Will Lightning Strike Twice for Democrats in Georgia?

November 11, 2020by David Catanese and Francesca Chambers, McClatchy Washington Bureau
ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 03: Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff waves to supporters outside the Metropolitan Library polling location on November 3, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff is running against incumbent Se. David Perdue (R-GA) and Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel. Georgia is the only state with two Senate seats on the November 3 ballot. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Georgia, the state on track to produce the closest finish of the 2020 presidential election, is about to endure an unprecedented political encore that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.

The runoff campaigns for both the state’s Senate seats are set to attract hundreds of millions of dollars in spending, a slew of national figures from both parties and notoriety that will cement Georgia’s status as a premiere battleground for years to come.

One race pits first-term Republican Sen. David Perdue against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, who ran unsuccessfully in a special U.S. House election in the state three years ago. The other features Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler versus the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat attempting to become the state’s first African American senator.

The outcomes are likely to prove more significant than the eventual winner of Georgia’s 16 Electoral College votes, which Democrat Joe Biden is on pace to claim as he clings to a nearly 12,000-vote advantage over President Donald Trump.

“Most of us insiders are fielding questions about ‘How can I come in to help?’ and ‘What can I do?’ from Andrew Yang on down to friends from college,” said Wendy Davis, a Democratic National Committee member from Rome, Georgia, referring to the former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who said in a tweet he was moving to the state. “We literally haven’t finished counting from last week.”

But both sides know they need to regroup quickly in order to seize control of the messaging war.

Republicans are planning to present the races as key to keeping control of the U.S. Senate and as a critical check on the Democratic-run administration and the House of Representatives. Democrats will stress to their voters that they need to prevent the Senate from staying in Republican hands so that Biden can move his agenda forward.

Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman from Georgia, said the argument for the slice of GOP-leaning voters who abandoned Trump is straightforward.

“I think voters understand the benefits of divided government, particularly when you have a fear of the radical element of the Democrat Party,” he said. “When you’re looking at the Elizabeth Warrens, and the Bernie Sanders and the AOCs, you’re fearful. It’s, ‘I’ve got to tap the brakes.'”

That messaging effort is somewhat complicated by the president’s nationwide legal efforts and refusal to concede the race to Biden. On Monday, both Perdue and Loeffler stunned even some Republicans by calling on the state’s GOP secretary of state to resign due to what they called his failure “to deliver honest and transparent elections.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are attempting to craft a case that appeals to voters’ frustration with continued Washington gridlock, highlighting ideas popular with both parties, including improving health care access during a festering pandemic and infrastructure modernization. Party strategists estimate they’ll need to raise close to $200 million to successfully compete as well as build on the work Fair Fight founder and former Georgia House of Representatives minority leader Stacey Abrams has done registering 800,000 new voters since 2018.

If Democrats can swipe both seats on Jan. 5 it would produce a 50-50 tie in the Senate, allowing the vice president, which will be Kamala Harris, to cast tie-breaking votes.

But the party faces historical headwinds in Georgia runoffs where Republicans usually prevail.

Perdue, who slightly outperformed the president’s vote total, received about 90,000 more votes than Ossoff in the first round of voting. And Republicans expect the vast majority of Republican Rep. Doug Collins’ voters to move their support to Loeffler over Warnock, who employed a light-hearted approach in his first TV advertisement to warn voters of the harsh attacks he would face.

Democrats plan to brand Loeffler as extreme, highlighting an endorsement from a QAnon-supporting congresswoman-elect and an advertisement in the primary in which Loeffler cast herself as more conservative than Attila the Hun.

Loeffler’s spokesman Stephen Lawson said that she disavows QAnon and will be running as a political outsider and businesswoman who has created jobs and opportunities and delivered results in her short time in the Senate.

The senator, who has been in office for less than a year after being appointed to the seat to fill a vacancy, has the urgent task of consolidating Republican support after a divisive primary against Collins. It was not immediately clear how involved Collins would be in the runoff election after losing to Loeffler this month. He is currently overseeing Trump’s recount team in the state.

Lynn Westmoreland, a former GOP representative from Georgia, said that he believed that Republicans would coalesce around Loeffler given the dynamics of the Senate battle.

“I’m going to be out there campaigning hard for David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler,” said Westmoreland, who was critical of Loeffler’s candidacy during the primary. “We can’t lose the Senate.”

Also unclear was how involved Trump and Biden would be in the Senate races. Biden is trying to put together his Cabinet and choose top-level officials for his administration in preparation for taking over the White House in January. Trump is legally contesting the outcome of the election in several states.

“The Republicans’ strongest turnout machine is President Trump. Nothing else comes close to the energy and enthusiasm that he drives with the Republican base,” said Brian Robinson, a communications consultant who was an aide to former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal. “And if he goes out and tells his voters that it’s important that we keep Loeffler and Perdue in the Senate, that’s the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for many in the Republican base who are and will remain loyal to him and follow what he says.”

The White House referred questions about Trump’s potential political activity to his campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for Biden’s campaign in Georgia, said in a statement that voters in the state — which is in the throes of a recount — made it clear that they “are ready to usher in new leadership up and down the ballot” when they elected a Democratic presidential ticket.

“This very same momentum and energy for change will send Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock to the United States Senate to fight for Georgians every single day,” Rothenberg said.

Asked at a news conference whether he planned to campaign for the Democrats in Georgia, Biden on Tuesday replied, “We’re going to do anything we can that they think we can do to help.”

After watching the GOP’s turnout surge last week, some Democrats are urging a return to door-knocking and other campaign activities that were curtailed during the pandemic.

“Looking at how Republicans fared, I’m convinced that we have to seriously consider a return to in-person campaigning — safely and creatively — in order to generate the excitement necessary to score another statewide victory,” said Howard Franklin, an Atlanta-based Democratic consultant.

Ossoff, who is embarking on a statewide tour this week, has already challenged Perdue to three televised debates. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will campaign with the GOP ticket Wednesday, the first of what’s expected to be a flood of visits by prominent senators from both parties.

Republicans largely left Warnock alone in the jungle primary, when their top concern was the fight between the two GOP lawmakers competing. But they said that they would be working in the coming weeks to define Warnock as more progressive than Abrams.

Loeffler’s spokesman said sermons Warnock delivered contained anti-police messages and invoked the Democrat’s defense of controversial Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright. Lawson also referred to a eulogy that Warnock delivered at the funeral of Troy Davis, an African American man convicted of murdering a police officer in Georgia. Davis said he was innocent and appealed his conviction. He was executed in 2011 over the objections of clergy and activists.

Terrence Clark, a spokesman for Warnock, said in a statement that the Democratic candidate had “worked to root out hate and division throughout his life and made clear he deplores any form of discrimination or anti-Semitism.”

Warnock’s campaign also said the results of the recent election, which saw Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath reelected with relative ease in a district she narrowly won two years prior, exemplifies their argument that the Republican coalition is not as strong as it used to be.

The Senate seats are largely seen by Republicans and Democrats in the state as having twin fates. No state with two Senate seats on the ballot has seen a split ticket since 1966.

Republicans have tended to fare better in runoffs in Georgia, when the number of people who come out to vote is often lower than in regular elections. But those elections, including one for Congress that Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel in 2017, were dissimilar to the Senate runoffs now.

Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at the University of West Georgia, noted the rarity of having two Senate seats on the ballot at one time in any state and said the situation offers little existing data to base predictions on.

Democrats must make sure that their voters don’t say, “We’ve got Biden in there, we’re good, we can coast.” Rackaway said, “Ossoff needs to prepare a sense of urgency to keep Democratic mobilization high.”

Republicans want the Senate to serve as a bulwark against the Biden-Harris administration agenda. “But Democrats are going to see this as an opportunity to not need Harris to break ties in the Senate,” Rackaway said. “So I think both sides are going to be very, very well motivated.”

___

(c)2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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