MACON — On Tuesday, political Georgia swept down I-75 (and up and across, too) for the annual Georgia Chamber luncheon focused on members of Congress.
Two years ago, the event was carefully bipartisan, featuring a first debate between Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue in the U.S. Senate race to replace Saxby Chambliss.
This year, not so much. This was a full-throated, circle-the-wagons effort for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Republican incumbent locked in a three-way re-election bid with Demcorat Jim Barksdale and Libertarian Allen Buckley.
Isakson has already been endorsed by both the Georgia Chamber and U.S. Chamber, so this wasn’t much of a surprise. But there was a distinct change in tone by many who spoke about him – and about what he represents.
Perdue, who won that election two years ago running as an anti-D.C. “outsider,” referred to Isakson as “our Howard Baker” – a reference to the late Republican senator from Tennessee who brokered deal after deal in Washington in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Since when did compromise become a dirty word?” Georgia’s junior senator asked. “Weren’t any of y’all ever married?”
Perdue didn’t introduce Isakson to the crowd. That duty went to U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, who was first elected to Congress during the tea party upheaval. “Thank you for caring, and being the example of what is needed today,” Graves said.
Isakson’s speech wasn’t a long one – the annual event is a stopwatch affair that ends at 1 p.m., but he followed his new tack of separating himself from the presidential contest. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Isakson predicted that Congress will punt on funding to combat the mosquito-born Zika virus. And on a national defense appropriation separate from the rest of the sequestered federal budget.
Isakson’s only mention of Trump was nearly accidental, made as he praised Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature for preserving tax breaks to encourage the movie and TV industry in Georgia. He came upon the Marietta Square on Monday, Isakson said:
“There was a Trump rally going on. I said, ‘Trump rally? I didn’t know anything about that.’ It was a motion picture being filmed on the Square in Glover Park. It was a political story. I don’t know what the story is.”
Isakson made one more mention of the presidential contest, made as he predicted that Congress will resort again to a continuing resolution to keep the federal government funded this year:
“For the eighth year in a row, the Congress of the United States and the President of the United States will shirk their responsibility to appropriate and do oversight….
“I think whoever is elected this November is going to face a stark reality. Next year, it’s time we handled America’s expenditures and America’s obligations like you handle them at your house.”
One absence from Isakson’s talk, which might have been expected in front of a business-oriented audience: No mention of a U.S. Senate vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with Asia.
The featured entertainment of the afternoon was a presidential presentation by Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg, political analysts imported from D.C., who confirmed the bad news that November is likely to bring to Republicans.
Cook said that Clinton’s dismal favorability rating, in other circumstances, would have augured well for the GOP – except that Trump’s poll numbers are worse:
“In short, if Republicans nominated a potted plant, they’d probably win. Even with the structural advantages against the Republican party that we have right now.
“If Republicans had just nominated someone who was fairly innocuous, I mean like, say [Ohio Gov.] John Kasich. Kasich would have beaten Hillary Clinton like a rented mule.”
Stu Rothenberg offered the (mostly Republican) crowd the good news. While he predicted that Trump could cost the GOP control of the Senate, Isakson was unlikely to be affected, he said.
Another piece of good news for the GOP, said Rothenberg: This years’ U.S. Senate contests break down to 24 GOP seats and 10 Democratic ones, exposing Republicans. “You know what it is in two years? Twenty-five Democratic seats and only eight Republicans,” he said.
Even if they lose the Senate in November, Republicans could get it back as quickly as 2018.