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 IsaksonThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Job growth soars in November The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats worry about diversity on next debate stage Doug Collins on potential 2020 Senate run: I'm not 'ruling it out' 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 McBathGeorgia ready for unpredictable Senate race Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing Adam Schiff's star rises with impeachment hearings MORE (D) defeated GOP Rep. Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelGeorgia ready for unpredictable Senate race Hundreds apply to fill Isakson's Senate seat in Georgia Ossoff raises 0k in first three weeks of Senate bid, campaign says 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 TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech 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 ClintonTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles Hillary Clinton documentary to premiere at Sundance 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 McConnellRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial On The Money: Pelosi, Trump tout deal on new NAFTA | McConnell says no trade vote until impeachment trial wraps up | Lawmakers push spending deadline to Thursday McConnell: Senate impeachment trial will begin in January 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 McSallyGroup of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' Here are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump Overnight Health Care: House to vote next week on drug prices bill | Conway says Trump trying to find 'balance' on youth vaping | US spent trillion on hospitals in 2018 MORE, Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Group of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' Here are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump MORE, Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Group of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' Defense bill includes fix for military families' survivor benefits MORE and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGroup of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' The real US patent 'crisis' Graham: FBI investigation in 2016 turned into a 'criminal conspiracy' 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 RobertsThe Hill's Morning Report - Intel panel readies to hand off impeachment baton The job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' The Hill's Morning Report — House set for Phase 3 of impeachment push MORE (Kan.), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderImpeachment surprise: Bills Congress could actually pass in 2020 Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Obstacles remain for deal on surprise medical bills MORE (Tenn.) and Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziSenate approves stopgap bill to prevent shutdown Budget process quick fixes: Fixing the wrong problem Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid 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 CollinsTrump to sign order penalizing colleges over perceived anti-Semitism on campus: report Hillicon Valley: Apple, Facebook defend encryption during Senate grilling | Tech legal shield makes it into trade deal | Impeachment controversy over phone records heats up | TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings Controversy on phone records intensifies amid impeachment MORE, 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, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, state Attorney General Chris Carr and Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerduePlan to lift roadless rule in Alaska's Tongass national forest threatens economy House Democrat asks USDA to halt payouts to Brazilian meatpacker under federal probe From state agriculture departments to Congress: Our farmers need the USMCA 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.”