that the state was on the verge of becoming a swing state, and Republicans rolled their eyes and kept on winning.

Well, there’s no doubt about Georgia’s battleground status now. Last year’s tight midterm elections had already put everyone on notice that times have changed. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s retirement plans cement Georgia’s leading role in 2020 by setting up two simultaneous Senate races.

To put it mildly, the doubleheader Senate contests and the raft of competitive down-ticket contests has upended plans for many Georgia politicians.

For Democrats, it means intense attention to flipping a state that Republicans have carried in every presidential vote since 1996 and every statewide vote since 2008. The two Senate contests might give the party its best chance at retaking the chamber, where Republicans hold a 53-47 edge.

But that will take strong candidates and unprecedented investment from national Democrats who so far have not been able to recruit big-name contenders.

Republicans, too, see opportunity. U.S. Sen. David Perdue already has the financial advantage against the three Democrats who have lined up to challenge him. A formidable new senator could help extend their dominance in Georgia — and boost President Donald Trump’s chances here, too.

That pick will be up to Gov. Brian Kemp, and he knows it might be the most consequential political decision he’s ever made. Not only will his selection help determine Georgia’s 2020 race, but he or she could also share the ballot with him in 2022.

To put it another way, Kemp has the chance to pick his running mate.

The frenzy of behind-the-scenes jockeying began immediately. Kemp’s aides and advisers have been deluged with calls and messages trying to ferret out hints to his approach. Potential candidates are contacting friends, allies and rivals to let it be known they might be interested.

Kemp has a small galaxy of Republican officials to choose from — rising party stars, political veterans, business executives, standouts from the judicial branch.

His advisers plan to vet the usual suspects, including state leaders and legislators, but they also hope to consider some lesser-known contenders, such as corporate types or law enforcement officials. They point to the governor’s early record of appointments, which includes some picks that even his critics celebrated.

The political upheaval for Democrats may be even greater. No fewer than a dozen credible contenders are said to be giving serious consideration to the race, including U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, state Sens. Jen Jordan and Nikema Williams, and past candidates in high-pressure statewide contests.

The potential for disruption is so vast that Saba Long, a Democratic strategist, dubbed 2020 the year of the “domino election for Democrats.”

‘Wake-up call’

Republicans have braced for a political reckoning since last year’s vote, when Democrats scorched a blue path through Atlanta’s suburbs, powering McBath’s upset victory and bringing Stacey Abrams within 55,000 votes of defeating Kemp.

Consider the scene three weeks ago when hundreds of conservative activists piled into an airport hangar in Rome for one of the biggest annual GOP rallies in the state — a veritable warmup act for the 2020 elections.

Each speaker bashed left-leaning policies and boasted about Trump’s agenda. But they also laced their remarks with warnings that last year’s razor-thin midterm is an ominous sign for next year’s vote.

“We had a wake-up call in 2018,” Perdue said. “The most liberal billionaires in America think they’re going to import their view on Georgia — their radical, socialist views. And this isn’t the first time they’ve tried it.”

Among the highest-profile figures who spoke that day was Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, an Isakson protégé who once served as the senator’s top aide. He pleaded to the crowd to “get back to work” and urged them to come to terms with Georgia’s battleground status.

“We can acknowledge that this is happening and do something about it and win,” he said. “Or not and lose.”

Much will depend on the path Kemp takes with his pick to replace Isakson, who reluctantly decided to step down at the end of the year as he struggles with Parkinson’s disease and the removal of a malignant growth from his kidney.

Does the governor go with a base-pleasing conservative who will help drive turnout? Or does he select a candidate who can better appeal to the droves of women and minorities in metro Atlanta, where Kemp got clobbered last year?

Isakson, in an interview, suggests the big-tent approach. He said he hopes to see Republicans step up their efforts to bring black voters into the fold.

“Hopefully, the things that I did set an example,” said Isakson, who honed a reputation as a consensus-builder. “You can’t just take people for granted. We’re a very diverse country. We’ve got some of the greatest minds in the world, and they come in all sizes and shapes and colors and heritage.”

And yet, Republicans have succeeded in the past few elections by relentlessly appealing to the GOP faithful — though it’s not clear that approach will keep working, given Georgia’s rapidly changing demographics. It’s the path that Perdue took to win his 2014 election, and it was how Kemp won the race for governor. His promise to expand gun rights, boost rural Georgia and restrict abortions helped him tally huge margins in conservative parts of the state.

“Some people are looking for a unicorn — a mythical combination of age, gender and ethnicity to unlock certain voter blocs,” said Dan McLagan, a veteran Republican strategist. “Those candidates always have a fatal flaw or they would already be on stage.”

He predicted Kemp will wind up searching for someone “vetted, successful and proven — who we know doesn’t have an Icelandic love child or a closet full of Drew Brees jerseys.”

‘A national race’

Isakson’s retirement may well force Democrats to confront their own battle over party ideology, philosophy and racial identity.

Each of the three Democrats who launched Senate campaigns against Perdue has tacked to the party’s left on issues of criminal justice, climate change, gun control and income inequality — taking stances that were inconceivable a decade ago but now are crucial to winning a party primary.

But there will be no party primary to hash out the race for Isakson’s seat. That special election will be held in November and feature candidates from all parties, a higher turnout affair that could encourage more moderate candidates to jump in the contest.

“This is a direction that I’ve been interested in for some time because I think our primaries now are working to polarize the country,” former Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, whose daughter Michelle is considering a bid, said in an interview with WABE. “Extreme positions are taken in the primary — this is going to be a different deal.”

And unlike the Perdue contest, where all three candidates are white, the race for Isakson’s seat seems all but certain to attract a formidable black contender who will seek to energize the Democratic base.

“A strong black candidate undoubtedly shifts the level of play and sets the stage for Democrats to claw back control — or at least balance — at the state level,” said Long, the strategist. She offered a prediction: “If black voters have to settle, the Senate seat remains in the hands of the GOP.”

There are other lessons from last year’s election that Democratic leaders are sorting through.

Abrams mobilized record numbers of voters in part by appealing to minorities, newcomers and younger residents who rarely cast ballots. McBath pulled off an upset victory with a focus on firearms restrictions and Medicaid expansion. Down-ticket Democrats surged across the suburbs by embracing left-leaning issues once seen as deal breakers.

DeKalb County Chief Executive Michael Thurmond said there’s something else candidates for the dual Senate contests should keep in mind: “The Senate race is not a state race. It’s a national race, and it has to be about more than the individual.”

He has a unique perspective. The three-term state labor commissioner challenged Isakson in the 2010 Senate race — and got trounced. Thurmond, whose name has been floated as a possible contender for Isakson’s seat, said the Republican can offer a model of sorts to today’s Democrats.

“We can learn something from Johnny Isakson,” he said. “He’s being celebrated as a pre-eminent elected official across party lines and across racial lines because he focused more on service as opposed to self. And he had the courage of his convictions not to become trapped in partisan ideology.”