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Crawford: Isakson not taking re-election for granted

POSTED: February 26, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Sen. Johnny Isakson has many things going for him as he gets his campaign under way for another six-year term in the U.S. Senate.

There are the powers and prestige that are part of being an incumbent senator, the access to money from the heavy hitters, an amiable personality that has enabled him to make friends among Democrats and Republicans alike, and a smoothly running campaign organization that first got him elected to the Senate by an 18-point margin back in 2004.

The one thing Isakson lacks, at this point: an actual opponent. No sane Republican will run against him in the GOP primary and, so far, no credible Democrat has stepped forward to express an interest in this top-of-the-ballot race.

That's about as close to unbeatable as you can get, and yet there Isakson was at the state capitol last week holding a tightly choreographed rally attended by Republican heavyweights like Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Karen Handel as he officially launched his campaign for re-election.

"I'm reapplying for the job," Isakson said in a brief speech to supporters.

All the pieces are in place to start cranking up that Isakson campaign machinery even though there's no opposition on the horizon and it's at least 18 months until the primary election is held. Why the anxiety?

The answer could be seen in another U.S. senator who was also in attendance at Isakson's capitol rally: his old college classmate and friend Saxby Chambliss.

Chambliss was in much the same position as Isakson two years ago when he was getting his own re-election campaign organization up and running. The political experts — including, alas, this correspondent — assumed that a Republican incumbent in a red-leaning state who didn't have to worry about significant Democratic opposition could mail it in and coast to another term in office. Chambliss was widely considered one of the safest incumbents running in 2008.

Of course, we were all quite wrong in that assessment. Chambliss stumbled and bumbled his way through an erratic campaign where he took clumsy policy stands on issues like immigration, farm spending and the Wall Street bailout. He allowed a meagerly financed Democrat, Jim Martin, to carry the fight to him and push Chambliss into a shocking statewide runoff campaign that Chambliss eventually won.

You can bet that the consultants and advisors in the Isakson camp are keeping that Chambliss near-miss in mind as they plot out the race for 2010. That's why they're starting early and running as if Isakson actually had an opponent on the ballot.

"The only way you can avoid a situation like we had in '08 is to make sure you've got the infrastructure up early," said Isakson consultant Heath Garrett.

You also won't see Isakson do anything like vote for financial bailout packages, a stance that hurt Chambliss among the more conservative Republicans in last fall's election. It was hardly a coincidence that Isakson staged his re-election announcement at the same time that President Barack Obama was flying to Denver to sign his $787 billion economic recovery package.

Isakson and Chambliss both voted against Obama's stimulus measure, even though it brings badly needed federal money to Georgia at a time when Perdue and the legislators are trying to plug a huge revenue shortfall in the state budget.

The senator said he wasn't worried about a Democratic opponent using Isakson's vote against the economic recovery plan as a campaign issue.

"I have been around for a long time," he said. "There's nothing that can't be used against you, either way."

Of course, if that economic recovery vote is going to be used as an issue against Isakson, that presumes there would be an actual opponent who raises the issue.

Georgia Democrats are still so traumatized over losing control of state government that they could end up giving Isakson a free pass to another term (as they effectively did in 2004 when the party nominee was the hapless Denise Majette). The few Democrats who might be capable of mounting a serious statewide race seem to be more interested in running for governor or lieutenant governor, not against an incumbent senator.

The easiest race for an incumbent to run is when there's no one on the ballot to oppose you. For Isakson, that's a great position to be in.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers state government and politics.



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