Democrat Jim Barksdale tried to shrug off the news that three of his party’s top leaders had crossed the aisle to back Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson in the U.S. Senate race, casting them as veteran politicians eager to maintain the status quo.
“I think it says that the establishment wants the establishment to stay the way it’s been,” Barksdale said in an interview this weekend. “But the electorate is going to have a different voice, I think. It’s very much an outsider message.”
The deep-pocketed political newcomer, who has already pumped more than $3 million into his own campaign, is playing catch-up with many Democratic elders and activists who had hardly heard of him before he plunged into the race.
Nowhere was that more evident than last week. Long-serving U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, said he planned to support Isakson’s quest for a third term. And the AJC revealed that two other Georgia Democratic icons, former Gov. Roy Barnes and ex-U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, both contributed to the Republican’s campaign.
Recent polls show him within striking distance of Isakson, whose campaign worries that Republicans disillusioned with Donald Trump can cost him down-ballot support. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll published Friday gave Isakson a 6-point lead over the little-known newcomer, a too-close-for-comfort showing for the veteran Republican.
The poll showed that 84 percent of Democratic voters and more than a third of independents would likely back Barksdale, while Isakson has consolidated about 95 percent of the GOP vote. Expect Barksdale’s messaging to target conservatives frustrated by Washington gridlock.
“We’re doing well with the Democrats but we’re going to do better as they get to know me better, I’m sure,” he said. “I’m not worried about holding onto the Democratic side. And the Republicans, frankly, a lot of them that are dissatisfied with the establishment – Johnny Isakson is the poster child of the policies that everybody is upset about.”
Yet a budding enthusiasm gap was evident at a Saturday rally for what the campaign dubbed the Hat Corps at a union hall in south Atlanta. About a dozen people showed up and clapped politely to welcome Barksdale, whose 5-minute speech touched on the polls that had him closing the gap with Isakson.
After he left, Barksdale field organizer Sara Henderson searched for volunteers willing to hold phone banks for the campaign. When none initially volunteered, Henderson, a former top organizer for Bernie Sanders, turned up the heat.
“It’s a single-digit race and we haven’t really started doing anything yet,” she said. “Imagine if we did. Imagine if were canvassing. It might be a two-point race.”
Barksdale’s 15 or so staffers, she added, had devised the “most technologically advanced statewide campaign that Georgia has ever seen” with specialized text-messaging apps and predictive dialing software. She offered a money-backed guarantee – “as in, I have a few quarters in my pocket,” she quipped – for anyone who didn’t enjoy holding a phone bank for the campaign.
Eventually, a hand raised to volunteer. Then, one or two more. Several others, though, left disenchanted.
“I wanted to see a lot more out of him. I have a lot more questions and I wanted to hear him talk about the issues,” said Carter Kremer, a 22-year-old student who said he was unimpressed with the candidate. “It’s great to hear anti-establishment statements, but I wanted to hear what he was going to do instead.”