Johnny Isakson appears to scare off all potential challengers

Democrats have one week to find a Senate candidate—or die of shame
Photograph by Max Blau

They’d settle for an old dog, a new dog, even a Blue Dog, but so far Georgia Democrats don’t have any dog in the fight for U.S. Senate.

In recent years, the issue had been whether Georgia Democrats could be competitive in statewide races. This year, the question seems to be whether they will show up at all.

The reason for their plight is no mystery. The Republican incumbent, 71-year-old Senator Johnny Isakson, is arguably the most popular politician in the state. From his first election to the state Legislature in the mid-1970s to his past 15 years in Washington, Isakson has been widely considered a figure of moderation, reason and probity. His fan base includes Georgia’s last Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, who famously said: “If all Republicans were like Johnny, I would be a Republican.”

Although Isakson revealed a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease last summer, that’s seen as little impediment to serving in the Senate, where the average age is 63 and members often seek reelection well into their dotage.

Then there’s the cautionary tale of Democrat Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, whose campaign in 2014 to succeed the retiring Saxby Chambliss spent $16 million, only to be drubbed by Republican David Perdue, another political neophyte. That result, paired with state Sen. Jason Carter’s shellacking by Gov. Nathan Deal, is widely seen as evidence of the currently unassailable strength of the GOP brand in Georgia.

Those numbing losses have been taken as proof that, despite demographic trends that have it slowly turning bluer, Georgia is still years away from electing a Democrat to statewide office. For the foreseeable future, anyone running for the top jobs with a D behind his name likely will be considered political cannon fodder.

Still, any party that wants to be taken seriously must put up a candidate for U.S. Senate. Libertarians are backing insurance agent Ted Metz as their official choice, but so far Democrats haven’t put forth a candidate. For the record, the qualifying deadline is March 11, giving Georgia Dems a mere week to come up with a name for the ballot or face national ridicule for having thrown in the proverbial towel.

“It’s a U.S. Senate race in a presidential election year in a trending state against an older guy,” explains Democratic political consultant Jeff DiSantis, who ran Nunn’s campaign in 2014. “It would be really bad for the Democrats not to put up a credible candidate.”

Not that they haven’t been looking.

“There have been lots of conversations,” says Ted Terry, the Democratic mayor of Clarkston and a candidate recruiter for the party. “But we can’t force anyone to run.”

Although Democrats won’t give an official rundown of the Senate refuseniks, insiders say the list likely includes House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and up-and-coming state House members Stacey Evans of Ringgold and Scott Holcomb of Atlanta. And it sounds as if the party is still attempting to cajole Ed Tarver, a former state senator from Augusta who now serves as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. In each case, however, the conscriptee would have to leave his or her seat to become the party’s designated sacrificial lamb.

A near-ideal candidate would be John Barrow, famously known as the last white Democratic congressman from the Deep South before finally being ousted in 2014 after five terms—and only after Republicans twice redrew his district, moving him from Athens to Augusta. By all accounts, Barrow—who is now a scholar in residence at the University of Georgia and did not immediately return a request for comment—has not jumped at the opportunity to end his retirement.

State Democratic Party officials insist they will qualify a candidate before next Friday’s deadline, but they decline to say who it might be or even what day the announcement will be made.

“[We] will build a solid campaign to unseat Sen. Isakson,” said state Rep. DuBose Porter, the party chairman.

“Democrats benefit from presidential election turnout—even more so if Donald Trump’s name is listed above Sen. Isakson’s,” he said, referencing a potential down-ballot backlash against Republicans if Trump ends up as the party’s pick for the White House.

According to Democratic consultant Chris Huttman, the last time one of the two major parties failed to field a candidate in a Senate race was 2008 in Arkansas, when the GOP whiffed on challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor. Ironically, Pryor was easily defeated in 2014.

At this point, Democrats could be hoping for a candidate to fall in their laps in the form of a millionaire businessperson who could fund his or her own campaign. It’s happened before, most recently with Cliff Oxford, an IT mogul who in 2004 ran for the then-open Senate seat Isakson eventually won.

Although Oxford lost in the primary to Congresswoman Denise Majette, Huttman argues that with no other candidates on the horizon this year, any Democrat brave or reckless enough to challenge Isakson would get a rare free pass to the general election in November.

Citing the Senate qualifying fee, Huttman says entering the race is “essentially a $5,000 lottery ticket with low odds of paying off—but better than the actual lottery.” For instance, he says, there’s always the chance that Isakson could bow out of the race for health reasons. Or, given that the incumbent is considered overly moderate by the Tea Party wing of the GOP, a primary challenge could yet emerge

Perhaps instead of fixating on all the obstacles to victory, Senate hopefuls should draw inspiration from another Georgia race in which a little-known, poorly funded challenger faced a seemingly invincible incumbent. The result: Gov. Sonny Perdue.