On Wednesday morning, Sen. Johnny Isakson rocked Georgia’s political world by announcing he is retiring at the end of the year. Isakson has been a fixture in public service for over four decades. His name sits alongside others such as Paul Coverdell and Newt Gingrich in the small circle of founders of the modern Georgia Republican party. His departure marks not only the end of an era, but also brings into focus the party’s immediate future in Georgia.
Isakson’s term is scheduled to run through the 2022 election. By law, Gov. Brian Kemp will appoint a successor to Isakson, whose resignation is effective at the end of the year. That appointment is good until the next general election, setting up another statewide contest for U.S. Senate in 2020 to finish Isakson’s unexpired term. That’s right, both of Georgia’s Senate seats now will be on the ballot next year.
Fueled by seemingly unlimited millions of out-of-state money and an equally large reservoir of resistance energy, Democrats are thinking big for 2020: 16 electoral votes, a hold of the 6th Congressional District and a pickup in the 7th, and now two U.S. Senate seats. Some are even talking about flipping a chamber of the legislature.
A lot of Georgia’s electoral future is on the line. How Kemp chooses to respond will tell us a lot about how he views the electoral map, his vision for the future of the Georgia GOP, and ultimately, how he makes big decisions that are solely his.
Republicans do not plan on ceding any turf to the Democrats, and look to pick up Georgia’s 6th district as well as some legislative seats lost in 2018. New maps will be drawn by the legislature elected in 2020, and that will set the tone for the 2022 elections, when Kemp and his Senate appointee are both presumably running for re-election.
Much of the immediate discussion among insiders following Isakson’s announcement was speculation of who would be on the short list. As this is an appointment, the answer right now is an exercise in speculation. What Republicans should coalesce around are the qualities that are needed in Georgia’s next senator, and how this person will play on the next two election ballots.
First and foremost, this should be someone ready to run an election campaign simultaneous with their service. Appointing a “placeholder” with no plans to run in 2020 sets the Republican party up for an unnecessary intra-party battle for the next 15 months.
Opening up a Senate primary would cause a cascade of current elected officials deciding to try and “move up”, with others then doing the same to move into the newly vacated positions. This would be a waste of resources focused inward on intra-party contests at a time Republicans need every dime they can raise to battle a wave of “turn Georgia blue” cash.
Secondly, this is no time to create a dark horse candidate. Republicans need someone that is a complement to the ticket. In 2020, this is someone who will be at the top of the ticket with President Donald Trump and Sen. David Perdue. In 2022, the candidate will need to pair well with Kemp and a slate of Republican statewide constitutional officers. The ideal candidate would be someone that brings something different to the ballot that helps Georgia Republicans expand their current base.
Isakson was both an architect and builder of Georgia’s Republican party. With his retirement, it will now be Brian Kemp that charts the course for a new era of Georgia Republicans.