OPINION — You could almost hear the collective “Holy #&%!” across Georgia last week after Sen. Johnny Isakson’s surprise announcement that he will retire from the Senate at the end of the year. The first reaction among Republicans and Democrats alike was that the highly respected GOP senator would be sorely missed.
The next reaction was the realization that for the next year and a half, politics in Georgia will be one wild ride. The 2020 ballot in the state had already been filled with marquee races — GOP Sen. David Perdue’s fight for a second term, two House seats up for grabs in once-solidly Republican suburban Atlanta, and President Donald Trump’s reelection bid. The addition of the race to replace Isakson makes Georgia a legitimate battleground for both parties for the first time in nearly two decades.
Two seats, two different races
Perdue’s reelection bid was off to a relatively uneventful start before last week. Over the course of his four-plus years in office, Georgia’s junior senator has kept a low profile across the state, opting mostly for pre-planned, closed-door appearances over town hall meetings, and steering clear of controversy with a buttoned-up focus on business issues and deficit reduction.
Despite a lockstep allegiance to the president that sometimes looks like a three-legged race, Perdue has managed to keep his own favorability well in net-positive territory (47 percent favorable/ 25 percent unfavorable in a spring poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), while Trump’s net negatives in the state are high enough to scare a large mammal (40 percent favorable/56 percent unfavorable in the same poll).
Perdue has drawn three solid Democratic challengers in former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, former Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and 2018 lieutenant governor nominee Sarah Riggs Amico. But Stacey Abrams’ decision to take a pass on the race was a clear signal that challenging Perdue is shaping up to be a typically tough statewide slog for any Democrat, even one with Abrams’ following.
The Isakson race is a different story. Unlike the Perdue contest, this seat will first be filled by whomever GOP Gov. Brian Kemp appoints, and then by a special election in which candidates from all parties run on the same November 2020 ballot. Without having to go through a partisan primary before the general election, the race immediately favors high-name-ID moderates over base-pleasers from either party. High-name-ID moderates? It’s hard to even name one other than Isakson. But whichever unicorn wins that race will then have to run for reelection in 2022 for the remaining two years of Isakson’s term. That contest will include a partisan primary. It’s a heavy lift, but a once-in-a-generation wild card for the right candidate.
The modern Republican Party in Georgia began in Atlanta’s fledgling suburbs in the 1970s, when Republican transplants to the Peach State like Newt Gingrich and Tom Price won seats in the state Legislature.
But a new wave of transplants — Metro Atlanta had the fourth-fastest-growing population in the country last year — has brought 1.2 million new voters to the state since 2010, including many of the highly educated suburban women who have been in no mood for either Trump’s Twitter feed or presidency. Last cycle, the Trump drag opened the door for Democrat Lucy McBath to defeat GOP incumbent Rep. Karen Handel in the 6th District, the first time a Democrat had won the seat since the 1970s. Handel is running again, along with more than half a dozen other Republicans, betting that McBath’s 1-point victory in 2018 was a fluke.
But McBath’s win came two years after Hillary Clinton won two suburban Atlanta counties, Cobb and Gwinnett, including portions of McBath’s district and the 7th District next door. On the same night McBath won her seat, veteran GOP Rep. Rob Woodall held on in the 7th District by just 419 votes. Woodall has opted to retire next year, and that’s unleashed an open-seat melee, with 16 candidates at last count bidding to succeed him. That half of them are Democrats who believe they could win the 7th District at all is a sea change for that area in and of itself.
New population, new issues
It’s not just election results that are new in Georgia. Along with the growing and diversifying suburban population in Atlanta, a jumble of evolving issues such as gun safety, immigration and the trade wars are combining to make the state’s political dynamics, well, dynamic.
Even though exit polls in 2018 showed that 61 percent of Georgians had a gun in their household, 49 percent said they wanted stricter gun controls, compared to 45 percent who said they didn’t. On trade, agriculture is the state’s largest industry, and it’s getting hammered by a combination of the president’s trade war with China, delayed disaster relief from 2018 storms, and stricter immigration enforcement that’s cutting into a seasonal workforce. Even the most loyal Trump supporters say they want Chinese markets — which they’ve worked for years to access — to open back up to Georgia-grown products.
The first domino to fall on 2020 in Georgia will come soon from Kemp, the governor, when he names Isakson’s replacement. Kemp has made a number of executive appointments in recent months that have been diverse, highly qualified and as apolitical as a political appointee can really get. It’s a far cry from the gun-slinging persona he presented in his primary ads to win last year, but maybe that’s the point?
Not only will Kemp’s appointee have the best chance to win the seat outright in 2020, he or she will also be on the ballot with the governor in his 2022 primary and general election. The Republican Kemp chooses to team up with now should tell us everything we need to know about the direction of the state’s politics in 2020 and beyond.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.