What to watch for in Georgia’s U.S. Senate race

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Georgia's three U.S. Senate candidates shake hands ahead of the race's only televised debate last month. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

As far as Senate contests go, Georgia’s race never had the same electricity as the marquee matchups in states such as New Hampshire, North Carolina and Wisconsin. But that doesn’t mean a dose of drama isn’t possible in the Peach State on Tuesday, even if the contest is not expected to determine which party will control the Senate in 2017.

Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson has maintained a commanding lead in the polls for the duration of the race, and his two challengers, Democrat Jim Barksdale and Libertarian Allen Buckley, have chomped at the bit for opportunities to attack him. Few of their barbs, however, have appeared to stick in this under-the-radar contest, which has consistently been overshadowed by the presidential race.

The key question is whether Barksdale and Buckley will be able to deny Isakson the 50 percent-plus-one vote he needs to avoid a nine-week runoff that would keep the political ads airing through January 2017.

Here is what else to watch for as voters go to the polls:

Who’s in the Isakson coalition?

Starting with his first television ads of the general election cycle, Isakson has emphasized his bipartisan credentials on Capitol Hill. He has quite a few prominent backers on the left after decades in Georgia politics, and the AJC’s most recent poll of Georgia voters showed 18 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters planned to split their ticket for Isakson. How many Democrats does he ultimately draw away from Barksdale?

At the same time, some disgruntled conservative voters, unhappy with the status quo in Washington, have indicated that they’re willing to abandon Isakson. With recent polls showing the political veteran with only about 50 percent support, how does Georgia’s consummate insider fare once voters go to the ballot box in this anti-establishment year?

Will Buckley be the spoiler?

Speaking of factors that could work to Isakson’s disadvantage on Tuesday, Buckley may just be the biggest one. The three-time Senate candidate has based much of his campaign on the argument that Isakson is insufficiently conservative. How much does that resonate with voters tomorrow?

Some polls have showed Buckley with support levels in the high single digits. During his past runs, Buckley wasn’t able to exceed 4 percent support. But by siphoning off 3.4 percent of the vote in 2008, Buckley was able to force his two competitors, Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin, into a runoff. Does that occur again?

Can Barksdale best the polls?

It took the first-time candidate a long time to get his campaign off the ground. He wasn’t heard from for weeks after he first qualified for the office and he rebuilt his staff from practically the ground-up last month as national fundraising groups stayed away. That chaos has impacted Barksdale in the polls, where he hasn’t been able to exceed 42 percent support.

Barksdale’s staff has emphasized that he’s begun closing the gap with Isakson in recent weeks. That’s true, to a certain extent – Isakson’s been polling ahead by 10 and 11 percentage-points these days instead of 16 and 21 percentage-points back in September. The question is whether that momentum was too little, too late for Barksdale. On the other hand, could he have a chance at redemption in a runoff?

How does the African-American vote break down?

It’s no secret that the road for a Democrat to win statewide office in Georgia requires deep support from African Americans, who make up roughly one-third of the electorate.

Both Barksdale and Isakson have worked to secure the support of black voters in recent weeks. Isakson advertised on African-American focused radio stations, while Barksdale spent time this weekend appealing to black voters in barber shops and churches. Can the Democrat consolidate support among African-Americans Tuesday or will Isakson draw away votes?

The AJC’s most recent poll of Georgians showed Barksdale with 63 percent support among likely African-American voters and Isakson with 18 percent, compared to the 88 percent of black voters who said they would back Clinton for president.


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