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Johnny Isakson farewell highlights challenges in Georgia Senate race

Political reality may make it difficult for his GOP successor to follow his bipartisan lead

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson walks to the Senate floor Tuesday to deliver his farewell address. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson walks to the Senate floor Tuesday to deliver his farewell address. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Republican and Democratic senators took a break from their predictably partisan conference lunches Tuesday afternoon for a bipartisan barbecue honoring Sen. Johnny Isakson.

The outpouring of tributes made clear the Georgia Republican’s successor will have big shoes to fill, and the political reality is that financial executive Kelly Loeffler, whom Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp will announce Wednesday as Isakson’s replacement, might not have an easy time following his bipartisan lead.

The praise for Isakson was fitting — the Republican senator who will be departing at the end of the year due to Parkinson’s disease and other medical challenges has long hosted his own bipartisan Senate barbecue that is a highlight of the year for Democrats and Republicans alike.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas counted seven standing ovations for Isakson during the lunch in his honor. That lunch came just before Isakson, the Veterans’ Affairs chairman, gave his closing speech on the Senate floor, delivering often extemporaneous remarks on the importance of bipartisanship.

“I’m big on bipartisanship. Whether you’re black or white, Republican or Democrat, whatever it might be, find a way to find common ground. Give it a chance to work,” he said.

Isakson highlighted the presence of many senators from both parties, as well as other good friends led by Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis. The two men embraced last month on the House floor when Lewis and other House members honored Isakson, who first came to Congress after winning a special election to fill the House seat vacated by Newt Gingrich.

“Bipartisanship is a state of being. It’s a state of mind. There are people in the United States Senate that I work with, that I love working with every day, that I’m looking at some of them right now in the eye,” Isakson said. “They have an attitude that I like. I know I can sit down and go talk to them and if they say no, I won’t stick my tongue out at them or call them bad names or anything else.”

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Isakson talked about the importance of being able to communicate with colleagues and to make “future friends” even when they disagree on issues.

“It’s a quid pro quo — oh, that’s a bad word,” he said. “I’m glad I remembered that joke.”

Isakson earned a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle, before senators rose to offer tributes to their departing colleague.

Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley was among those to point out the connection Isakson has long made with support personnel on Capitol Hill. “Johnny is always interested in how you’re doing, and has a word of encouragement to share,” whether you’re a powerful committee chairman or a young aide, the Iowa Republican said.

That has been true time and time again. Once, when CQ Roll Call was preparing an obituary for a man who spent almost three decades as a Senate cook, it was Isakson who offered the most poignant memories.

Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, who serves alongside Isakson on the Ethics Committee, hopes Isakson’s bipartisan spirit will be a lesson for his colleagues.

“It’s my hope that after today’s good, brave, important speeches, that some of us will step forward and take up the best way to honor Johnny, which is to model, to mimic his style, listening to each other, respecting each other,” Coons said.

Reality intrudes

By appointing Loeffler as Isakson’s replacement, Kemp is acknowledging the trouble spots Georgia Republicans have with suburban voters — especially women — ahead of 2020, when Democrats are hoping to put the state in play up and down the ballot.

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 11: Co-Owner of Atlanta Dream Kelly Loeffler speaks on stage during the 2016 S3 Summit/PRO2CEO at College Football Hall of Fame on August 11, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler is expected to be named as Isakson’s replacement by Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp. (Marcus Ingram/Getty Images file photo)

Loeffler would be only the second woman to represent Georgia in the Senate. (The first, Rebecca Latimer Felton, served just one day in 1922.) Loeffler would bring to 21 the number of Republican women who have ever served in the chamber. The total number of women in the Senate will rise to 26, with 17 Democrats and 9 Republicans. 

She will have the support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee as she faces the voters next year for the last two years of Isakson’s term.

“I spoke to her on Sunday. It sounds to me like the governor of Georgia made a terrific appointment,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters. “She will be an incumbent Republican senator. We will all be behind her. Sen. [Todd] Young had already made it clear the NRSC is going to be behind her. I’m going to be behind her.”

But because of the rare double Senate election taking place in state in 2020 — GOP Sen. David Perdue is seeking a second term — and the way in which the special election is conducted, what some think could be good for Georgia Republicans in a general election could end up triggering a primary dynamic that could hurt the GOP’s efforts to keep the state red in 2021.

Kemp is defying the wishes of President Donald Trump, who’d wanted him to tap Rep. Doug Collins. Trump carried Georgia by 5 points in 2016.

And in an era when the Republican Party has largely become synonymous with loyalty to the president, the knives have since come out for Kemp — and Loeffler.

Conservative radio host Mark Levin called Kemp “another Mitt Romney,” while Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a vocal Trump ally, has said the governor needs to have a primary challenge in 2022. Meanwhile, even some conservative women, like the president of Susan B. Anthony List, which backs anti-abortion candidates, has come out against Loeffler.

Even before Kemp made his selection, Collins had said he’d consider running if he wasn’t the governor’s pick. The four-term congressman, who’s about to assume a high-profile role in the impeachment hearings as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, has continued to leave the door open to a Senate bid.

As head of Bakkt bitcoin futures trading exchange and co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA team, Loeffler will likely bring her own money to the race. Her husband runs the Intercontinental Exchange, an Atlanta-based financial firm. Having a self-funder would take pressure off national Republicans, who weren’t expecting to have to spend to defend two Senate seats in Georgia next year. 

But an internecine fight, combined with the peculiarity of the special election primary timing, could be problematic for Republicans and could even boost a Democrat. Candidates of all parties will run together on the November ballot. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will face off in a January 2021 runoff.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both Georgia Senate races Likely Republican.

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