The Twists & Turns of Replacing
Georgia’s Sen. Johnny Isakson

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson (R)

By Jim Ellis

Sept. 9, 2019 — Political chatter about the new Georgia Senate race is becoming prevalent. As we know, last week Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) announced that he will resign at the end of this year due to health problems. A great deal of speculation has occurred since, not only about who will be appointed to succeed the senator, but also who will run in the 2020 special election, and even about the election procedure, itself.

At this point, we know that Gov. Brian Kemp (R) will name a replacement for Sen. Isakson. The selected individual will serve throughout 2020 and will likely run in the succeeding special election. The winner then serves the balance of the current term and would be eligible to run for a full six-year stint in the 2022 election.

The special is scheduled somewhat concurrently with the November 2020 general election. It’s possible, however, that the initial Nov. 3 vote will not immediately produce a winner, thus forcing an early January 2021 run-off. The candidates will first run in a jungle primary – that is, all contenders regardless of party designation appearing on the same ballot – and if no one receives a majority vote, the top two finishers will advance to a run-off election to be held Jan. 5, 2021.

There is a potential scheduling nuance, however. Since the 2020 candidate filing deadline is March 6 for a May 19 regular primary and July 21 regular run-off, it is highly unlikely that the special election candidates will also file on that particular date. Therefore, if the candidate filing deadlines are different, will that allow individuals to run for an office in the 2020 regular cycle, and then simultaneously appear on the special US Senate election ballot? The question appears to be unanswered right now, and likely won’t be resolved until Gov. Kemp names his appointment and officially sets the election calendar.

The dual office speculation is beginning on the Democratic side because freshman Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Marietta) indicated yesterday that she is considering a potential Senate run. It would be assumed that the congresswoman would have to risk her House seat to run in the special, but is such the case? Since she, or anyone else, would already be filed for a race in 2020 before the Senate special filing deadline, does such status disqualify those candidates from entering the latter race?

For example, Rep. McBath could appear on the ballot for re-election to her 6th Congressional District post and for the statewide special Senate election. It is commonplace to see a special and regular election run concurrently for one office where candidates appear for the special and regular terms separately but on the same ballot, so would it be legal for them to appear for more than one office so long as the secondary contest is the special Senate election?

Answering this question will likely require a ruling from the state’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), but his decision, regardless of its nature, would obviously be subject to a court challenge from those who disagree.

So far, Gov. Kemp has been quiet about who he will pick and when the choice will be announced, saying only that he will, “ … appoint Sen. Isakson’s replacement at the appropriate time.”

The leading potential appointment candidates appear to be Attorney General Chris Carr (R), a former Isakson chief of staff who is believed to be the senator’s personal choice, US Reps. Austin Scott (R-Tifton), Doug Collins (R-Gainesville), and Tom Graves (R-Ranger/Rome), and state Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller (R-Gainesville), among others.

Some close to the governor say he will keep his deliberations private and may make an “out of the box” choice. He chose that very option when selecting local police chief John King to serve as the state Insurance Commissioner earlier this year. King did not appear to be a prospective candidate but allowed the governor to appoint the first Hispanic to statewide office.

An added benefit to the governor for choosing AG Carr is knowing he will also be able to appoint his own attorney general to replace Carr after he resigns to assume his Senate duties.

Much intrigue surrounds the potential appointment, as well as answering the procedural questions, yet we could lie in a state of limbo for quite some time. The governor doesn’t have to act until Sen. Isakson leaves office, which isn’t until Dec. 31.

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