A surprise retirement from a longtime senator has handed Democrats another potential path to winning back the Senate in 2020 — one that would run through his purple-trending, fast-diversifying state.
Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia announced Wednesday that he’ll leave office at the end of 2019 because of his declining health, creating a new open seat in 2020 and another potential pickup opportunity for Democrats as they look to net the minimum of three seats they need for Senate control.
That’s a tough but not impossible task.
Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) looks to be in a lot of trouble next year, and if he loses, the party would need to flip four other seats. Strategists say Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) is an underdog for re-election and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) is in for a brutal fight where Democrats think they have the edge. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) are also likely to face tough races, but Democrats admit both will be hard to beat.
Isakson’s retirement gives them another possible seat to target, and a little more room for error if one of the other races doesn’t go their way. Georgia, once a GOP stronghold, is trending Democrat because of explosive growth in nonwhite populations and a recent exodus of female GOP voters in Atlanta’s suburbs during President Trump’s era. The state population was only 52.8% non-Hispanic white in 2017, according to Census data, down from 55.8% as recently as 2010.
President Obama lost the state by eight points in 2012, while Hillary Clinton lost it by only five points and 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams lost by just three last cycle as Democrats flipped one House seat long held by Republicans and nearly flipped another one.
Georgia already had a Senate seat up next election: Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) is facing re-election. But while Perdue isn’t a lock for another term, his ability to self-fund with nearly unlimited resources makes him a tough opponent to beat in the expensive state. The race to fill the final two years of Isakson’s term might be a more winnable one for Democrats, depending on who runs on both sides for the seat.
Abrams, who’d already turned down national Democrats’ entreaties to run against Perdue, made it clear she has no plans to change her mind and run for the state’s other Senate seat.
“Leader Abrams’ focus will not change: She will lead voter protection efforts in key states across the country, and make sure Democrats are successful in Georgia in 2020. While she will not be a candidate herself, she is committed to helping Democratic candidates win both Senate races next year,” Abrams spokesman Seth Bringman said in a statement.
National Democrats may take one more shot at getting her to run, but there are other potential candidates that local strategists are already buzzing about:
- DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, a former state labor commissioner who’s won statewide before
- Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, Jimmy Carter’s grandson, who ran a strong 2014 race in a tough year for Democrats
- Rev. Raphael Warnock, the head of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and a close Abrams ally who has worked hard on African-American voting rights issues in the state.
There’s also a chance that one of the three Democrats running against Perdue will decide to jump to the other race.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who defeated Abrams last fall, will play a big role since he’ll pick a short-term appointment for the seat until next year’s election. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr may have the inside track, Georgia and national Republicans tell VICE News — he was a longtime chief of staff to Isakson and has a cordial relationship with Kemp. Perdue’s cousin, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (R), is a former governor who might be an another option. Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R) and GOP Reps. Doug Collins and Tom Graves also could be interested. Whoever Kemp appoints, it’s unclear whether they will clear the field or could face a GOP challenger.
The race likely still leans to the GOP, though. Georgia has been a tough nut to crack for Democrats given the state's racial polarization in voting. And state laws requiring the winner to top 50% mean the race will almost certainly head to a January 2021 runoff, something that’s hurt Democrats in past statewide races because it’s harder for them to turn their voters out.
Democrats could also find another Senate seat in a red state looks more appealing down the line — Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) could look more vulnerable in a few months, or Republicans could nominate a fatally flawed candidate in Kansas, for instance.
But Isakson’s retirement gives Democrats one more path to winning back Senate control that didn’t exist just hours ago — and puts the spotlight squarely on a fast-diversifying state that cold be in play at both the presidential and Senate level for the first time in a long time next year.
“Georgia is going to be on fire in 2020, man,” Tharon Johnson, a longtime Georgia Democratic strategist who led President Obama’s Southern state efforts in 2012, told VICE News. “It’s going to be great.”
Cover: Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., climbs the stairs as he arrives at the Capitol for the vote to confirm William Barr's nomination to become attorney general, in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)