Georgia GOP abuzz about Senate vacancy

Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonEleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid Juan Williams: Republicans flee Trump Democrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump 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 PerdueFrom state agriculture departments to Congress: Our farmers need the USMCA Overnight Energy: Trump administration issues plan to reverse limits on logging in Tongass National Forest| Democrats inch closer to issuing subpoenas for Interior, EPA records| Trump's plan to boost ethanol miffs corn groups and the fossil fuel industry Trump administration issues plan to reverse limits on logging in Tongass National Forest 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 Scott5 Republicans who could replace Isakson in Georgia's Senate race Georgia GOP abuzz about Senate vacancy House approves much-delayed .1B disaster aid bill MORE (R) and Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsHouse to vote on bill to ensure citizenship for children of overseas service members GOP lawmaker: Schiff should be first witness Republicans call to testify in impeachment inquiry Hillicon Valley: Google buying Fitbit for .1B | US launches national security review of TikTok | Twitter shakes up fight over political ads | Dems push committee on 'revenge porn' law 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 GravesModernize Congress to make it work for the people 5 Republicans who could replace Isakson in Georgia's Senate race The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks 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 TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment 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 HandelOssoff raises 0k in first three weeks of Senate bid, campaign says McBath passes on running for Senate GOP buys JonOssoff.com after Democrat launches Georgia Senate bid MORE, lost her bid for reelection in 2018.

— Al Weaver contributed to this report.