Ga. Senate Race Begins
Swap of House Seats Possible as Isakson Announces
Rep. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) became the first candidate to officially declare for the open Georgia Senate seat Wednesday, likely accelerating the timetable for other Republicans to decide whether to enter what is expected to become a crowded primary field.
Isakson announced he would seek retiring Sen. Zell Miller’s (D-Ga.) seat Wednesday at a news conference at the state Capitol. Miller, who was appointed and then subsequently elected to fill an unexpired term in 2000, said last week that he would not seek re-election.
Isakson, a three-term Congressman elected in 1999 to fill the vacancy created by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) resignation, already has $1.1 million in the bank. He said he decided to announce early in order to have plenty of time to prepare for the race.
“I’ve been down this road before,” he said. “You need to give people the time to build coalitions, find common ground, unite our party.”
Isakson was defeated in a Senate primary runoff in 1996 and also lost a 1990 gubernatorial bid.
Former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) became the only other person on Wednesday to take a concrete step toward becoming a candidate in 2004, by forming an exploratory committee to evaluate whether to run for the House or Senate.
Meanwhile, the two other most likely potential candidates in the Georgia House delegation — GOP Reps. Jack Kingston and Mac Collins — said this week they are still weighing bids but are in no rush to announce at this point.
“Jack is a careful deliberator and not the type to make sudden and hasty moves based on what others do,” said Kingston spokeswoman Robin Ridgley. “He is very serious and he’s been talking to a number of people.”
Collins, meanwhile, issued a statement indicating he is “strongly considering” entering the race but that he is putting his work on the Ways and Means Committee first.
“I am not in such a hurry to decide on a Senate run that I am willing to put politics ahead of the business at hand as a member of the tax committee,” Collins said. “I am concentrating on policy, not politics at this time.”
But with Isakson’s announcement and the likelihood that other candidates may soon follow, it may be hard for Members of the delegation to take their sweet time.
“When any A-list person [announces], all the other candidates have to take note of that and act accordingly,” one Republican source said. “That is the first bookmark in the timing of things.”
The source added, “Months would be too long” for candidates who are mulling whether to enter the race. “It’s now defined in weeks.”
Barr had been planning a run for Miller’s seat but has also been encouraged to run for Isakson’s 6th district seat. In a statement, Barr did not specify which House seat he would seek if he were to run.
Under one scenario being floated, freshman Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) could run in the open 6th district, which is much more favorable for a Republican than his current swing 11th district. Gingrey’s home actually lies just inside the boundaries of the 6th. Barr could then run in the 11th, which includes much of his old 7th district territory. Barr lost a primary last year against fellow Rep. John Linder (R) in the reconfigured 7th.
“I will determine whether I can best serve the people of Georgia and our country by returning to elective office,” Barr said in announcing the committee.
Outside of the current and former delegation members, a number of other Republicans are mulling Senate bids. Among them are retired Major General Rick Goddard and state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine. Georgia Republican Party Chairman Ralph Reed has also been mentioned as a potential candidate, but several sources said it is unlikely he will run.
Goddard, formerly the commander of the Air Logistics Center at Warner Robins Air Force Base, in Warner Robins, Ga., is a political newcomer and relatively new to the state. But his distinguished military background and his close ties to both Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and newly sworn-in Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) could make him a strong primary contender if he is able to raise the needed money.
Goddard flew 227 combat missions during the Vietnam War and earned the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross, among other awards.
Oxendine has polling data from last year showing him leading the GOP field of potential Senate candidates, including four Members of the Congressional delegation.
Meanwhile, the open-seat race has spawned what might be best described as a “Perdue primary,” as candidates clamor to talk to veteran Georgia GOP political strategist Tom Perdue (no relation to the governor).
Perdue has talked to or met with as many as 14 potential candidates, including Kingston, Collins and Goddard.
“We’ll meet with anyone or everyone and I’ll tell them how tough a statewide race is,” Perdue said in an interview Wednesday. “I try to talk people out of running. I don’t ever talk them into running.”
Known for his hard-nosed tactics, Perdue engineered Chambliss’ defeat of then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) last November and was the mastermind behind the late Sen. Paul Coverdell’s (R-Ga.) upset win over Sen. Wyche Fowler (D) in 1992. Perdue also was instrumental in now-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) 1994 defeat of then-Sen. Jim Sasser (D).
“Nobody wants him working against you,” noted one Georgia Republican. “If you’re not for him, you’re against him.”
Perdue also worked on wealthy businessman Guy Millner’s 1996 Senate campaign, which included a bitter primary against Isakson. Isakson lost to Millner in a runoff, and Millner went on to narrowly lose the general election to Cleland.
Perdue made his disdain for Isakson clear, describing him as a “phony, liar and a hypocrite.” He also accused the Congressman of aiding Cleland’s victory and working against Coverdell for a period in 1992.
“I did everything I could do to encourage him to run for the Senate because a man like him does not deserve to hold the public trust,” Perdue said, signaling his belief that Isakson will be defeated in the primary.
Perdue also said that other candidates should not feel pressure to enter the race now that Isakson has announced. He noted that Frist entered the Tennessee Senate race in March 1994, with five candidates already in the primary.
“Timing is a factor, but there are other factors too,” he said. “If you’ve got a Johnny Isakson in the race, you’ve got plenty of time to make your decision.”
Still, he conceded, the race “will start earlier and last longer” because of the timing of Miller’s announcement.
Regardless of who gets in eventually, Perdue’s comments are only one indication that the party appears unlikely to prevent a messy primary and potential runoff. Candidates must garner more than 50 percent in a primary in order to avoid a runoff. The Congressional primaries are set for July 20, 2004.
If the field consists of as many as three or four candidates, ideological and geographical factors will play an increased role in deciding the nominee.
Isakson, as the only likely candidate supporting abortion rights, is already being dubbed the primary’s moderate. While political strategists note that his moderate credentials may make him a stronger general election candidate, they could doom his chances in a primary.
If Barr enters the race, he would have firmly staked out territory in the far right reaches of the party’s ideological spectrum. Kingston and Collins would both fall somewhere in the middle, while Goddard is a political unknown.
Geographically, however, Kingston could have an advantage if he is the only candidate from the Southern half of the state. Isakson, Collins and Barr all represent areas in North Georgia, the population center that includes Atlanta and its sprawling suburbs.
Goddard also hails from what is commonly referred to politically as “south Georgia,” the area of the state that produced both Chambliss and Sonny Perdue. Political observers credit their success last November in part to their geographic base.
Meanwhile, the Democratic bench is not quite as deep as the Republicans’.
While Democrats await a formal announcement from Cleland, the focus on Secretary of State Cathy Cox as perhaps the party’s strongest candidate is intensifying as it appears unlikely that Cleland will run. Democrats believe Cox, if she is the party’s nominee, will be able to appeal to moderate Republican women. Cox was re-elected last year with 61 percent of the vote.
Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor (D), one of the few other possible Democratic contenders mentioned, appears likely to defer to Cox because he is more interested in a 2006 gubernatorial bid.
Attorney General Thurbert Baker (D), former Secretary of State Lewis Massey and several state House members are also mentioned as possible Democratic candidates, as are Reps. John Lewis and Sanford Bishop, but neither is thought likely to run.