Democrats are betting on an anti-Trump wave to win a pair of long out-of-reach Georgia Senate seats. But it may need to last past Nov. 3.
With the election days away, the state has suddenly become home to two of the most competitive Senate campaigns in the country. Yet if no candidate clears 50 percent, both races head to a runoff on Jan. 5 — the likeliest scenario absent an unexpectedly massive Democratic turnout.
The potential unknowns that would hang over the runoffs are dizzying: which party controls the White House or the Senate after November could do much to drive or depress enthusiasm in the two months that follow.
But Republicans are betting that if they can get past next week’s hurdle and the apparent Democratic momentum, the state’s natural conservative lean will snap back and deliver the seats to the GOP. Particularly if Joe Biden is president-elect, they argue, Republicans will come out to provide a check on the new administration.
“If our candidates get to run off elections, historically at least … our voters tend to come out,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I’m confident.”
Still, as Republicans struggle to hold on to their Senate majority, the need to focus on saving GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in a once-dependable red state underscores the peril facing the party.
That Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff is even in contention to win outright on Tuesday and that Raphael Warnock could go into the runoff with a notable lead is a sign that the party’s efforts to finally flip the state are working, Democrats say. The anti-Trump sentiment juicing turnout might also linger; even if he loses next week, he’ll still be president until Jan. 20. But the changing demographics of the state coupled with a serious voter-turnout drive is what gives Democrats optimism most of all.
“Georgia has changed,” said DuBose Porter, a former state Democratic Party chairman. “We’ve registered a lot of new voters. The makeup of that are younger, people of color, those who are moving into Georgia for the opportunities in our metro areas. The demographics of the state show a state that is more ready to move forward.”
Both Republican senators have also been hit with allegations of improper stock trades amid the pandemic, though they vehemently deny any wrongdoing. Democrats have hammered Perdue over his stocks, and he released his own TV ad in September declaring he had been cleared of any wrongdoing.
In a debate Wednesday night, Ossoff referred to Perdue as a “crook” who also downplayed the risks from Covid-19, tying it back to his larger arguments about health care. Perdue countered that Ossoff is misleading Georgians about his radical agenda. But a day after the exchange went viral, Perdue announced he was pulling out of the final debate to attend a Trump rally instead, which was set for the same time.
“Sen. Perdue doesn’t want to answer any more questions,” Ossoff said in a clip his campaign posted online, adding that Perdue felt “entitled” to the seat.
“As lovely as another debate listening to Jon Ossoff lie to the people of Georgia sounds, Senator Perdue will not be participating,” said Perdue spokesman John Burke. Burke also said Perdue was holding 20 campaign events in the closing days to make up for the time the senator spent off the trail while in the Senate confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Perdue has also come under fire for publicly mocking the first name of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee, at a Trump event — prompting Ossoff to raise nearly $2 million off those comments alone.
Recent polling shows the race between Perdue and Ossoff to be highly competitive. Democrats hold out hope that Ossoff can win a majority — his campaign released internal polling showing him at 50 percent recently — but acknowledge that a runoff is probable.
Loeffler, who was appointed last year to the seat vacated by Sen. Johnny Isakson, is trying to fend off a challenge from Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) that has driven both candidates to the right in the special election. A former financial industry executive, Loeffler has poured millions into the race against Collins, who in turn has seized on her stock trades — leaving whoever emerges bruised heading into the runoff.
Meanwhile, Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, will likely enter the runoff with momentum and several months of sustained positive advertising with almost no negative attacks against him.
“Warnock is floating on a cloud above the fray,” said Brian Robinson, a Georgia-based GOP strategist. “It’ll help him go into the runoff potentially with higher favorability than he would if he’d suffered attacks all fall.”
At a recent campaign event, Warnock insisted that “the road to flipping the Senate blue runs right through Georgia.”
No matter who advances into the runoff next week, Loeffler and Collins will need to shift their message to appeal to a broader electorate and increase their favorability ratings. And they may need to depend on spending from outside groups at the outset.
Republicans, however, argue that the Democratic challengers in the race are too left-leaning to win come January. Stephen Lawson, a spokesperson for Loeffler, described Warnock as “the most radically liberal candidate in the country” while Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Collins, said there was a “liberal feedback loop” about the possibility of avoiding a runoff.
“There may be some sad faces around the Democrats’ war room come Wednesday,” McLagan said.
Republicans also point to history when arguing they’ll ultimately triumph in any runoffs. In 2008, for instance, former GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss was only ahead of Democratic challenger Jim Martin by three points in the first round, but beat him by nearly 15 points in the runoff.
A recent poll from Monmouth University had former Vice President Joe Biden leading Trump by five points, Ossoff ahead of Perdue 49-46 percent and Warnock with 41 percent of support.
Meanwhile, the flood of money into Georgia has been massive.
Ossoff has significantly outraised Perdue, and the Democrat has spent nearly $30 million on TV and digital advertising compared to $13.4 million for the GOP senator, according to data from Advertising Analytics. Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has pumped $37 million in advertising into the state. Senate Majority PAC, which is affiliated with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, has spent $27 million, and spent an additional $9 million through an affiliated super PAC.
Jen Jordan, a Democratic state senator, said attack ads in the state have been so prevalent that her children can recite ads by memory from the Senate Leadership Fund.
“I think that [SLF] got concerned that he was going to win it outright and now they’re probably just trying to hammer, hammer, hammer,” Jordan said. “It’s just a sliver to deny somebody the 50 percent plus, or to get it yourself. We’re talking about fighting around the margins.”
For now, the candidates remain focused on Nov. 3. And some Republicans are staying away from predictions, given the competitive presidential race at the top of the ticket and how close the polling has been in Georgia.
“It’s the kind of year where Republicans could win it all, or we could lose it all,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) who is neutral in the Georgia special election. “I think if there’s a wave that goes against, a really big wave, I think [Republicans losing] that’s absolutely a possibility.”
Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.