Mar. 9, 2003: For Republicans It Is Deja Vu All Over Again

In my opinion, the Republican Party in Georgia made a grievous error in 1996 when they denied Johnny Isakson the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. The reason for refusing Isakson the nomination was that some in the party thought him soft on the abortion issue. The party instead chose charisma-challenged Atlanta businessman Guy Millner, who promptly lost the general election to Democrat Max Cleland. As a result, Georgia was subjected to six years of a do-nothing senator with a strong pro-abortion record who consistently voted the Democratic Party line. How all of this benefited the state and the Republican cause still baffles me.

Isakson, currently a three-term member of Congress from Georgia’s 6th District, is running again for the Senate to succeed retiring Democratic Senator Zell Miller. To date, he has no Republican opposition and has raised more than a million dollars for his campaign, which should give any potential opponent pause for reflection. No wildly popular Georgia Democrat is waiting in the wings to take him on, because Georgia has no wildly popular Democrats except for Zell Miller, and Miller can’t wait to see Washington in his rearview mirror. So, things look good for Isakson. Or do they?

As that noted political analyst Yogi Berra once observed, “It is déjà vu all over again.” Isakson’s candidacy is being strongly opposed by Tom Perdue. Perdue, you might recall, was chief of staff to Democratic governors George Busbee and Joe Frank Harris. Today, he is a take-no-prisoners Republican political consultant who counts among his successes the election of Tennessee Senator Bill Frist and Georgia’s late Senator Paul Coverdell. He also helped engineer Saxby Chambliss’ Senate victory over the incumbent Cleland, although given Cleland’s record in the Senate, I suspect Sheila, the family wonder dog, could have beaten him.

Perdue says he will do whatever he can to see that Isakson is denied the nomination, up to and including supporting a Democrat, if necessary. Perdue has been criss-crossing the state, trying to find someone to oppose Isakson. Thus far, he has met with little success. Word is that Lynn Westmoreland, of Sharpsburg, the Republican minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, is the latest politician being wooed by Perdue to run against Isakson.

If the Republicans are serious about capturing Georgia’s second Senate seat – and I am sure they are – then whoever is in charge of such things should tell Tom Perdue to either get on the team and support Isakson for the Senate or do his campaign consulting somewhere else. Republicans in Georgia by now should have figured out who their real enemy is. (Hint: Can you say “Democrat”?)

As for the abortion issue, Isakson says, “My record is similar to many Republicans. I support the ban on partial birth abortions. I support consent and parental notification and I am opposed to federal funding for abortions. I do not support a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, which has never been voted on in Congress. As President Bush has said, we can’t change the Constitution, but we can change people’s hearts.”

That isn’t good enough for Tom Perdue, who is extremely hawkish on the subject of abortion. It doesn’t take long in talking to Perdue to get the feeling that his animosity for Isakson is as personal as it is philosophical, which brings up another interesting point: I don’t think anyone would have ever accused Governor Roy Barnes of being best buddies with Zell Miller. Yet, when Paul Coverdell died, Barnes appointed Miller to serve out the remainder of the late senator’s term. Why? Because Barnes put the interest of the Democratic Party ahead of personal piques. That kind of behavior seems extremely difficult for Republicans to grasp.

It will be interesting to see if Republicans learned their lesson in the 1996 senatorial race and will work together to put Johnny Isakson in the U.S. Senate. Or, will they allow Tom Perdue’s Anyone But Isakson campaign to continue unabated and risk giving the seat back to a liberal pro-choice Democrat like Max Cleland? Who knows? Even Sheila, the family wonder dog, has a hard time understanding Republicans.