Georgia Democrat aims for history with win against Sen. Johnny Isakson

Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond (D) is undaunted by the knowledge that no African-American has been elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. 

“This is a very familiar challenge, quite frankly,” said Thurmond, who’s expected to be the Democratic nominee to face Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). 

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“When I first ran in the mid-’80s, no African-American had been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives from Clarke County since Reconstruction,” he said. “In fact, when I was elected, I was the only African-American elected from a majority-white district in the Southeast.”

When he ran for labor commissioner in 1998, he said, “No non-incumbent African-American had ever been elected to statewide office in the history of Georgia, not just since Reconstruction, but we were able to accomplish that as well.” He’s since been reelected to the statewide position three times.

The Georgia Senate seat won’t be an easy pickup for Democrats, but Thurmond is considered a strong candidate who may be able to give Isakson a difficult race — especially in light of the senator’s recent health scare.

Isakson, 65, was hospitalized twice in March for what he said was “just a toxic shock reaction to bacteria.”

National Republicans are banking on him making a full recovery and waging a vigorous reelection campaign.

“We don’t have a Plan B,” John Cornyn (Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said recently.

A spokeswoman for Isakson said he’s now back to a full schedule in the Senate and on the trail.

Thurmond said he talked to Isakson prior to making his announcement at the end of April. “He seemed to be in good health,” Thurmond said. “What he said to me is that he’s going to wage an aggressive campaign, and I take him at his word.”

Cornyn also said he believed the first-term senator will be able to wage a vigorous campaign. 

“He’s back, strong as ever,” Cornyn said. “The polling I have seen shows that he’s in very good shape.”

In a recent Rasmussen Reports survey, 51 percent of likely voters favored Isakson over Thurmond, who received 35 percent support. There were 8 percent undecided in the April 22 poll.

“He’s taking it very seriously. He’s raising a lot of money,” Cornyn said. “This is not Johnny Isakson’s first rodeo. He knows what he has to do to win, and he’s doing it.”

Isakson had $4.4 million banked at the end of the last quarter, but Thurmond said he’ll have enough money to compete. “Money’s beginning to come in,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be able to generate the funds needed to manage a very competitive campaign.”

Thurmond said he wasn’t recruited by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) to run against Isakson but that he still expected to have its support. He faces minimal opposition in the July 20 primary.

“It was a personal decision to get into the race,” he said. “I’ve had conversations with the [DSCC], of course. But I was not specifically recruited.”

He said the campaign committee “encouraged” him to get into the race.

“I discussed my thoughts with them and, of course, they encouraged me and stated that they were delighted that I was getting into the race,” Thurmond said. “They pledged their support, but no specific commitment was made as it relates to financial resources.”

Thurmond may have a demographic advantage this cycle.

A Pew Research Center study conducted after the last president election found that voter turnout among blacks in Georgia increased by 7.5 percent from 2004 to 2008.

Much of that turnout can be attributed to Barack Obama running for president, but observers said that having Thurmond on the ticket could help Georgia Democrats maintain some of those levels — especially as many of the other statewide Democratic candidates are white.

The Georgia Democratic Party “wanted an African-American to balance the ticket because you’re going to have white candidates running for governor, lieutenant governor and most of the statewide offices,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “An African-American candidate might help get African-American voters out.”

Isakson won’t be a pushover, he added. “I think it’s seen as a real long-shot.”

Thurmond said he’s confident he’ll be able to put together a winning coalition.

“In order to win in Georgia, you have to build a multiracial coalition of voters, black and white” he said. “I’m going to rely on the strategies that I’ve used successfully in the past — building bridges between black and white, urban and rural. Reaching out, not just to Democrats, but to independents and moderate Republicans, and building a winning coalition — that’s what I’ve always done.”

Thurmond said his experience as labor commissioner will give him an edge in the campaign.

“This recession changed my philosophy as a public servant,” he said. “So now I’m focused not on the next election but on the next generation.”

 J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.