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 IsaksonCritical race theory becomes focus of midterms Former Georgia ethics official to challenge McBath Loeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run 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 McBathCritical race theory becomes focus of midterms Overnight Health Care: Fauci clashes with Paul - again | New York reaches .1B settlement with opioid distributors | Delta variant accounts for 83 percent of US COVID-19 cases Abortion rights group endorsing 12 House Democrats ahead of midterms MORE (D) defeated GOP Rep. Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelOssoff defeats Perdue in Georgia Senate runoff McBath wins rematch against Handel in Georgia House race House Democrats' campaign arm reserves .6M in ads in competitive districts 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 TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit 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 ClintonBiden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Women's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement 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 McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing 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 McSallySchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE, Cory GardnerCory GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms MORE, Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today MORE and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisEight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division DACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance 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 RobertsBob Dole, Pat Roberts endorse Kansas AG Derek Schmidt for governor Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (Kan.), Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (Tenn.) and Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today Former Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi dies after bicycle accident Former Sen. Mike Enzi hospitalized after serious bicycle accident 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 CollinsLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor MORE, Rep. Tom GravesJohn (Tom) Thomas GravesGreene's future on House committees in limbo after GOP meeting McConnell says Taylor Greene's embrace of conspiracy theories a 'cancer' GOP has growing Marjorie Taylor Greene problem MORE, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, state Attorney General Chris Carr and Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueSonny PerdueOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court rules that pipeline can seize land from New Jersey | Study: EPA underestimated methane emissions from oil and gas development | Kevin McCarthy sets up task forces on climate, other issues The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Georgia election day is finally here; Trump hopes Pence 'comes through for us' to overturn results Civil war between MAGA, GOP establishment could hand Dems total control 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.”