Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s announcement Wednesday that he will resign from the chamber at the end of the year is just the sort of break Democrats hoping to retake the majority next November badly needed.
Here’s why: Isakson wasn’t up for reelection again until 2022. And had he run again, he would have been tough to beat given his long service to the state. But now, his seat will be on the ballot in 2020, not 2022. And whoever Gov. Brian Kemp (R) appoints to fill the immediate vacancy will have – at best – a year to convince voters that he or she deserves to serve out the final two years remaining on Isakson’s term. (Also worth noting: The electoral record of appointed senators is not so good.)
None of that means, of course, that Democrats winning Isakson’s seat is a done deal – or anything close. After all, Georgia is a leaning Republican state that President Donald Trump carried by 5 points in 2016.
But in a way, that misses the point, which is this: Democrats desperately need to expand the playing field to have any sort of margin for error in their quest to win back the Senate in 2020. The addition of one more seat – and one in a state where Democrats have been making gains at the ballot box in recent elections – is a major boon in that effort.
Let’s do the math.
To control the Senate in 2021, Democrats need to pick up three seats if they win the White House in 2020 or four if they don’t. (The vice president breaks all tie votes in the Senate, meaning that if the Senate was split 50-50 and President Donald Trump was still in the White House, Republicans would have effective control.)
Republicans will now have 23 seats to defend in November 2020 as compared to just 12 for Democrats. Prior to Isakson’s surprise announcement on Wednesday, the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan campaign handicapping service, rated just three GOP seats as “toss up”: Arizona, Colorado and Maine. Widening the aperture, Cook rated 7 more seats – including Georgia Sen. David Perdue’s – as potentially competitive. Democrats, on the other hand, had just four total seats rated by Cook as even marginally competitive with Alabama as the only one, at the moment, in real danger.
That’s not a huge playing field – and that’s bad news for Democrats – especially if Alabama Sen. Doug Jones (D) loses his reelection bid in one of the most solidly Republican states in the country. What Democrats need to do at this point is just keep putting races on the board, and see what turns out to be real in six or so months.
That list now includes both Georgia seats as well as races in North Carolina, Iowa and, potentially the open seat in Kansas. Much of whether these races grow to become competitive depends on how primaries sort out next year and/or candidate recruitment right now.
Take the Isakson seat. There are a few variables that we don’t know yet that will have a big impact on whether we are talking about this race in a year’s time.
The first is who Kemp picks as Isakson’s short-term replacement. There are a slew of names mentioned as potential picks. And it remains to be seen how the eventual pick performs in the Senate.
The second is who Democrats can convince to run for the new seat. Their No. 1 choice – 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams – quickly removed herself from consideration. The third variable is what the national political environment will look like at the time next year. Will Trump’s approval ratings still look dismal? Will he be trailing the Democratic nominee by double digits, as he is right now against the top potential nominees? Will there be some sort of external event that totally upends the environment between now and then?
All good questions! None of which we know the answer to yet. But the very fact that we are even asking these questions about a second Georgia Senate seat on the ballot in November 2020 is a win for Senate Democrats. It gives them at least the chance of further broadening the field of battle on which the majority will be decided – and that’s something they didn’t have at this time yesterday.