Michael Thurmond Prepares For His Biggest Political Challenge
A source familiar with his plans says the Democratic Labor Department commissioner will enter the U.S. Senate race in an announcement expected Wednesday. Thurmond will be the favorite in the July primary against one political novice, setting up a November race against Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson. Thurmond will spend the weekend at home in Athens discussing this with family.
Thurmond against Isakson for a U.S. Senate office could eclipse the state’s gubernatorial race in media attention, voter interest and potentially, millions of dollars raised and spent. A victory over the popular and respected Isakson would make him an instant national political celebrity. A source close to Isakson said Thurmond “would be swimming in a pool beyond his depth.” Thurmond has run three successful statewide campaigns but nothing with the intensity, political knifing or media scrutiny of a United States Senate race.
If elected, Thurmond would become the second African-American senator from the Deep South, the first since Reconstruction and just the seventh in American history. Mississippi elected Hiram Revels in 1870. Virginia sent Blanche Bruce to the Senate in 1875. Modern era African-American senators include Carol Moseley Braun, Barack Obama and Roland Burris, all from Illinois, and Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.
There has been conjecture for months that Thurmond would announce a race for lieutenant governor in an attempt to force out Republican incumbent Casey Cagle. In effect, Thurmond would become a ticket alongside former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes who wants his old job back. But the source said Thurmond decided to pursue a position with more substance than lieutenant governor where Democrats already have one attractive candidate, Carol Porter. She is the wife of DuBose Porter who is among several running against Barnes for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Thurmond supervises a $400 million per year Labor Department that oversees statewide unemployment compensation. He has been widely praised for turning “unemployment offices” into “career centers” with significant resources to re-educate out-of-work Georgians and redeploy them into the workforce. He will complete his third four-year term as labor commissioner this year. Several months ago Thurmond was linked to a possible appointment within the Obama administration but nothing came of that.
The decision to seek a U.S.Senate seat could catapult Thurmond onto the national stage or perhaps end his political career. There would not be another high profile opportunity on the Georgia ballot until 2014 when Governor and the Senate seat currently held by Saxby Chambliss will be contested.
Thurmond is respected for his ability to work across political aisles. But during the current economic slide Thurmond said Georgia was not prepared for unemployment levels that consistently exceed the national average. Privately, he expressed frustration with the state’s other top officials who he says did not work together to address unemployment.
Thurmond has few peers as an orator and he would need those skills to distance himself from the increasingly unpopular president. Republicans would be expected to argue that sending Thurmond to Washington would provide another vote for Barack Obama’s agenda. Thurmond would need to present himself as a homegrown conservative Georgian who is not cut from the same cloth as Washington liberals.
The other challenge Thurmond must consider is how to win over Roy Barnes supporters who might also be inclined to vote for Isakson. Barnes and Isakson share North Atlanta suburban stomping grounds and both are fiscal conservatives.
Thurmond is 57, eight years younger than Isakson. The incumbent senator was hospitalized twice within recent weeks for an infection and blood clots but neither condition is considered to have long-term implications. Isakson has been out on the fund-raising circuit, raising cash in Georgia and beyond.
Thurmond and Isakson both served in the Georgia General Assembly before they moved to higher ground. There were reports last year that Isakson might leave the Senate to run for governor until the Senator made it clear that for now, he prefers Washington. And so, apparently, does Michael Thurmond.
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