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 IsaksonProgressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa Overnight Health Care: Trump budget calls for cutting Medicaid, ACA by T | Trump proposes removing FDA authority over tobacco | Lawmakers frustrated by lack of emergency funds for coronavirus Anti-abortion group backs Loeffler's election campaign after opposing her Senate appointment 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 McBathWarren endorsed by Black Lives Matter co-founder's Black to the Future Action Fund Democratic rivals sharpen attacks as Bloomberg rises The Hill's Campaign Report: Rising Klobuchar, Buttigieg face test in diverse states MORE (D) defeated GOP Rep. Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelConservative women's group rolls out new GOP endorsements for 2020 The most expensive congressional races of the last decade Georgia ready for unpredictable Senate race 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 TrumpSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' Poll: Sanders leads 2020 Democratic field with 28 percent, followed by Warren and Biden More than 6 in 10 expect Trump to be reelected: poll 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 ClintonSchiff blasts Trump for making 'false claims' about Russia intel: 'You've betrayed America. Again.' The problem with Trump's Middle East peace plan Trump's Intel moves spark Democratic fury 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 McConnellSanders is a risk, not a winner Buttigieg sounds alarm after Sanders wins Nevada Where do we go from here? Conservation can show the way 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 McSallyOvernight Health Care: Officials confirm 34 total coronavirus cases in US | ObamaCare favorability hits highest level in poll | McSally unveils bill to lower drug prices amid tough campaign McSally unveils bill to lower drug prices amid tough campaign Trump seeks to boost vulnerable GOP senator with Colorado rally MORE, Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way The Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Nevada 8 people arrested outside Trump rally in Colorado for 'obstructed traffic' MORE, Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn The new American center Democratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January MORE and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Nevada Top GOP super PAC spent money on NC Democrat The Hill's Campaign Report: Warren up, Bloomberg down after brutal debate 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 RobertsOn the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Kobach says he discussed his Senate bid with Trump Republicans expect Trump to withdraw controversial Fed nominee MORE (Kan.), Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderBill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn The Trump administration's harmful and immoral attack on children Democrats worried about Trump's growing strength MORE (Tenn.) and Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziLawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts Republicans scramble to avoid Medicare land mine McConnell will not bring budget resolution to the floor 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 CollinsSunday shows preview: 2020 candidates look to South Carolina Overnight Defense: Seven day 'reduction in violence' starts in Afghanistan | US, Taliban plan to sign peace deal Feb. 29 | Trump says top intel job has four candidates Trump says he is considering four candidates for intelligence chief 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 PerdueUSDA hopes to cut farms' environmental footprint in half by 2050 USDA abandons America's schoolchildren USDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid 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.”