With Sen. Zell Miller (D.-Ga.) announcing he will not seek reelection, Georgia Republicans believe they have an excellent chance to pick up his seat and do it with a solid conservative.
But they are nervous that White House political operatives might prefer to see moderate Rep. Johnny Isakson as the GOP nominee. Isakson (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 75%) is the most liberal of the state’s seven Republican House members.
One prominent Georgia Republican told me he privately warned a White House political deputy to "stay away from Johnny. Anyone whose TV commercials advertised him as the ‘pro-choice Republican’ in a Georgia primary is going to have a real problem." (That’s what Isakson called himself in the 1996 Senate primary that he lost to conservative Guy Milner.)
Isakson has opposed House conservatives on spending and tax cut measures. In 2001, he voted against the conservative budget resolution sponsored by Rep. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), and he also voted against the Hyde Amendment that denies funding to international organizations that provide or promote abortions.
When Isakson was minority leader in the state house in the 1970s, he irked conservatives by often acquiescing to the demands of Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy.
Georgia Republicans believe the White House might be tempted to intervene in Isakson’s favor because Isakson campaigned with the President on behalf of the senior President Bush in 1988. In 2001, these same Republicans note, Isakson shepherded Bush’s big education spending bill through the House.
Isakson counters the concerns of conservatives by strongly insisting he is a conservative himself. His self-characterization as "pro-choice" notwithstanding, he told me, "I’m rated 81% by the National Right to Life Committee and 92% by the Christian Coalition and that’s pretty conservative." (National Right to Life gave Isakson an 81% rating for the 107th Congress, and a 68% in the 106th.)
It is virtually certain Isakson will face conservative opposition in the Senate primary. State Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, for one, is reportedly set to enter the race. According to a McLaughlin Associates poll, Oxendine leads Isakson among likely primary voters 24% to 15%, with 10% going to Rep. Jack Kingston and 5% to Rep. Mac Collins. Kingston (lifetime ACU rating: 99%) has been sounding out fellow conservatives about making a run. A spokesman for Collins (lifetime ACU rating: 95%) told HUMAN EVENTS he will decide by spring whether to jump in.
"My advice to the White House is to stay neutral in this race," said Southeastern Legal Foundation President Phil Kent, a prominent Georgia conservative.
"White House involvement would take the process of selecting a nominee away from the people," echoed State Party Vice-Chairman Carolyn Garcia. "It should be the people’s right in Georgia to select."