- Associated Press - Saturday, October 29, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - Johnny Isakson is heading into the final days of Georgia’s U.S. Senate race with a comfortable lead over Democratic challenger Jim Barksdale, but the race could be the closest contest of the Republican incumbent’s Senate career.

The unexpectedly tight margin in Georgia between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has complicated Isakson’s bid for a third term, along with Libertarian Allen Buckley siphoning votes.

Georgia hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton’s first run in 1992, and Democrats hope a close presidential contest will affect down-ballot contests like the Senate race.

Isakson still holds an 11 percentage-point edge in public polling averages over Barksdale, a first-time candidate who stepped into the race at the last minute after better known Democrats ruled out a run. But the incumbent hasn’t passed 50 percent and risks a January runoff. Georgia law requires a runoff election if no candidate wins a majority of the vote.

A Senate runoff isn’t unprecedented in Georgia. In 2008, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss survived a runoff after falling just short of 50 percent in a three-person general election. Republican Paul Coverdell narrowly defeated sitting Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr. in 1992.

For Isakson, though, it would be a first. The Republican secured about 58 percent of the vote in his last two Senate campaigns, leaning on his well-cultivated reputation as a moderate open to working with Democrats. Leading Democrats including Atlanta Congressman David Scott and former governor Roy Barnes have said they’ll be voting for Isakson this year.

Following the lone debate of the race, Isakson said he’s hoping to again avoid a nine-week runoff contest. His strategy to prevent it: “Everything I’ve been doing for the last 24 months, and that’s going out and shaking hands with Georgians and talking about the issues.”

Isakson held a financial advantage heading into October, reporting about $2.2 million in cash on hand to Barksdale’s cash total of more than $837,000. The incumbent Republican reported a haul of more than $1.1 million between July and the start of October. Barksdale raised more than $322,000 during the same period.

Barksdale, who owns an investment management firm, has loaned his campaign $3.5 million so far. The Democrat hasn’t said whether he plans to spend more in the race’s final days.

Barksdale got a slow start to the race, primarily holding general question-and-answer sessions with Democratic groups and criticizing Isakson’s support for various trade deals. In late September, he replaced top aides with alumni of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Ever since, Barksdale has aggressively targeted Isakson’s continued support for Trump at events focused on minorities, organized labor and young voters.

Barksdale said in a statement that he’s aiming to win on election day.

“That means making sure everyone in Georgia who wants change in Washington gets out and votes,” he said in the statement. “If this race does go to a runoff, we’ve built momentum to fight and win through January 10th. The more folks get to know me, the better we perform.”

Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, Barksdale’s newcomer status requires him to “ride Hillary Clinton’s coattails” to overcome Isakson’s long history in state politics.

“It’s not clear how long those coattails will be, because she’s not particularly popular,” Gillespie said.

David Patterson, a 57-year-old from Smyrna, cast an early ballot for Clinton and Barksdale this month. Patterson said he didn’t know much about Barksdale but is “tired” of seeing Congress under GOP control, particularly with failed efforts to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care law “without an alternative.”

“They just put politics ahead of country again and again,” Patterson said.

For Isakson, the race will test his record of getting voters to cross party lines, Gillespie said.

“One fear for Isakson supporters is whether he will get the same proportion of Democratic votes that he usually does considering how competitive this year is,” Gillespie said.

But Isakson also needs Republican voters disenchanted with Trump to show up. Brennan Mancil heads up a coalition of students working on Isakson’s campaign. Mancil said he won’t vote for Trump and is considering write-in candidates. But the 21-year-old never questioned voting for Isakson, even as the incumbent maintained support for Trump.

“While I personally wish Sen. Isakson would assess the impact Trump has on the future of the party, I also understand he’s running a re-election campaign,” Mancil said. “I don’t fault him at all for the decisions he’s made. I know he has what’s best for the state of Georgia in mind.”

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