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Tom Crawford: Isaksons health is a valid issue in Senate race
Senate 2016 Georgia D Albe 1
Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate Allen Buckley, center, points at incumbent Sen. Johnny Iaskson (R) as Democrat Jim Barksdale looks on during an Oct. 21 debate at Georgia Public Television in Atlanta. - photo by John Bazemore

There’s not much suspense about who will win Georgia’s U.S. Senate race. Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson has been ahead of his Democratic challenger, Jim Barksdale, by 10 points or more in most recent polls.

Libertarian Allen Buckley may peel off enough votes to keep Isakson under 50 percent and force a runoff election, but that’s not very likely.

If you’re a betting person, your money should be on the senator to win a third term in office. The question is whether you will see another person finish out that six-year term.

That brings us to the real issue that hasn’t been discussed much in this campaign: Isakson’s health. The senator had serious medical problems the last time he ran in 2010, when he was hospitalized twice and spent time in an intensive care unit because of an irregular heartbeat and a blood infection.

When I talked to him a few weeks after that election, he acknowledged, “I almost bought the farm.”

Isakson, who will be 72 in December, has a medical issue in this campaign also, having been diagnosed in 2013 with Parkinson’s disease (he said he first displayed symptoms in 2012).

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that damages a person’s motor skills. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, although there are some medications and therapies that can ease the symptoms. The disease gets progressively worse and in its later stages can cause depression, hallucinations, delusions and paranoia.

One of the rumors that’s been making the rounds in the political community is whether Isakson would serve his entire Senate term or resign after several months to allow Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint a replacement, perhaps former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston.

Isakson’s longtime strategist and confidant, Heath Garrett, says the senator intends to serve the whole term.

“He verified as soon as the diagnosis was finalized that he would serve the entire six years,” Garrett said. “He was unequivocal about that.”

Regardless of Isakson’s good intentions, the senator has a serious disease that could keep him from serving out the full term to which he’s elected. It’s a question that should have been asked by his opponents, but they’ve been too timid to talk about it until recently.

In a debate on Georgia Public Television two weeks ago, Buckley finally went where Barksdale, for some reason, won’t go.

“I don’t mean to be mean,” Buckley said. “But the best thing for Johnny, his family, our state and our country would be if he were not running right now. I’ve talked to a lot of his friends who will tell me that confidentially.”

Isakson replied: “I think that’s a veiled reference to the fact that I disclosed a year and a half ago that I had Parkinson’s, which was the hardest thing that I ever did and also the best thing that I ever did.

“Every week that goes by in this campaign, people come up to me and thank me for making known publicly what they themselves have privately known about themselves,” he said. “The only way you play things like Parkinson’s is to be open and forthright about them. I tell everybody I intend to win that battle and I will win that battle.”

“I’ve got the energy to go up there (to Washington) and put in the fight,” Buckley said. “No offense, I’m younger than you.”

“I’m not going to hold your immaturity and your inexperience against you,” Isakson replied.

Barksdale stood silent during this exchange before meekly saying: “I do think it’s appropriate that we ask a commitment to serve out the full six-year term. But I’m not going to question why he’s here.”

That debate exchange illustrates why Barksdale is losing whatever chance he might have had to win this race. If your opponent is having medical problems that could interfere with them carrying out their job, it’s valid to raise that as an issue. Barksdale has been too gentlemanly to do it.

In any event, the polls tell us that Isakson probably will win another term in office. I wish him the best as he embarks on that six-year journey, but it’s very likely that people voting for him will get two senators for the price of one.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.

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