“I’m an old athlete,” Tarver said. “You can’t win unless you play the game.”
Democrats sense a chance to win a U.S. Senate election in Georgia for the first time in two decades. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson retired in 2019, and Gov. Brian Kemp picked Loeffler to replace him until the November special election.
Twenty-one candidates are competing for the seat, and a runoff election is likely in January.
A history of public service
Tarver has a long record of public service.
A self-described Army brat, he was born at Fort Hood, Texas, where his father was stationed. When his father retired, the family moved to Augusta. Tarver was a sophomore in high school.
He later spent a year at Morehouse College, thanks to a football scholarship. He returned home to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1981 from what is now Augusta State University.
After graduating, he spent 5 1/2 years in the Army, rising to captain of a field artillery unit. He did not see combat, but Tarver said he learned valuable lessons.
“You have to work with people from diverse backgrounds,” he said. “We had soldiers from different countries and races. Some spoke different languages. We had to unite behind common leadership.”
A knee injury and two surgeries led to a medical discharge. Tarver earned his law degree from the University of Georgia in 1991. He spent a year as a clerk for the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.
Then he spent 17 years at one of Augusta’s oldest law firms, specializing in civil litigation. Among other things, he also served as chairman of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce and president of Leadership Georgia, a program for business, civic and community leaders.
In 2004, Tarver took his first shot at public office, running for the state Senate in District 22. He lost to fellow Democrat Charles Walker in the primary that year. But Walker later was convicted on corruption charges, and Tarver won a special election to replace him in 2005.
He spent more than four years in the Senate. Tarver said he’s most proud of the bipartisan reputation he earned.
“I didn’t always just walk lockstep in party line,” he said.
Ben Harbin, a former Republican state representative from the Augusta area, lauded Tarver’s approach to politics.
“He and I were from very different political backgrounds,” Harbin said. “When you left the meeting, you felt, ‘I don’t agree with that guy, but I like that guy.’ ”
Tarver left the state Senate when President Barack Obama named him U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia in 2009. He served more than seven years in the job.
During his tenure, federal investigators dismantled a human trafficking organization. And Tarver encouraged businesses to hire offenders who had served their sentences.
“He is someone who looks for an opportunity to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly,” said Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis, a Democrat.
A crowded field
When Donald Trump was elected president, Tarver returned to private law practice in Augusta. But he kept an eye on politics. He considered running against Isakson four years ago but ultimately did not.
When Isakson resigned last year, Tarver was among the first Democrats to express interest in running for the seat. But the early start has not translated into broad support.
The national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Warnock. Prominent Democrats such as Abrams, Obama and former President Jimmy Carter have also endorsed the pastor and first-time candidate for public office.
A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution voter survey shows a three-way race among Loeffler (24% support), Collins and Warnock (about 20% each), with Democrat Matt Lieberman (11%) and then Tarver (5%). Campaign disclosures confirm Tarver’s status as a long shot: He had about $31,000 in cash on hand June 30, compared with $7 million for Loeffler, $2.9 million for Warnock and $2.7 million for Collins.
Abrams and others have asked Lieberman and Tarver to end their campaigns to consolidate Democratic support for Warnock. Both have resisted.
“If a candidate can’t stand on his own and win, encouraging other candidates to get out of the race isn’t going to make a difference,” Tarver said.
Amy Steigerwalt, a Georgia State University political scientist, said Tarver “has a very good claim to make that he could build a strong base” of support. But without support from the party and with a single-digit showing in polls, she said he stands little chance of making it to the runoff.
“He not only has to convince voters who he is and why they should vote for him, but he has to do so in the face of really, really, really well-funded campaigns,” Steigerwalt said.
If elected, Tarver said he would seek ways to eliminate racial bias among police — such as implicit bias training — while also supporting law enforcement. He said officers need more resources to deal with people with addiction and mental health problems.
“We need to do something quickly to make sure we stop this rash of individuals who lose their lives at the hands of law enforcement, without ever having been charged with a crime or ever going before a jury,” he said.
Tarver also wants to tackle the economic effects of the pandemic, ensuring that federal aid reaches small businesses. And he said rural hospitals need more support to survive.
Tarver said he’s the best candidate to tackle those issues. But he’ll need to convince a lot more people very quickly to have a chance to prove it.
“I just want folks to look at the experience of each of the candidates,” he said. “If they do that, I think they’ll pick the person who has the best chance of going to Washington and representing Georgia effectively.”
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.