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Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s decision to retire at the end of the year could elevate Georgia as a key battleground in 2020, putting another Senate seat in play as the two parties gear up to fight over a small number of seats for control of the upper chamber.
Isakson, 74, announced Wednesday he would step down at the end of 2019 for health reasons. The move set in motion a second Senate contest in Georgia next year. Republican Sen. David Perdue, who holds the state’s other Senate seat, is up for reelection in 2020.
The decision has national implications in the heated battle for control of the Senate. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate and will head into 2020 defending fewer competitive seats. Isakson’s retirement gives Democrats another potential pickup opportunity.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp will appoint a successor for Isakson, who will have a built-in advantage as the incumbent in a special election next November to serve out the remaining two years of Isakson’s term.
But there’s no clear GOP favorite to replace the retiring senior senator, and the field on the Democratic side is equally wide open, according to Georgia political strategists.
“Either side could win” Isakson’s seat, said Mark Rountree, the president of Landmark Communications, a political consulting firm in Atlanta.
The once-deep red state has been eyed by Democrats for years, with changing demographics and steady, if uneven progress, in recent elections giving them hope they could flip seats there. Stacey Abrams, for instance, drew national attention in 2018 as she vied to become the state’s first African American and female governor. Abrams lost to Kemp by less than 2 percentage points in a race clouded by complaints of voting rights violations.
The race came two years after Hillary Clinton made a push to flip Georgia blue in the 2016 presidential election. President Donald Trump beat Clinton by 5 points — less than expected.
Still, Democrats will still face a steep uphill climb in a state that has not elected a Democratic U.S. senator since Zell Miller in 2000. Miller retired four years later and Isakson won the race for his seat by nearly 20 points. Isakson won reelection in 2010 and 2016 by double-digit margins.
“Georgia is a state that has not elected a Democrat in many years,” Rountree said, but “the state has gotten more and more competitive over the years.”
The rumored list of Republicans who could be tapped to replace Isakson next year includes State Sen. Butch Miller, Reps. Doug Collins and Buddy Carter, and Attorney General Chris Carr.
Kemp said in a statement Wednesday that he would “appoint Senator Isakson’s replacement at the appropriate time.”
On the Democratic side, Abrams appeared to rule out a run for Isakson’s seat Wednesday.
In a statement on Twitter, a spokesman for Abrams said, “while she will not be a candidate herself, she is committed to helping Democratic candidates win both Senate races next year.”
Abrams’ decision not to run for Senate in 2020 opens the door for several Democrats reportedly eyeing a run for the seat. The list includes Michael Thurman, the chief executive of DeKalb County and a former state legislator and government official, and Jon Ossoff, a progressive Democrat who lost a special election for an open House seat in 2017.
Several other leading Democrats in the state have already launched campaigns for Perdue’s seat. Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry announced his Senate bid in July, and Sarah Riggs Amico, Abrams’ running mate in 2018, entered the race Tuesday.
Isakson’s decision “presents a unique opportunity for Democrats to come together to figure out who would be the best person to run for the Senate in 2020 for both races,” said Tharon Johnson, an Atlanta-based Democratic strategist.
“We are a battleground state that is, I believe, purple now,” Johnson added. “A lot of it is going to be about putting together the right coalition of voters and deciding which candidate can best get that coalition.”
Daniel Bush is PBS NewsHour's Senior Political Reporter.
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