Succeeding Georgia’s Sen. Isakson

By Jim Ellis

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson (R)

Aug. 30, 2019 — Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson (R), first elected to the Senate in 2004 after spending six years in the US House and 18 years in the Georgia legislature, announced Wednesday that he will resign his seat at year’s end due to serious health problems.

The news stories have reported the details surrounding Isakson’s departure and his health status, but the succession situation will be the concentration of this update. The development means that both of Georgia’s Senate positions will be on the ballot in 2020. The two will run only semi-concurrently, however.

The first step is for Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to appoint a replacement for Sen. Isakson. The governor will install an interim senator to serve from Jan. 1 until the appointed individual or another is elected. It is believed that the governor will name his choice quickly so that the person will have a transition time to work with Isakson and his staff before assuming the office.

While Sen. David Perdue stands for a second term in the regular cycle, meaning a May 19, 2020 primary followed by a July 21 run-off if no candidate secures majority support in the initial vote, the special election will follow a different format and slightly altered schedule.

The regular general election is, of course, Nov. 3, 2020, but Georgia is also one of the few states that holds a post-election run-off in case no one receives majority support. That run-off will be held Jan. 5, 2021, but it is unlikely that the Perdue race would advance through to such a process regardless of who wins the November vote.

The Isakson seat, however, will not follow the same calendar or system. Since this is a special election called to fill the balance of the current term, which will last until the beginning of 2023, a jungle primary is to be held concurrently with the November election, and the top two individuals, regardless of political party affiliation, will advance to the Jan. 5 run-off if no one receives a majority vote in the first election. For this seat, the odds of seeing a run-off election intensify because a crowded field is expected, thus making it more difficult for any one individual to secure majority support.

One person who will not be competing is former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, the former state House Minority Leader. Abrams indicated that she will not be a Senate candidate in either seat next year, preferring to remain focused in her role of working with voter registration and turnout organizations.

For the next several days, the focus of attention will be on the Kemp appointment. The names most mentioned are Attorney General Chris Carr, US Rep. Doug Collins (R-Gainesville), Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, and Congressman Tom Graves (R-Ranger/Rome), among several others.

It is probable that the governor will choose a new senator who has a political base, a necessity if he or she is to maximize the one-year of incumbency vis-à-vis the coming election. Therefore, the most logical choices would be a current statewide official, with Kemp then appointing that person’s successor, or a US House member from a safe Republican district, i.e., either Collins or Graves.

Georgia is now a more challenging state for Republicans largely because of demographic changes. According to recent population studies it has become clear that a large number of African Americans are moving to Georgia, and particularly the Atlanta area, to take advantage of strong economic opportunities that the state’s economy yields.

In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, five of the top 10 US counties where the white population has decreased to the greatest degree lie in Georgia, including the top three, all of which are in the Atlanta metro area.

Now with two US Senate elections and what appears to be a changing Georgia political playing field, we will be hearing much from these races as the election cycle begins to take hold.

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