As Donald Trump flails, Georgia’s political middle becomes more attractive

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump concludes his speech at his campaign rally Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016 in West Bend, Wis. (John Ehlke/West Bend Daily News via AP)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump concludes his speech at his campaign rally on Tuesday in West Bend, Wis. John Ehlke/West Bend Daily News via AP

For now, think of it as a gust of wind rather than a steady breeze, an interlude more than a trend.

Even so, the flailing of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has created something that hasn’t been seen in Georgia for many a year: An opportunity for both Republicans and Democrats in the state to move toward the political center.

Look at what Johnny Isakson’s doing. And Kasim Reed, too.

Trump can’t hog all the credit. Some Republicans in Georgia have understood that, with Democrats edging back toward competitiveness, the days of ruling through the prism of a GOP primary are nearing an end.

But the New York businessman’s failure to convert his individual candidacy into a national tide that lifts all Republican boats – even in the friendly South — has essentially turned GOP members of the U.S. Senate into free agents.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

On Monday, Isakson launched the first TV ad of his general election bid for re-election, a heart-tugging spot that focused on the Republican incumbent’s long relationship with the family of a Peace Corps worker from Cumming, Ga., who was slain in west Africa in 2009.

The line that mattered most – in a political sense — from Lois Puzey, the mother: “I’m a lifelong Democrat. I’m so grateful that he was my senator.”

Neither is Isakson running away from campaign checks from Democratic stalwarts like former Gov. Roy Barnes and former U.S. senator Sam Nunn.

It has been ages since a Republican candidate for statewide office has courted Democrats in such an open fashion. Or has needed to. And so we now see Johnny Isakson returning to his roots as a man comfortable in the political middle.

In the presidential contest, Georgia remains Trump’s state to lose. But as the race now stands, even if he wins here, Trump is likely to win only by a plurality. Isakson, in a three-way race with Democrat Jim Barksdale and Libertarian Allen Buckley, needs to pierce the 50 percent mark in order to avoid a grueling, nine-week runoff that wouldn’t end until Jan. 10. That’s right – in 2017.

To escape that fate, Isakson needs more than a little support from non-Trump voters. Suburban women in particular. The senator made news last week by refusing to be drawn into any mention of the GOP presidential nominee or his missteps. But few noted that Isakson has also stopped using Democrat Hillary Clinton as a foil.

No need to antagonize potential allies.

In a session with reporters last Friday, Isakson also put himself on the side of Republicans ready to back an effort to push MARTA rail deep into the northern reaches of Fulton County — another indication of political climate change.

As stated, evidence of the fracturing of the Republican coalition — conservative Christians, tea partyists, and traditional fiscal conservatives – has been seen elsewhere this year. This spring, we saw Gov. Nathan Deal veto a “religious liberty” bill and a measure to permit concealed weaponry on public university campuses.

In July, a GOP primary runoff to pick a successor to U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Coweta County, went to the establishment-backed candidate, not the ideological purist.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

But Trump has exacerbated the  drift toward the middle. Even among Democrats.

This week, President Barack Obama began what is being advertised as a major push to persuade a Republican-controlled but lame-duck Congress to take up, and pass, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact after Election Day.

Even though the woman Obama wants to replace him has said she opposes it now, and would continue to oppose it if elected. Even if the Democrats’ election-year platform now all but condemns the Asian trade agreement.

On Monday, as Isakson began his TV bid for Democratic voters, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed took up Obama’s cause at a meeting of business leaders that outlined the coming campaign-beyond-the-campaign.

“We have to be the adults in the room, in my opinion. We have to be the people who cut through all the political noise about how this is a global job killer when all of the data says that’s not true,” Reed said.

“If we fail right now and don’t get this transaction done, it is highly unlikely that a President Clinton or a President Trump would pick up the agreement and ever get it done,” the mayor said.

At the national Democratic gathering in Philadelphia, the Asian pact was a focal point of Bernie Sanders supporters. It remains a hot topic. One suspects that neither Obama nor Reed would be as willing to make this contrarian move if Trump’s status as a presidential candidate weren’t in decline.

Part of Reed’s support can be attributed to the bipartisan effort in Georgia to find federal funding for the dredging of the Port of Savannah. But raw politics is involved, too. By urging Congress to take up the TPP, Obama would be requiring Republican members of the Senate to disavow a crucial point of Trump’s candidacy.

Eric Robertson, who was picketing outside that pro-trade luncheon in Atlanta, represents the risk that this particular move toward the center poses for Democrats. Robertson is the political director for Teamsters Local 728.

Robertson attributes the mayor’s support for TPP to his loyalty to the president. As for Obama, the union leader sees the president’s move as having less to do with Trump, and more to do with Obama’s pursuit of a “big-ticket” legacy item.

“If somebody’s going to propose the TPP, they’re going to have to be up front about the voters,” Robertson said. “I think it’s a cynical move — where they’re going to vote for it after they’ve been re-elected or after they’ve been voted out.”

If a lame-duck Congress chooses to take up the trade pact after Election Day, the Democratic loyalist said he could foresee an alliance with Republican tea partyers.

But that wouldn’t be a fight by the far right and far left against a political center in recovery, the Teamster said. “It would be a fight between the haves and have-nots.”


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