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By Chris Opfer
Sept. 26 — Georgia has become an unexpected battleground state in the race for the White House, but Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) so far isn’t feeling the heat in his re-election bid.
Republican Donald Trump holds a narrow 3 percentage-point lead over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race among Georgia voters, according to a Sept. 19 Monmouth University poll.
That’s a surprise for a state that hasn’t sided with a Democrat in a presidential election since 1992, but it hasn’t yet translated into a tight Senate contest for Isakson: The same poll shows the second-term lawmaker enjoys a 16-point lead over challenger Jim Barksdale.
Isakson has been a vocal critic of the Labor Department’s new conflict-of-interest rule for retirement account brokers in his role as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety.
His lead in the polls comes as fellow committee Republicans Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Richard Burr (N.C.) find themselves in tight re-election battles that some observers have said are made more difficult by Trump’s White House run.
Trump and Clinton are nearly deadlocked in the race for president, according to national polls.
Isakson’s lead may have as much to do with his record as it does Barksdale’s relatively low profile statewide. Democrats could already be looking at Georgia as a missed opportunity in an election season in which control of the Senate is likely to come down to a handful of races.
“The biggest problem going into this race for Barksdale was that nobody knew who he was,” Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, told Bloomberg BNA. “Barksdale is going to have to become a household name—which from my vantage point he hasn’t done yet—and he’s going to have to convince voters who know and are comfortable with a candidate who hasn’t made any serious blunders that what he’s offering is better than what Isakson can deliver.”
The HELP Committee has been bogged down by partisan divides on labor policy issues during Isakson’s nearly 12 years in the Senate, but the former state legislator has established a reputation as a moderate among voters in Georgia. That includes crossing the aisle on education and training issues and moving bipartisan legislation to assist military members as chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“There’s a strong personal legacy with Isakson,” Scott Ainsworth, who runs the University of Georgia’s political science department, told Bloomberg BNA. “He’s worked with people from across the political spectrum and has a long history of doing that.”
Barksdale’s reputation, if any, is that not many folks seem to know who he is. More than four-fifths (81 percent) of voters in the Monmouth poll said they had no opinion of the Democratic challenger.
The investment management firm chief touts himself on the campaign trail as a Washington outsider who wants to fight against bad trade deals. He's also vowed to work to strengthen safeguards for investors, raise wages and revamp immigration laws with a path to citizenship for at least some undocumented people already in this country.
“For the past 40 years, our trade policies have not been free or fair and have cost us millions of good paying jobs,” Barksdale told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail. “We have put the interests of multinational corporations ahead of the interests of the American worker for too long.”
Barksdale has also said he was approached by the Democratic Party to run for the seat after higher-profile politicians such as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed declined.
Despite the lead, Isakson campaign manager Trey Kilpatrick told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail that the candidate “continues to take nothing for granted.” He said Isakson and his staff are following through with an aggressive campaign that includes traveling the state and extensive social media outreach.
The bigger possible hurdle for Isakson appears to be his own party’s presidential nominee. Observers have speculated that voter dissatisfaction with Trump—whether it’s based on his gruff persona, controversial public statements or questions about his conservative bona fides—could make Georgia and other red states more competitive, including down the ballot.
Trump’s lukewarm Republican welcome in the Peach State might eventually keep voters likely to side with Isakson away from the polls altogether.
“If some Republicans decide they’re just not able to turn out for Trump, then they may not turn out at all,” Ainsworth told Bloomberg BNA.
That means Isakson and other GOP candidates are forced to walk a fine line between supporting the party and backing its White House candidate. Isakson said in August that he supports the Republican presidential ticket and will vote for Trump, but he stopped short of a full-throated endorsement.
“That doesn’t mean I support everything that everyone on the ticket says or does,” Isakson said. “But I do know that our country cannot afford four more years of Obama regulations, debt and a weakened national security.”
Shortly after Trump unveiled a proposal to require employers to provide paid maternity leave to workers, Isakson declined to comment on the move. He acknowledged to Bloomberg BNA, however, that the proposal is the kind of employer mandate that Republicans have staunchly opposed.
Gillespie, Ainsworth and Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, all noted that Trump still has the lead in Georgia, even if the margin is more narrow than expected.
Sabato also said Trump isn’t currently costing down-ticket candidates in tighter red states where he holds similar leads or in battlegrounds such as Ohio and Florida.
“I’d caution, though, that the coattail effect can appear on election day even if it hasn’t shown up in pre-election polling,” Sabato told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail.
That’s why GOP candidates in tight races—such as Kirk, Burr and Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.)—are still doing a delicate dance on the Trump support question. Control of the Senate is expected to come down to just a handful of contests in November.
Still, Ainsworth doesn’t expect Georgia to be one of those contests.
“I don’t think Georgia will be in play, but this is a highly unusual campaign with highly unusual candidates,” Ainsworth said. “So, lots of things can happen.”
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Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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