Sen. Johnny Isakson is resigning at the end of 2019 in the face of mounting health problems, adding another competitive seat as Republicans look to defend their narrow majority in 2020.
“I am leaving a job I love because my health challenges are taking their toll on me, my family and my staff,” Isakson said in a statement. “My Parkinson’s has been progressing, and I am continuing physical therapy to recover from a fall in July. In addition, this week I had surgery to remove a growth on my kidney.”
The retirement of the Georgia giant will hurt Republicans’ chances of keeping the Senate next year.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, spoke to Isakson on Wednesday morning and said afterward that he will appoint a replacement to serve through the end of 2020 “at the appropriate time.” That seat will then be subject to a special election in 2020 and whoever wins that race will have to run for the full six-year term in 2022.
Meanwhile, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) is already up for reelection next year, so now Republicans have two Georgia seats to defend in 2020.
The state has typically been safe conservative territory in recent years, but Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their ability to compete there. Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the gubernatorial election to Kemp in 2018.
Abrams passed on running against Perdue, despite entreaties from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and was certain to face new calls to run for Georgia's other Senate seat.
But Abrams quickly demurred again and said through a spokesman her “focus will not change: She will lead voter protection efforts in key states across the country, and make sure Democrats are successful in Georgia in 2020.”
Isakson was last reelected in 2016, and his decision to cut short his third term in the Senate will be seen as a blow to the institution.
Isakson chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee and is known as a genteel presence in a chamber now known for bitter partisanship. Democrats and Republicans alike universally praise the low-key Republican as one of the most courteous senators, and he is quick with a dry joke or a compliment as he makes his way through the Senate each day.
Senators in both parties lauded Isakson for his service.
“No one is more respected by the other members of the Senate than Johnny Isakson is,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
“One of the many fine adjectives to describe Johnny Isakson is a word not used enough in the halls of Congress these days: kind,” Schumer said.
Isakson fought behind the scenes for weeks to deliver hurricane relief for his state this year, and last year worked with Democrats on an immigration reform package that was opposed by the Trump administration. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called Isakson a “legislative workhorse.”
The senator hosts yearly bipartisan barbecue get-togethers on Capitol Hill and has traveled the world with senators from both parties. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said senators’ “differences disappeared slathered in sauce” amid the BBQ gatherings.
Isakson has also forcefully defended the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) from President Donald Trump’s attacks, viewing it as his duty to publicly speak out as other Republicans shy away from the topic.
The Democrats’ watch list to run for Isakson’s seat includes Lucy McBath, who flipped a suburban House district in 2018; Jason Carter, who ran for governor in 2014; Michelle Nunn, who ran for Senate that year; and Sherry Boston, district attorney for DeKalb County.
Three Democrats are already running against Perdue for Georgia's other Senate race: former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry and Sarah Riggs Amico, who lost the race for lieutenant governor in 2018. Terry and Amico put out statements Wednesday indicating that they would remain in the race against Perdue. Jon Ossoff, who lost a special election House race in 2017, is also considering a Senate bid.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young (R-Ind.) said he looks “forward to the men and women of Georgia electing another strong Republican leader in 2020 alongside David Perdue.”
“This is yet another seat Republicans will need to defend next year in an increasingly competitive battleground where the president's approval has plunged by double digits since taking office,” responded Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Republicans considered potential contenders for the appointment include state Attorney General Chris Carr, who was previously chief of staff to Isakson, and Reps. Tom Graves and Doug Collins.
Despite his determination to serve out his term, Isakson’s health has been an issue since he disclosed his Parkinson's diagnosis in 2015.
Isakson struggles to navigate the Capitol on foot and sometimes uses a wheelchair. He fell in July in his Capitol Hill apartment, fracturing four ribs. Isakson has been recovering in Georgia and said he will return to Washington on Sept. 9, when the Senate ends its August recess.
On Wednesday, Isakson made no effort to hide how difficult his decision was to step down at the end of December.
“In my 40 years in elected office, I have always put my constituents and my state of Georgia first. With the mounting health challenges I am facing, I have concluded that I will not be able to do the job over the long term in the manner the citizens of Georgia deserve,” he said. “It goes against every fiber of my being to leave in the middle of my Senate term, but I know it’s the right thing to do on behalf of my state.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the title of Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled former Georgia congressional candidate Jon Ossoff's name.