Georgia GOP abuzz about Senate vacancy

Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonCollins expected to announce Georgia Senate bid GOP senator: Romney trying to 'appease the left' with impeachment witnesses Overnight Health Care: New drug price hikes set stage for 2020 fight | Conservative group to spend M attacking Pelosi drug plan | Study finds Medicaid expansion improved health in Southern states MORE’s (R-Ga.) decision to resign at the end of the year set off a furious behind-the-scenes scramble among Georgia Republicans vying to curry favor with Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who will choose his replacement.

Isakson kept his decision private from all but his closest advisers, sources with knowledge of his decision said. Some aides and allies — including Kemp — were told he would quit just hours before the announcement went out.
 
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Isakson’s announcement set off a torrent of phone calls and text messages between top Georgia Republicans speculating about a long list of likely replacements.

In a statement Wednesday, Kemp offered few clues to his thinking, beyond thanking Isakson for years of public service.

“Our state and country have been immeasurably blessed by his leadership in the Georgia General Assembly, U.S. House, and U.S. Senate. Senator Isakson’s list of accomplishments on behalf of the state that he loves is long and revered, but what Georgia should be most thankful for is the high standard that Johnny held as a true gentleman, a fighter for his constituents, a trusted advocate for our nation’s veterans, and one of the greatest statesmen to ever answer the call of service to our country,” Kemp said.
 
“I will appoint Sen. Isakson’s replacement at the appropriate time,” he added.

Kemp is likely to take one of three approaches as he weighs his options, several Georgia Republicans said: He could choose a short-term placeholder who would not seek election to the final two years of Isakson’s term.
 
He could choose from a long list of Georgia Republicans who want to run for the seat, giving an ambitious political ally a leg up ahead of what is certain to be a costly contest. Or he could choose an unexpected newcomer, someone few see on the radar today.

“He’ll keep it close to the vest,” predicted Jay Williams, a longtime Georgia Republican strategist.

If Kemp decides on an elder statesman to care for the seat to allow Republican voters to pick their own replacement, several Georgia Republicans pointed to Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueWe want better agricultural research, but who will take the lead? Overnight Health Care: Trump reportedly lashed out at health chief over polling | Justices to hear ObamaCare birth control case | Trump rolls back Michelle Obama school lunch rules Trump to roll back Michelle Obama's school lunch rules on vegetables, fruits MORE, the first Republican to be elected as Georgia’s governor since Reconstruction.

Perdue, 72, is the cousin of Georgia’s other senator, David Perdue. He has been touring farmer’s conventions in recent weeks to assuage anger over the Trump administration’s trade war with China.

Perdue’s spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

But Georgia Republicans are conscious that their state is becoming more competitive, making a potential caretaker placeholder less likely. Instead, several ambitious younger politicians were mentioned in the early mix.

Attorney General Chris Carr (R), Isakson’s former chief of staff, just won his first statewide election after being appointed to the job by Kemp’s predecessor, Nathan Deal (R). In a statement, Carr said his career in public service had been defined by his former boss.

“Whenever I am confronted with a tough decision, I often ask myself, What would Johnny do?” Carr said.

Reps. Austin ScottJames (Austin) Austin ScottLawmakers warn Pentagon against reduction of US forces in Africa 5 Republicans who could replace Isakson in Georgia's Senate race Georgia GOP abuzz about Senate vacancy MORE (R) and Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsCollins expected to announce Georgia Senate bid Meadows: Republicans who break with Trump could face political repercussions GOP senator: Romney trying to 'appease the left' with impeachment witnesses MORE (R) are both said to harbor statewide ambition. Scott, part of the Tea Party wave that arrived after the 2010 elections, represents a heavily rural district stretching from the Atlanta suburbs to the Florida border; Collins, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, represents the northeast corner of the state.

Several Republicans also said Rep. Tom GravesJohn (Tom) Thomas GravesThe Hill's Morning Report — Pelosi makes it official: Trump will be impeached Republican Tom Graves announces retirement from House Lawmakers skeptical of progress on spending deal as wall battle looms MORE (R), another son of the Tea Party movement, would be on Kemp’s long list of potential replacements.

Kemp may be closest with his lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan (R). But Georgia Republicans cautioned that Duncan has never shown interest in serving in Washington. Instead, if Kemp reaches into the ranks of state Republican leaders, he may land on state Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller (R), who represents a district north and east of Atlanta.

Half a year into his tenure as governor, Kemp has offered what may be one early clue that he does not intend to follow well-worn paths. Earlier this year, Kemp chose John King to serve as Georgia’s insurance commissioner, a candidate few saw coming. King, the police chief of Doraville before his elevation, is Georgia’s first Hispanic statewide officeholder.

Kemp “could go against conventional wisdom and appoint somebody who’s going to execute what he wants to execute,” Williams said.

In that case, some Republicans speculated that longtime Republican strategist Nick Ayers might find himself on the short list to replace Isakson.
 
But Ayers, in an email, took himself out of the running.
 
 
"My decision to leave the White House and Washington, D.C. earlier this year was for the sole purpose of stepping back from politics and enjoying this season of life with my wife and three young children,” Ayers told The Hill. "They are the priority now and for the many years to come. Gov. Kemp has a number of great options to choose from who will represent our state with success and distinction — but I won’t be one of them."
 
Ayers, a former chief of staff to Vice President Pence and a former head of the Republican Governors Association, declined an offer to become President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren: Dershowitz presentation 'nonsensical,' 'could not follow it' Bolton told Barr he was concerned Trump did favors for autocrats: report Dershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense MORE’s chief of staff in order to return home to Georgia with his family.
 
Several Republican strategists in Georgia lamented the absence of a woman on the likely list of candidates. None of Georgia’s 10 Republican members of Congress are women. The sole woman who had represented the state, Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade Georgia ready for unpredictable Senate race Hundreds apply to fill Isakson's Senate seat in Georgia MORE, lost her bid for reelection in 2018.

— Al Weaver contributed to this report.