The first rule of political debating, it should go without saying, is that you should never, ever voluntarily admit you changed parties. Ever. If you’re asked, be honest, but don’t give that information away, especially in front of the opposition.
Jim Barksdale, the Democratic Party-backed candidate seeking to unseat incumbent U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, made that mistake during his Atlanta Press Club debate last Friday. In a mostly empty studio at Georgia Public Broadcasting’s 14th Street headquarters, the 63-year-old Atlanta investor—a political rookie who has loaned himself more than $1 million for what has so far been a strangely silent campaign—nervously clenched his podium as he went toe-to-toe against his two fellow Democratic candidates, Hiram project manager Cheryl Copeland and Alpharetta businessman John F. Coyne III.
Barksdale’s blunder was an awkward moment for a candidate that Democrats had courted to fill the ticket just before the March qualifying deadline after no one—not politicians (Stacey Abrams), nor a pastor (Raphael Warnock), nor prosecutor (Ed Tarver), nor half a dozen other people—came forward to run against the well-respected Isakson, who has more than $5.5 million in his reelection war chest.
The soft-spoken Barksdale, who wore thin-rimmed glasses and dressed in a black suit, not only struggled to exude confidence, but also seemed unable to articulate his policy positions. Associated Press reporter Katie Foody, noting how his website contained very few policy positions, led off the Democratic debate with a pointed question: How can you ask Democratic voters to support you in just a few weeks with so little information?
Barksdale sidestepped the question, instead talking about how he was recruited, before responding, “When [the Democrats] asked, this is a case where, when I look around the country, and I see all the people who haven’t benefitted by the privilege I’ve had, the people who’ve been left behind, I felt like I needed to say ‘yes.’”
Bill Nigut, the grizzled GPB radio host who moderated the debate, took it upon himself to pin down Barksdale on a more concrete answer to Foody’s question. “What’s your message?” Nigut asked, more directly.
“The key message is that the trickle-down economics that we were sold—and that I bought into for the many years I voted Republican . . . has not worked,” answered Barksdale, before discussing how Reaganomics ultimately left people behind. (After the debate, he told me that he “voted Republican almost my entire life until the invasion of Iraq.”)
From there, things didn’t get much better. Barksdale said Georgians needed “better jobs,” an “improvement in the minimum wage,” and “improved investment in infrastructure.” He also noted he was worried about “putting social security at risk” through privatization. But he failed to offer a single specific proposal over the course of 30 minutes.
“[The Democrat Party leaders] know my focus on human rights, they know my focus on a trying to help other people, and they know I’m a viable candidate,” he added in similarly vague fashion. “This election is too important to lose. We have got to change the policies.”
After the debate, I asked Barksdale to name a specific policy of any kind that he would pursue if elected senator. He replied, “Campaign finance reform is the most essential thing to fixing what’s wrong in Washington.” Great, that’s a start. So how do you fix that, Jim? “I don’t have all the solutions,” he continued. “I have certain ideas, you know, in terms of how you equalize some of the funding. I can throw out my various ideas. But I think they aren’t very well vetted out at this point, so I’d rather not.”
So there you have it. If you’re a Democrat in Georgia, you’ll have the choice on May 24 to vote for Barksdale, who plans to keep “spending a lot of time listening to people,” or two lesser-known opponents with minimal campaign funds. Should Barksdale win, it’ll be him against Isakson, a Republican so well-liked that last year former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes acknowledged that “if all Republicans were like Johnny Isakson, I would be a Republican.” So if Barksdale can change parties, why can’t you?
You can watch the full Democratic U.S. Senate debate, which first aired on Sunday, below.
Note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Barksdale was age 71. He is 63. (Isakson is, in fact, 71.) We regret the error.