OPINION: Johnny Isakson and the Last Lions of the Georgia GOP

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The sun hardly rose in Cobb County on the morning of January 6th this year. A heavy fog had settled over the woods and made roads and buildings hard to see.

It was a somber and fitting start to the day that Republicans and Democrats alike gathered to remember the late U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, the exceedingly friendly former realtor who had come up in the old Cobb GOP before he went on to become a quiet, but powerful, force on Capitol Hill.

A quirk of timing meant that Isakson’s memorial in Atlanta fell on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the same U.S. Capitol that the senator had revered so much. Rioters, waving banners demanding we “Make America Great Again” beat and overran Capitol Police officers before breaking into the Senate chamber as it prepared to certify the 2020 election for President Joe Biden.

No event could be more antithetical to the kind of senator Isakson became during his 14 years in the Senate, a steady, dignified force who partnered frequently with Democrats, even as he left no doubt about his conservative bona fides and the party he supported.

Isakson’s death has felt for many like the death of the kind of politics he practiced, too, especially for the Republican Party he leaves behind.

That isn’t entirely the case, of course. Nobody would accuse Georgia Republicans like 90′s-era Newt Gingrich of soft-pedaling their politics. Gingrich was known to use any and all means imaginable — like Democrats before him — to win and keep power.

And there are still a few Georgia Republicans doing the job the Isakson Way.

House Speaker David Ralston is one — formal, courtly, and far more prone to wish a Democrat in the House chamber a happy birthday than deliver a shrieking tirade calling members of the other party enemies of the people.

But it feels like Isakson and Ralston may be the last lions of the breed, the ones as committed to process and institutions as they are to politics, issues, and, like any politician, winning.

Other, younger faces could carry that banner for the Georgia GOP, but they’re hardly being hoisted up as future heroes by the activists and primary voters deciding the future of Republicanism here.

Latham Saddler, the former Navy SEAL with a sunny disposition running for U.S. Senate, might have caught fire in the Georgia GOP 20 years ago. But his campaign is struggling for traction in the face of Herschel Walker’s football fame and an unqualified endorsement from Donald Trump.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, too, seemed to have a bright future in the party when he came on the scene as a Nice Young Man from Forsyth County. But the former baseballer is giving up the number two position in government next year after defending the Georgia elections in 2020 — and losing the support of crucial Trump supporters in the process.

Speaking of Donald Trump, Gov. Brian Kemp is the first lifelong Republican ever elected governor. But Kemp’s insistence that he could not overturn Georgia’s election results — and would not try — has made him another practitioner of traditional GOP politics now facing an uncertain fate.

Other Republicans who praised Isakson publicly in his death are hardly following in his footsteps when it comes to their own actions.

Jake Evans, the son of longtime Georgia GOP heavyweight Randy Evans, is running for Isakson’s old 6th Congressional District seat. He wrote that Isakson “loved Georgia & dedicated a noble life to the service of it.”

But in a Christmas Twitter message a week later, Evans talked about remembering Jesus Christ, while he wore a baseball cap that read, “Let’s Go Brandon.” That’s GOP activists’ code for “[Expletive] Joe Biden.”

And the same Cobb GOP that praised Isakson when he died as “a true champion for Cobb and Georgia,” also planned (and later canceled) a candlelight vigil for the evening of Jan. 6 — not for the late senator, but for the “J6 Patriots” now jailed for the most serious offenses as a part of the Capitol attack.

The road ahead for this Republican Party is as foggy as the day began this on Jan. 6.

Ralston will gavel in a contentious 2022 legislative session as the keel of the Capitol for Republicans, while Kemp positions himself for a primary challenge from his former ally, David Perdue. On the other side of the Capitol, the state Senate will be the site of the drama of multiple state senators battling to replace the retiring Geoff Duncan.

The Speaker laid out his plans for the session Thursday morning and made it clear that he doesn’t plan to let the politics roiling his party overwhelm the incremental progress he’s charted out for his caucus.

And he addressed the events of last Jan. 6, which he called “a very, very dark day in our history.”

“Frankly, I’m disappointed that there are some in my party who can’t accept the fact that that was completely despicable criminal behavior,” Ralston said of the ones who breached the building.

Before leaving to go to Johnny Isakson’s memorial service, he called his friend and mentor, “the best example I knew of civility and collegiality in a political environment that could sure use a healthy dose of both.”

In the year ahead, Republicans can either choose the Isakson Way, the path of principles and norms and respect that the senator chose for himself, or they can bury Isakson and his brand of leadership, friendship and patriotism forever in 2022.