Senate races

Senator watching his back in reelection bid

Greg Nash

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is watching his back and making early strategic maneuvers, as he launches his 2016 reelection campaign. 

The incumbent quickly announced after Election Day he’d be running for a third term, gathering a number of top Georgia Republicans around him in a show of strength, as he seeks to scare off any potential primary rivals.

{mosads}The pragmatic senator could have been vulnerable from the right, but armed with a $2.25 million campaign fund and endorsements from many would-be challengers, he’s looking to other colleagues — such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) — who avoided primary defeats this year for inspiration. 

“Lindsey ran a great campaign, got out early and asked early, and that gives you the time to do what you need to do and do whatever comes. I try and watch successful people and emulate the qualities that they have and craft my decisions around that,” Isakson told The Hill in an interview in his Capitol Hill offices this week. 

 “Two years sounds like a long time, but it’s not. If you know that you’re going to run, you ought to go ahead and let it be known,” he continued. “That gives you the time to lay the groundwork to build a campaign and deal with whatever comes.”

 The senator has carved a reputation as a conservative willing to compromise in the Senate. He voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), raising the debt ceiling and the compromise to continue the Bush-era tax cuts for most, but not all Americans.

 Some of those votes have irritated conservative hard-liners in Washington. He wasn’t among the six senators the fiscally conservative Club for Growth endorsed earlier this month for the 2016 elections, holding a 76 percent lifetime score with the group. He’s also been accused by from some on the right for not being conservative enough on abortion.

 Democrats are also hopeful they could make inroads in the state, though a pair of quality candidates fell short in the 2014 elections for governor and Senate, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to recruit a top-tier candidate against Isakson, who won both of his elections with 58 percent of the vote.

 The senator is 69 years old, and some in the state had been wondering whether he would run again after his friend, retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), decided to hang it up this past cycle.

 But state Republicans say Isakson still has fire in his belly and is running full steam ahead. 

 “The best way to run is to run scared,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who is backing Isakson, told The Hill.

 Westmoreland says Isakson has long been planning to run again.

 “He called me before the election, probably two months before the election and told me he was running again and would love to have my support, and I told him I’m all in, let me know what I can do,” he said. “This is something that’s been on his mind. He’s been thinking about it.”

 Isakson defended his votes for TARP and to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac during the 2008 economic collapse.

 “We’re in the black on TARP as a country; we’ve gotten paid back more money than was put into TARP and still are getting money for it. Fannie and Freddie are supplying the housing market and are putting a billion dollars a quarter into the Treasury. And the problems Fannie and Freddie had were mandated by the Congress, not by their own origination,” he said. “I think when you sit down and go over the facts, those ended up being two votes that made a difference for the country at the time we did them and ended up providing very well for the country over the long term.”

Isakson might not be the most conservative member of the Senate, and some activists in Washington and Georgia are quietly hoping a challenger emerges. But the two top names to run against him have already taken themselves out of the equation.

Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), a rising star on the right, was among the dozens of office-holders who attended Isakson’s Monday reelection announcement. Graves first got the political bug when, as a student, he attended Isakson’s 1990 gubernatorial election night rally, even though the lawmaker lost that year. 

 “Johnny will continue to be a force for Georgia, especially as a senior member of the new Senate majority. He helped build the modern Republican Party in our state. He’s deeply respected on both sides of the aisle and known as a man of integrity by all,” Graves told The Hill.

 Former Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) was born and raised in Georgia and had been quietly looking into a possible bid, but he recently took a job running a Texas think tank.

 “He was campaigning here this cycle and was having private meetings and talking about the possibility of running, but he just took a job in Texas,” said Georgia-based GOP strategist Joel McElhannon. “Isakson making this early move probably helped incentivize him taking a job in Texas. … The rumor mill was getting pretty hot in terms of ‘is he running,’ and who might run, and [Isakson] wanted to step up and calm that down.”

 The rest of Georgia’s GOP congressional delegation is unlikely to undertake a bid either. Many just got choice committee or subcommittee assignments, and three others are brand-new members.

 “You’re not going to catch him napping. He’s going to get out there in order to prove to anybody who’s saying he might not run, he’s going to be out there raising more money than he ever has, get around the state more than he ever has before,” said Georgia-based GOP strategist Chip Lake. “It’s going to be very difficult to beat him in the primary or the general. I couldn’t tell you the name of anybody serious who may primary him.”

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