Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson To Retire, Setting Up 2020 Battleground

Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson will retire at the end of 2019, setting up a contest in 2020 to fill the remainder of his term.

Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson has announced that he will be leaving the Senate at the end of 2019, setting up the Peach State as a Senate battleground for the 2020 election:

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said Wednesday that he will resign at the end of 2019, citing health problems.

Isakson, who was reelected to a third term in 2016, said in a statement that he has informed Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) of his decision, effective Dec. 31.

“I am leaving a job I love because my health challenges are taking their toll on me, my family and my staff. My Parkinson’s has been progressing, and I am continuing physical therapy to recover from a fall in July. In addition, this week I had surgery to remove a growth on my kidney,” the senator said.

Isakson was hospitalized last month with fractured ribs after a fall at his Washington apartment.

In a statement issued after his release, Isakson’s office said that symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease could lengthen the recovery process. Isakson revealed in 2015 that he had received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s two years earlier, saying that he experienced stiffness in his left arm and a slower gait as a result of the condition.

Isakson is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.

Isakson was set to serve through the 2022 election. Under Georgia law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Kemp will make an appointment to replace Isakson pending a special election to be held concurrently with the 2020 general election.

More from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said Wednesday he was stepping down from office at the end of 2019 as he struggles with Parkinson’s disease, setting up two elections for U.S. Senate in Georgia in 2020. 

Isakson, a three-term Republican, said he decided to step down because of the “mounting health challenges” that includes several falls from Parkinson’s disease and surgery this week to remove a growth on his kidney.

“It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term, but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state,” said Isakson, 74, in a statement.

Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, will appoint a replacement for Isakson, who was elected to a third term by a wide margin. Though his term doesn’t expire until 2022, Isakson’s retirement means the seat will be on the ballot next year.

Three Georgia Democrats have already announced a challenge to U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a first-term Republican who is up for election in 2020. Isakson’s seat will likely draw several other Democrats, who see Georgia as increasingly competitive. 

It’s not yet clear who Kemp will appoint to Isakson’s seat, though potential candidates include Attorney General Chris Carr, Georgia Senate Pro Tem Butch Miller and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins. 

A four-decade veteran of Georgia politics, Isakson is famed for his work ethic and busy schedule. His aides and allies long dismissed talk that he could step down early, and even floated the idea of a fourth term at the state GOP convention.

But he has grappled recently with complications with Parkinson’s, which limits his balance and mobility. He recently spent six days in an inpatient rehabilitation program after being hospitalized in Washington on July 16. And his statement Wednesday disclosed for the first time his kidney surgery.

“I look forward to returning to Washington on September 9 when the Senate goes back into session,” said Isakson.

“And after December 31, I look forward to continuing to help the people of Georgia in any way I can and also helping those who are working toward a cure for Parkinson’s.”

As noted, Isakson’s retirement sets up a unique, although not unprecedented, situation in Georgia that could play a role in determining which party controls the Senate when the new Congress convenes in January 2021. In addition to the re-election bid for Senator David Perdue, who was first elected to office in 2014, there will now also be a Special Election to fill the remainder of Isakson’s term, which expires after the 2022 election. In between then and the end of 2019, the seat will be filled by someone appointed by Republican Governor Brian Kemp. Most likely, of course, that appointment will be a fellow Republican.

There are already a number of Democrats running for their party’s nomination to face off against Perdue and it’s possible one or more of those could decide to jump into the other race instead. Alternatively, a contest for another Senate opening could cause other Democrats and Republicans to consider getting into the race. Inevitably, speculation on that end will likely focus most immediately on Stacey Abrams, the former Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives who narrowly lost the Governor’s race last year. In the time since that loss, Abrams has been mentioned as a potential candidate for a Presidential running mate in 2020 and, briefly at least, as someone who may have entered the race for the Democratic nomination for President herself. However, less than an hour after Isakson’s announcement Abrams issued a statement saying she does not want to run for Senate.

At the very least, Isakson’s retirement has the potential to significantly impact the battle for Senate control. Currently, the GOP holds a 53-47 seat advantage in the Senate. This means that depending on whether or not the Trump/Pence ticket is re-elected, Democrats would need a net gain of 3-4 seats to take control of the Senate. The current math makes the Democrats’ task more difficult than one might think.

There are two Republican-held seats that are considered to be vulnerable. One is in Arizona, where Martha McSally will have to defend the seat she was appointed to earlier this year for the right to serve for the remainder of John McCain’s term. McSally is being challenged primarily by Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and husband of Gabby Giffords who seems likely to win the Democratic nomination and recent polling has Kelly pulling ahead of McSally for the first time. The other seat is in Colorado, where Cory Gardner must defend his seat in a state that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. That task became more difficult last week when John Hickenlooper, the popular former Governor who had recently dropped out of the Democratic Presidential race, entered the race for the Democratic nomination to challenge Gardner. Assuming Hickenlooper wins that race, which seems likely, Gardner will face an uphill battle to stay in office.

Additionally, there are now two open-seat elections, one being the Special Election for Isakson’s seat and the other in Tennessee, where Lamar Alexander has decided to retire at the end of his current term. The seat in Georgia could be competitive, but Tennessee is likely to favor Republicans given the fact that the state will most likely be a safely red seat in the Presidential race next year.

On the other side of the balance sheet is Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones faces the daunting prospect of defending his seat in a state that went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016 and will likely do so again in 2020. The outcome in these five races could decide who controls the Senate in 2021 and beyond

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Congress, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Don’t forget Susan Collins in Maine.

    We’ll lose Alabama, might win Maine, Colorado and Arizona for a two seat net pick-up. Georgia is interesting. It might be on the path to becoming the next Virginia. North Carolina is not entirely out of reach.

  2. Kylopod says:

    There are two Republican-held seats that are considered to be vulnerable.

    Susan Collins is also considered to be vulnerable.

  3. Kylopod says:

    @michael reynolds: Beat me to it about Collins. I also wouldn’t rule out Joni Ernst in Iowa.

  4. @michael reynolds:

    I’ve yet to see any evidence of vulnerability in Maine. And the much-touted Democrat running against her has had several missteps over the summer. Assuming she does run for re-election, Collins is a survivor I would not bet against her.

  5. Neil Hudelson says:


    Yeah, Iowa seems to be overlooked a lot, but the 2018 election revealed considerable Dem strength. Iowa’s House delegation went from 3-1 GOP/Dem to 3-1 Dem/GOP. Republicans held on to quite a few statewide positions–governor, secretary of state, etc. But Dems won the treasurer’s race and auditor’s race. A Dem pickup there doesn’t seem out of bounds.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    There’s not a lot of evidence, but there’s not no evidence, either:

    A new poll from a respected online survey research company indicates that Sen. Susan Collins’ once-strong approval rating in Maine has plummeted in recent months.

    The poll by Morning Consult, which was conducted online with nearly 2,000 Maine voters between April and June, found Collins had the second-lowest approval rating of any U.S. senator, besting only Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky. Meanwhile, Maine’s other senator, Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, was ranked as the most liked senator in the nation.

    Collins’ approval rating dropped 16 points from the first quarter of 2019, the most of any senator in the survey.

    The Morning Consult poll numbers for Collins, which show that 45 percent approved of her while 48 percent disapproved, prompted an onslaught of crowing by Collins’ opponents.

  7. Kathy says:

    A lot will depend on how the 2020 general election plays out. If it takes place in the middle of a recession, that might depress the GOP vote and motivate higher Democratic turnout. That might make for nasty surprises for the Republicans in the Senate.

  8. Jen says:

    Sen. Collins has a bit more going against her this time around. Yes, Democrats want to get rid of her and her Kavanaugh vote might help a lot of out-of-state money come into the race, an aspect that wasn’t really there six years ago when she ran for re-election. The pro-Trump Republicans in Maine don’t like her either, and while it’s a nuisance rather than a solid challenge, she does have a Republican running against her in the primary.

    The Republican “LePage” vote will turn out in a primary, so she can’t just write it off, she’ll have to spend money.

    TL;DR: this is probably the hardest she’ll have to fight for her seat in a while, and turnout and national mood will matter a great deal. Missteps on the part of Gideon this early on aren’t likely to mean much by next November.

  9. Kylopod says:

    @Jen: Also, it’s silly to argue that Collins will survive because she has so many times in the past. Historically, many Senators have been voted out of office after getting reelected multiple times. In politics, you’re a survivor until the moment you aren’t.

    I frankly would not rule out the possibility that she declines to seek reelection.

  10. Fortunato says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    re: Yeah, Iowa seems to be overlooked a lot, but the 2018 election revealed considerable Dem strength.

    Also overlooked is the growing anger and unrest among farm families throughout the heartland (IA, MN, NE, KS etc..). Trump’s base.
    A base that has angrily confronted Sonny Perdue and Ag Dept officials as they rolled out their Chucklin’ Good Ol’ Boys tour at County and State fairs during this August recess. In Minnesota farmers essentially booed Perdue off the stage. In Nebraska, Federal Ag Dept officials were required to add a police escort after a “heated session” at one stop, and actual threats of violence (from a farmer) at another. Perdue then canceled a scheduled speaking event at the NE State Fair, citing ‘weather delays’.
    I see ABC News has just now published the following:
    Perdue to visit Illinois amid farmer anger at administration

    Ernst is facing a real challenge. Untold numbers of farm families are right now staring into the face of bankruptcy. The same farmers who prospered throughout 8 years of Obama, are now facing the reality of losing farms that have been in their families for generations.
    Farmers now unable to ignore the fact that the peril they face is due almost solely to Trump’s never-ending malfeasance.
    A malfeasance aided by the spinelessness of the Republicans they have elected.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    @Fortunato: Sadly, people in this country often vote against their own self-interest due to tribalism, racism, stupidity, etc….we can only hope that these farmers and their families don’t so the same next year…