Dems continue frustrating search for Sen. Johnny Isakson opponent

Georgia Democrats’ search for an opponent to run against U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson next year continues to be a hurry-up-and-wait affair.

And the longer it takes to find a challenger for Isakson, the harder it will be to defeat the popular two-term Republican.

“To even have a chance to unseat him, they would need to run someone that’s a quality challenger,” said M.V. Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “Someone that’s got political experience, elected office-holding experience – and it doesn’t look like they have anyone who wants to jump into the fray.”

Political party candidates have until March 11 to register for the May 24 primary next year, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

Potential Democratic challengers who’ve passed on the chance to challenge Isakson include state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, state Reps. Stacey Evans and Margaret Kaiser, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Hood thinks viable Democratic candidates may be simply waiting to run for an open seat. “They’re waiting for a better opportunity. That’s not uncommon,” he said.

But part of their reluctance could stem from Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn’s 8 percentage point loss to Republican David Perdue in 2014, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“I think the problem they face is, ‘If Michelle Nunn can’t win, then who can win?’ That makes recruiting really hard,” Duffy said.

With centrist leanings and polished political skills, Nunn, the daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, seemed poised to deliver Georgia Democrats a big victory.

“She was a strong candidate. She was a good fundraiser. She was a good campaigner and, at least in the minds of a lot of Democrats, David Perdue was not most of those things,” Duffy said.

Michelle Nunn’s sobering loss in 2014 could having a chilling effect on potential challengers who feel the state’s partisan makeup, Sen. Johnny Isakson’s popularity and his $5.3 million campaign war chest are just too much to overcome.

Recent media reports suggest Democrats now are vetting Michael T. Sterling, executive director of Atlanta’s Workforce Development Agency, as a potential Isakson challenger. Michael Smith, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia, did not respond to requests for comment.

A former senior adviser to Atlanta’s Mayor Reed, Sterling also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, where he prosecuted criminal and civil cases dealing with financial crimes, fraud and public corruption.

Sterling's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Having never served in an elected office, Hood said, Sterling is more political novice than “quality challenger.”

“Which is fine, but it’s highly unlikely that someone who has no experience with elected office is going to unseat an incumbent,” Hood said.

It’s equally unlikely that Isakson will run unopposed, Duffy said, even if the challenger is more of a “placeholder” who’s not expected to win but simply expected to fill the party’s slot on the ballot.

“Sometimes that’s necessary to maintain the party’s viability in future elections,” Duffy said. “So they will have a warm body. Will they have a competitive candidate? Right now, it doesn’t look like it.”

In that case, Isakson’s Democratic challenger could use the race as a springboard to a future run for statewide office.

But if the eventual candidate is neither formidable nor a good fundraiser, they won’t be able to count on money from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which usually steers money to competitive races nationwide.

In 2016, 24 Republican Senate seats will be up for re-election, compared with just 10 for Democrats, who need to win five more seats to regain the majority.

In presidential election years, Democratic voters typically turn out in higher numbers. That was particularly true for black voters in 2008 and 2012, when President Barack Obama was at the top of the ticket.

As more blacks and Hispanics migrate to Georgia, particularly the Atlanta area and its growing suburbs, the state’s electorate is becoming more diverse.

In 2005, more than 3.3 million whites made up 67.4 percent of the state’s registered voters, compared with nearly 1.4 million blacks, who accounted for nearly 28 percent. This year, nearly 1.9 million blacks make up more than 30 percent of Georgia’s registered voters, while 3.5 million whites account for roughly 57 percent.

Hispanics, who can be of any race, have grown from just 42,000, or less than 1 percent of Georgia’s registered voters, in 2005, to more than 130,000, or just over 2 percent, in 2015.

Political observers say the migration eventually could move Georgia’s political makeup from solid red to purple and, ultimately, to blue.

Howard Franklin, a Democratic strategist in Atlanta, expects a slight dropoff among Georgia’s black voters next year without Obama on the ballot. But “the combination of direct mail, urban radio and telephone calls has proven effective at bringing black voter turnout in line with other ethnic groups, regardless of whether the White House is in play,” Franklin said in an email.

Duffy said it’s no coincidence that Democrats are courting a number of black candidates to run against Isakson, in hopes of replicating Georgia’s strong black turnout in 2008 and 2012. But Franklin said ethnicity alone won’t be enough.

“In 2014, Georgia Democrats fielded a historic statewide ticket featuring five African-American women – the backbone of the Democratic coalition – but it didn't translate into success at the polls. Candidates still have to raise impressive sums, build a statewide apparatus and offer voters a clear choice on Election Day,” Franklin wrote.

Short of an unexpectedly strong challenger entering the race, the Democrats’ best chance of defeating Isakson might be a wild-card GOP presidential nominee like Donald Trump, whose unorthodox campaign style could hurt down-ticket Republican incumbents.

“Honestly, if Republicans look to be on the path to nominating a more exotic candidate, call me back,” Duffy said.