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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

August 6: Senate Control Could Come Down to Georgia Runoff(s) in January 2021

A potentially close battle for control of the U.S. Senate next year is colliding with some unusual events in my home state of Georgia, and I wrote up the latest news and speculation at New York:

The intrigue involving the Senate seat Johnny Isakson is vacating for health reasons at the end of this year continues to roil Georgia politics, with some of the national implications beginning to sink in as well. One set of questions involves the decision Republican governor Brian Kemp will make about an interim replacement for Isakson until a special election takes place in November of next year (concurrently with the 2020 general election, in which the other Georgia Senate seat, held by Republican David Perdue, will be at stake as well).

The list of potential choices by Kemp continues to expand. The latest from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Greg Bluestein tosses in a couple of names that might be considered if the GOP would like to go beyond its usual white-guy boundaries while appealing to suburbanites: Karen Handel, Kemp’s predecessor and boss as secretary of State, who is currently plotting a rematch with Democrat Lucy McBath for the U.S. House seat she briefly held before 2018; and U.S. Attorney and former state legislator BJay Pak, a Korean-American.

But there remain plenty of white guys in the mix, including multiple congressmen. One especially aggressive suitor is Doug Collins, who probably got Donald Trump’s attention with his aggressive defense of POTUS as ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee during the Mueller hearings. Indeed, the New York Times conducted an elaborate examination of the potential Beltway ripple effect of a Collins appointment to the Senate:

“A Senate appointment would not only elevate Mr. Collins, 53, to an influential perch but also set off a cascade of openings in House leadership that could empower some of the president’s best-known conservative allies, including Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

“Allies have pointed to the pugnacious Mr. Jordan as a natural choice to replace Mr. Collins in the top Judiciary position. If he were to get the slot — which requires the blessing of Republican leaders — Mr. Meadows could then ascend to Mr. Jordan’s position as the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee, another battleground where Democrats are aggressively investigating Mr. Trump.

“Another Republican ally of both men, Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas, could also get a look for the top Judiciary job.”

The Times is right in suggesting that Trump could have an impact on Kemp’s decision; aside from his wild popularity among Republicans everywhere, Kemp owes the president big time for his crucial endorsementof the “politically incorrect conservative” last year when he was in a runoff with then–Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle. Indeed, if the White House and the Perdue cousins (U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny and that other senator, David) got behind a single aspirant, they’d be hard to resist.

Several big-time Democrats with prior statewide experience are in the mix as well, including Perdue’s last opponent, Michelle Nunn; 2014 gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter; and Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who was elected Labor Commissioner three times back in the day, and was also Isakson’s 2010 opponent. Like McBath, Thurmond is African-American. So, too, is Stacey Abrams, the very popular 2018 gubernatorial candidate who earlier ruled out a challenge to Perdue and disclaimed interest in the Isakson seat instantly after the senator made his announcement. You can be sure national and Georgia Democrats will periodically check in with Abrams to see if she might change her mind.

As Kemp ponders his options and Democrats play musical chairs, there is one aspect of the 2020 Georgia Senate landscape that is gradually dawning on observers near and far. The special election for the Isakson seat will be a “jungle primary” in which any and all Democrats and Republicans — and for that matter members of minor parties — will compete. If no one wins a majority (and that’s a distinct possibility, particularly if the two major parties cannot clear the field for their candidates), there will be a runoff on January 5, 2021. But here’s the thing: Georgia also requires a majority of the vote to win general elections, which means that the Perdue race could go to a January runoff as well (as very nearly happened to Kemp last year).

If Georgia did have these two Republican seats at risk in runoffs, the odds would go up significantly that control of the Senate might be on the line — and with it the power of either a reelected Trump or a Democratic successor to enact an agenda and get executive and judicial appointees confirmed — in one state, two months after an exhausting election cycle. Any still-standing political operative — or unspent dollar — would be pulled into the Peach State to fight in an overtime contest for which there is really no precedent.

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