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Sen. Johnny Isakson’s Health Is the Elephant in the Room

There’s not much suspense about who will win Georgia’s senate race. Johnny Isakson has been ahead of his Democratic challenger, Jim Barksdale, by 10 points or more in recent polls. Libertarian Allen Buckley may peel off enough votes to force a runoff, but that’s not very likely.

If you’re a betting person, your money should be on the senator to win a third term in office. The question is whether you will see another person finish out that six-year term.

That’s the real issue that hasn’t been discussed much in this campaign—Isakson’s health. The senator had serious medical problems the last time he ran in 2010, when he was hospitalized twice and spent time in an intensive care unit because of an irregular heartbeat and a blood infection. When I talked to him a few weeks after that election, he acknowledged, “I almost bought the farm.”

Isakson, who will be 72 in December, has a medical issue in this campaign as well, having been diagnosed in 2013 with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that damages a person’s motor skills. The disease gets progressively worse and in its later stages can cause depression, hallucinations, delusions and paranoia.

One of the rumors that’s been making the rounds is whether Isakson would serve his entire senate term or resign after several months to allow Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint a replacement, perhaps former congressman Jack Kingston.

Isakson’s longtime strategist and confidant, Heath Garrett, says the senator intends to serve the whole term. “He verified as soon as the diagnosis was finalized that he would serve the entire six years,” Garrett said. “He was unequivocal about that.”

Regardless of Isakson’s good intentions, the senator has a serious disease that could keep him from serving out the full term to which he’s elected. It’s question that should have been asked by his opponents, but they’ve been too timid to talk about it until recently.

In a debate on Georgia Public Television, Buckley finally went where Barksdale, for some reason, won’t go. “I don’t mean to be mean,” Buckley said. “But the best thing for Johnny, his family, our state and our country would be if he were not running right now.  I’ve talked to a lot of his friends who will tell me that confidentially.”

Isakson replied, “I think that’s a veiled reference to the fact that I disclosed a year and a half ago that I had Parkinson’s, which was the hardest thing that I ever did, and also the best thing that I ever did.

“The only way you play things like Parkinson’s is to be open and forthright about them,” Isakson said. “I tell everybody I intend to win that battle and I will win that battle.”

“I’ve got the energy to go up there [to Washington] and put in the fight,” Buckley said. “No offense, I’m younger than you.”

“I’m not going to hold your immaturity and your inexperience against you,” Isakson replied.

Barksdale stood silent during this exchange before meekly saying: “I do think it’s appropriate that we ask a commitment to serve out the full six-year term. But I’m not going to question why he’s here.”

That debate exchange illustrates why Barksdale is losing whatever chance he might have had to win this race. If your opponent is having medical problems that could interfere with them carrying out their job, it’s valid to raise that as an issue. Barksdale has been too gentlemanly to do it.

In any event, Isakson probably will win another term in office. I wish him the best as he embarks on that six-year journey, but it’s very likely that people voting for him will get two senators for the price of one.