Democrats see golden opportunity to take Georgia Senate seat

Democrats are feeling bullish about their chances to win a Senate seat in Georgia in the wake of GOP Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonCollins seeks appointment to Isakson seat McBath passes on running for Senate Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 MORE’s decision to retire. 

The announcement, Democrats argue, gives them a golden opportunity to expand the Senate battleground map heading into 2020 and chip away at the GOP’s Senate firewall. 

Nikema Williams, the chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, immediately pledged that the state would be a must-watch “battleground” in 2020, saying after Isakson’s announcement that it “has never been clearer that the path for Democratic victory runs through Georgia.” 

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Georgia has typically been a safe Republican state, but Democrats made gains in House races in 2018 when Rep. Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathMcBath passes on running for Senate Gun epidemic is personal for lawmakers touched by violence House panel advances anti-gun violence legislation MORE (D) defeated GOP Rep. Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelMcBath passes on running for Senate GOP buys JonOssoff.com after Democrat launches Georgia Senate bid Jon Ossoff launching Georgia Senate campaign MORE in the state’s 6th Congressional District. The party also came close to winning the governorship when Stacey Abrams lost in a close race to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. 

Other stars may also be aligning for Democrats in Georgia. 

The party believes the state’s demographics are moving in its direction, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE’s low approval ratings have Democrats thinking he may leave other Republicans vulnerable. 

In 2016, Trump defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonUkrainian official denies Trump pressured president The Memo: 'Whistleblower' furor gains steam Missing piece to the Ukraine puzzle: State Department's overture to Rudy Giuliani MORE by 5 percentage points in Georgia, but only won a little more than 50 percent of the vote. That’s given Democrats new hope of winning the state in the presidential race. 

Even if that dream doesn’t come true for the party, Democrats like their chances of winning the open Senate seat in a year when Trump will be at the top of the ticket and Georgia Republicans will also be defending GOP Sen. David Perdue’s seat.

J.B. Poersch — the president of the Senate Majority PAC, an outside group aligned with Senate Democrats — said the open Senate race “increases our chances of retaking the majority.” 

“I expect Georgia and both seats to be competitive in 2020,” he added. 

The Isakson retirement complicates life for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDC statehood push faces long odds despite record support Overnight Energy: California, 23 other states sue Trump over vehicle emissions rule | Climate strike protests hit cities across globe | Interior watchdog expands scope of FOIA investigation | Dems accuse officials of burying climate reports Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts MORE (R-Ky.), who is doing everything in his power to keep the Senate majority in GOP hands. 

Democrats need to pick up three or four seats, depending on which party controls the White House, to win back the Senate majority.

Though Republicans are defending 22 seats compared to Democrats' 12, most are viewed as safe bets for reelection. That leaves the Senate battleground map limited to a handful of states including Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, where GOP Sens. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyArizona Democrats push Sinema censure vote off until January Pence taps former DHS spokeswoman as his new press secretary Arizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema MORE, Cory GardnerCory Scott Gardner The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Bolton returns to political group after exiting administration The Hill's Morning Report — Trump's hurricane forecast controversy won't go away MORE, Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTrump judicial picks face rare GOP opposition GOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Sinema touts bipartisan record as Arizona Democrats plan censure vote MORE and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC The Hill's Morning Report — Trump's new controversy Warning signs flash for Tillis in North Carolina MORE, respectively, are on the ballot. Republicans view Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones (D) is running for reelection in a deep-red state, as their best chance for a pick-up. 

Isakson’s retirement will set the stage for a special election that will be a “jungle primary,” and a likely run-off election if no one gets 50 percent next year, for the final two years of his term. 

“I think what you really see is the floor rising for Democratic candidates ... and it just becoming increasingly competitive,” said a national Democratic strategist watching the Senate races. “It’s going to be a battleground next year.” 

The strategist added that Georgia “is a fundamentally competitive state. It adds another path to the majority.” 

If Democrats are able to pick up Isakson’s seat, or knock off Perdue, it would be the first time the state has sent a Democrat to the Senate since 2000, when Zell Miller was elected to finish out the term of Sen. Paul Coverdell (R), who died while in office.  

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, said Democrats have been looking for ways to expand the Senate map and Isakson’s decision “puts another potentially vulnerable Republican seat on the board.” 

Still, he said it won’t be easy.

“I think I would still rather be the Republican in that state,” Kondik said.

He said that historically the two Georgia seats are likely to swing in the same direction, meaning if Perdue wins, the GOP nominee to succeed Isakson would also likely win. The last time a state had both of its Senate seats up in the same election and the results split was 1966 in South Carolina. 

Isakson is the fourth Republican senator to announce in recent months that he would retire. Sens. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsInternal poll shows Kobach trailing Democrat in Kansas Senate race Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers ramp up Silicon Valley antitrust probe | Treasury sanctions North Korean cyber groups | Thiel to host Kobach fundraiser MORE (Kan.), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderDemocrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 EXCLUSIVE: Swing-state voters oppose 'surprise' medical bill legislation, Trump pollster warns MORE (Tenn.) and Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Liz Cheney and Rand Paul extend war of words The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 Democrats set for Lone Star showdown MORE (Wyo.), who were each up for reelection in 2020, are also stepping down.

“This is yet another seat Republicans will need to defend next year in an increasingly competitive battleground where the president's approval has plunged by double digits since taking office,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

It’s unclear who will be the GOP nominee. Under state law, Kemp will be able to appoint someone to temporarily fill the seat once Isakson steps down at the end of the year. 

Several Republican names are already being floated, including Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsHillicon Valley: Lawmakers say Zuckerberg to 'cooperate' on antitrust probes | Dems see victory after McConnell backs election security funds | Twitter takes down fake pro-Saudi accounts Lawmakers say Zuckerberg has agreed to 'cooperate' with antitrust probe Collins seeks appointment to Isakson seat MORE, 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, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, state Attorney General Chris Carr and Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueChinese trade negotiators cut US trip short Lawmakers run into major speed bumps on spending bills Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity MORE, a former governor of Georgia and David Perdue's first cousin.

“I’m not going to tell you this was a positive development by any stretch,” one GOP strategist said. “[But] I think Republicans start favorites to hold onto the seat.”   

Republicans did catch a significant break on Wednesday when Abrams quickly announced that she would not jump into the race for Isakson’s seat. Democrats had also tried unsuccessfully to get Abrams, viewed as a rising star in the party, to run against Perdue. 

“Without her in it, you know even some of the names that are being tossed around are not on her level,” the GOP strategist said. 

A second GOP operative was more bullish, predicting that Democrats wouldn’t be able to field a strong challenger to make a play for Isakson’s seat. Asked if there was a Democrat besides Abrams that they were worried about, the operative quipped: “None.” 

But Democrats view the state as competitive even if Abrams isn’t in the race, arguing her campaign in 2018 showed that the party can compete in the Southern state. Several names of potential candidates that are being publicly floated include McBath, former gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, former Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond and former congressional candidate Jon Ossoff.

“[It’s] fundamentally competitive without Abrams,” the Democratic strategist said, asked about comments from Republicans that the party lacks a bench of strong candidate to compete for the Senate seat. 

National Democrats are also keeping a close eye on the field and laying down early goal posts. 

Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, said following Isakson’s retirement announcement that Georgia was primed to “elect at least one Democratic Senator.” 

“Women of color remain the Democratic party’s most loyal voters and are changing what is possible in politics. Abrams revolutionized Georgia’s political landscape,” she added. “To be successful in Georgia, Democrats need to support a candidate who captures the spirit of Abrams’ progressive campaign.”