With 2 Senate Seats in Play, All Bets Are on in Georgia for Political Groups

March 9, 2020by Francesca Chambers, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
A voter enters the poll at Smitha Middle School on Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016 in Marietta, Ga. Both of the state's Senate seats are up for election in the same year. (Brant Sanderlin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

WASHINGTON — For only the third time in history, both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats are up for election in the same year, drawing unusually strong attention from national Democratic groups who see an opportunity this November in a state that has voted Republican for nearly two decades.

While Georgia has voted to send Republicans to the Senate since 2002, Democrat Stacey Abrams’ near win in the 2018 governor’s race has led to new optimism among Democratic operatives and liberal activists that their candidates have a chance of winning in the Senate and presidential elections.

“Democrats have the momentum in this state after 2018, and the bitter infighting among Republicans in Georgia is only going to drain GOP resources and put these Senate races further in play,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Stewart Boss said in a statement.

The DSCC has not decided how much money to direct to Georgia this year, but the group considers the state to be an increasingly competitive battleground location and a top target in its effort to flip control of the Senate, where Republicans are currently in the majority.

One of the Senate seats is held by Republican David Perdue, whose term is ending. The other will be decided by a special election for the remaining two years in the term of former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons in December. Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler was appointed to fill Isakson’s seat until the conclusion of the special election.

There is a historical precedent to suggest the fate of the two Senate seats is intertwined. Not since 1966 have voters in any state with two Senate seats on the ballot split their support.

With that in mind, national political groups on the left and the right have made early endorsements, started or committed to spending, and began campaigning on behalf of candidates competing for the two Senate seats in Georgia.

“Everybody says we’re early. I feel like we’re a little late,” Democracy for America CEO Yvette Simpson said of the group’s February endorsements in the two Senate races.

DFA is one of several left-aligned activist groups that told McClatchy it was looking at directing resources to help Senate candidates in Georgia. A spokesman said DFA had not endorsed any candidate in a Georgia Senate election prior to this one. Spokespeople for Daily Kos and Priorities USA said Georgia is on their watch lists. If a woman who is pro-abortion rights and a Democrat and can make it through their endorsement process, EMILY’s List also indicated interest.

Three groups affiliated with Republicans — the Susan B. Anthony List, the Club for Growth and the Senate Leadership Fund — are trying to shore up support for Loeffler in the special election, in which she will face stiff competition from at least one fellow Republican and a black pastor who leads a well-known evangelical church and is running as a Democrat.

In the regular election, first-term Republican Sen. David Perdue, a former businessman, is seeking reelection and has the full backing of his party.

Casey Black, a spokeswoman for his campaign, told McClatchy in a statement, “The Senator has used his 40 years of business experience to get positive results for Georgians, and he is working alongside President Trump every day to continue this historic economic turnaround.”

A Democratic challenger will be determined by a primary in May.

DFA is backing Teresa Tomlinson, the former mayor of Columbus, for the Perdue seat. She is one of three Democrats competing in the primary who is viewed as a viable candidate.

Georgia does not register voters by party, and anyone can vote in the Democratic primary. But DFA, a progressive group, says it has 22,546 members in Georgia alone who can cast ballots and more than a 1 million nationwide who can contribute money.

“I am extraordinarily proud that they vetted this campaign and my candidacy so thoroughly and decided to put their stamp of approval and support behind my candidacy. I think that does speak volumes,” Tomlinson told McClatchy of the endorsement.

Also on the ballot in the May 19 primary is Jon Ossoff, who raised more money than any House candidate in history in 2017 when he competed in — but lost — a special election in Georgia’s sixth congressional district. The documentary producer had $1.5 million in the bank at the end of 2019 compared to the roughly $319,000 that Tomlinson reported in cash on hand.

“The state is at a tipping point,” said Ossoff, who has the support of civil rights icon and Democratic Rep. John Lewis. “It will be the top Senate battleground in 2020, and our 16 electoral college votes will be fiercely contested. I believe we will win both Senate races and deliver those 16 electors for the Democratic nominee for president.”

Sarah Riggs Amico, a former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor and a former executive with her family’s trucking business, is also a candidate. Amico has loaned more than $500,000 to her campaign so far and could pump more money in, a spokeswoman said. In her last federal finance report, she had $470,000 in her campaign account.

By comparison, Perdue last reported having more than $7.8 million to spend, making him one of the top ten Senate fundraisers this election cycle. His seat “leans Republican,” according to University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

There will be no party primaries ahead of the special election to fill Isakson’s seat, and more than one current Republican lawmaker is running. Those circumstances could favor Democrats, if they can successfully consolidate support behind their preferred candidate.

DFA is directing its members to support Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democratic candidate in the special election. He is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which Martin Luther King, Jr. once led with his father.

Other Democrats competing for that seat are former state senator Ed Tarver and businessman Matt Lieberman, whose father Joe Lieberman is a former U.S. senator and Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000.

None of the three Democrats who are running in the special election provided comment.

Warnock has the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which hopes the recruitment of the black pastor to run for the seat will give the party an edge in the special election.

The DSCC and DFA pointed to Abrams’ popularity in 2018 and the number of new voters in Georgia as other reasons to be confident.

Since the gubernatorial election, the Georgia secretary of state’s office says it has logged 533,437 new voter registrations, mainly from new driver’s license registrations. Voter registration is automatic for licensed drivers. More than 110,000 were from people who registered to vote another way.

Abrams, who lost by 54,723 votes to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, endorsed Warnock.

“As a personal matter, Raphael Warnock has been a friend for more than 15 years, and I was excited to encourage his run and to support it and be one of the first to step out and endorse him, and I will be campaigning for not only Rev. Warnock, but I’ll campaign for our Democratic nominee in the other seat,” she told McClatchy during a recent interview.

Loeffler is facing competition from fellow Republican, Rep. Doug Collins, who is not supported by the party and has not been endorsed by national conservative groups.

Club for Growth is running issue advocacy ads against Collins’ record on spending, and the president of the anti-abortion group SBA List has endorsed and is campaigning for Loeffler.

“We’re just going to run a race in Georgia about ideas and not about money. That’s what we’re going to be doing,” Collins told McClatchy.

Loeffler’s campaign said in a statement that the senator’s experience outside Washington and promotion of conservative values is generating momentum for her candidacy. “As a political outsider and lifelong conservative, Kelly has proven that she can get the job done and deliver results for Georgia. Her record has attracted widespread support from state leaders, national figures, and conservative organizations,” spokeswoman Caitlin O’Dea said.

President Donald Trump has not made his preference in the race public. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Leadership Fund are supporting Loeffler.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball gives Republicans the edge in the special election, as does the Cook Political Report.

Georgia last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 2000. The state last voted to send a Democrat to the White House in 1992 after backing Jimmy Carter twice in the presidential elections of 1976 and 1980, the latter of which he lost.

The NRSC is worried that Collins’ candidacy could split the GOP vote and provide a pathway for Warnock to win.

NRSC spokesman Nathan Brand said Collins’ refusal to drop out could cost the GOP both Senate seats and Georgia’s electoral votes.

“Republicans are united in Georgia and are prepared to keep the Peach State red, but it’s unfortunate Collins is willing to jeopardize the Republican White House and Senate Majority,” the spokesman for the Senate GOP’s campaign arm said.

With two Senate seats in play and the presidency on the line, it’s easy to see why outside organizations view Georgia as an attractive option for their resources this year, said Chris Grant, chair of the political science department at Mercer University.

The competition between Loeffler and Collins is turning into a “cage match,” he said, and Perdue risks being “dragged into that fight, which makes him more vulnerable.”

“If what the Democrats are able to do on the other side is portray a coherent unity, then they have a lot more advantage than they’ve had in the past,” he said. “They’re still the underdogs, but that gives them a better shot than they’ve had in forever.”

The Democratic National Committee recently called Georgia an “emerging battleground” and announced it would put an unspecified amount of resources into flipping it by hiring additional organizers and strengthening voter protection efforts in the state.

Currently the party has just 10 organizers in Georgia, which it hopes to double to at least 20. That would still be fewer than the 50 staff that the Republican National Committee says it has on the ground in Georgia.

“The DNC is broke and can barely find enough money to buy volunteers a Coke after a shift. Georgia is a red state and will continue to be one on November 3rd,” Rick Gorka, RNC communications director, said in a statement.

In an acknowledgement of the importance that Georgia could play in the presidential election, Donald Trump’s campaign said it plans to open up a Black Voices for Trump Community Center in Atlanta, an area that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

Democrats saw the opening of the community center in Atlanta as another sign that Republicans are not comfortable they will win the state in this year’s election.

“The Trump campaign opening that office here is yet another admission that they have reason to be worried in Georgia. He’s a sitting Republican president, who’s having to make a significant investment in Georgia,” said Amico, a candidate for Perdue’s seat.

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©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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