Threat of Democratic control drives GOP in Georgia Senate runoffs

Overtime races have both parties trying to keep turnout revved up

Signs for Georgia Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue sit near one for President Donald Trump outside a polling place in Atlanta on Election Day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll CallTom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Signs for Georgia Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue sit near one for President Donald Trump outside a polling place in Atlanta on Election Day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll CallTom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 19, 2020 at 5:30am

Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler stood together onstage in a crowded Georgia strip-mall bar and grill on a recent afternoon. 

The two Republicans had barely acknowledged each other as they ran parallel campaigns for most of 2020. 

But now, with the senators in a two-month sprint toward Jan. 5 runoffs that both parties describe as battles for the soul of the country, Loeffler and Perdue, like their Democratic opponents, are linked. 

“Guys, this is it,” Perdue said that Friday as he surveyed the mostly maskless audience at the Black Diamond Grill, according to a video posted on his Facebook page. “She wins, I win. I win, she wins.”

With the campaigns well into their second week, the candidates on both sides are running in lockstep, with disciplined messages that offer polarized views of the country and the stakes in the two races.

Perdue and Loeffler are stalwart allies of President Donald Trump who have yet to acknowledge his defeat. Nevertheless, they say they are the GOP’s last line of defense against Democratic control of the Senate — which would only be true with Democrat Joe Biden in the White House and Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes in the Senate. 

They are making their case in attacks ads and in a series of indoor rallies with a rotating cast of GOP leaders who ignore the pandemic and speak directly to their most passionate base. 

Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Republicans say again and again, are radicals aligned with Washington figures such as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who want to jam socialist policies through Congress. 

The Democrats, meanwhile, have adopted the playbook from the last months of the Biden campaign, mixing virtual engagements with drive-in rallies and other socially distant events designed to appeal to moderates and even Republicans weary of the confrontational style of the GOP under Trump. 

There and in their television ads — a mixture of warmly lit candidate introductions and more somber attacks — they present the Republicans as corrupt and self-interested millionaires who botched the response to the coronavirus pandemic and want to take away health care. This week, the Democratic group Senate Majority PAC launched ads knocking both Perdue and Loeffler for stock trading as the pandemic hit.

Holding the line 

In the first weeks of the runoff campaign, the Republicans have made no attempt at moderating their message or providing a blueprint for a post-Trump GOP.

That was not always the clear trajectory for either candidate.

Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman who had sometimes contributed to Democrats, was relatively unknown politically until Republican Gov. Brian Kemp picked her in 2019 to fill the unexpired term of GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons.

She quickly shed a reputation as a moderate in the crowded special election to keep her seat. She largely ignored the Democrats, who appeared on the same ballot,  and focused her firepower on Republican Rep. Doug Collins, a staunch Trump ally who was considered her biggest threat. 

In her attempts to peel away the Trump voters who were expected to play a decisive role in November, she veered further and further to the right, putting out ads claiming she was more conservative than Attila the Hun and celebrating an endorsement from QAnon conspiracy follower Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won a safe Republican House seat in northwest Georgia this month. 

But as the Black Lives Matter movement catapulted Warnock to the lead late in the race, some strategists wondered whether Loeffler’s Trumpy strategy could backfire in a head-to-head with a pastor who preaches from a pulpit once occupied by Martin Luther King Jr. 

Loeffler, though, has gone all-in. Days after the November election, she unveiled a page on her campaign website laying out her case that Warnock is “the most radical and dangerous candidate in America.” Her campaign has been mining his past for evidence of radicalism that she has blasted out in ads that Democrats say deliberately misinterpret his words. 

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Perdue, meanwhile, largely ignored the partisan infighting surrounding Loeffler’s campaign  in his contest against Ossoff, which was always considered a one-on-one race even though a Libertarian candidate was also on the ticket. 

For months, Perdue, a businessman who was among Trump’s first supporters in Washington, downplayed his relationship with the president, touted his “bipartisan record” and branded himself an “outsider” in spite of his six years in the Senate. 

All of that was out the window after neither Perdue nor Loeffler got more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 3, and therefore faced runoffs on Jan. 5. As Biden’s vote total grew in the state, they joined Trump in condemning Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s handling of the election. 

The move triggered what some media outlets are describing as a civil war in the Georgia GOP. But it was a success with its intended audience. Trump tweeted his endorsement of both senators early this week. And Vice President Mike Pence will hold a rally with them Friday. 

If there was any doubt of their audience, Perdue cleared it up at the Black Diamond Grill event with Loeffler. 

“What we have to do now is not persuading people,” he said. “What we have to do is get the vote out.” 

About the base 

GOP strategists say Loeffler and Perdue have history on their side since Republicans have dominated turnout in past Georgia runoffs. And even though Biden won Georgia at the top of the ticket, more voters chose Republicans than Democrats in both Senate races. Perdue got 86,000 more votes than Ossoff, finishing just under the 50 percent threshold. Warnock won 344,000 more votes than Loeffler, but she and Collins combined would have beaten him by 635,000.

The numbers suggest Republicans don’t need to attract new supporters to win. They just need to get people who already voted for them to get riled up enough to overcome political fatigue and post-holiday torpor to come out and vote again.

Chip Lake, a Republican strategist who worked on the Collins campaign, said the margins were close enough to put any of the four candidates in position to win, so the GOP’s early aggressiveness is a smart tactic. 

“Fear is always a greater motivator for a base than opportunity, and the fear that Republicans have right now in this state that Georgia could make Chuck Schumer a majority leader is real, and it will be a huge motivating factor,” he said.

Democrats say they have momentum on their side. Biden got nearly 2.5 million votes, about 14,000 more than Trump — and 13,000 more than Perdue. Biden was  the first Democratic presidential nominee to win Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992. 

It came after years of work mobilizing infrequent voters throughout the state, an effort that Ossoff helped put in motion with his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to flip a House seat in the Atlanta suburbs in 2017. That campaign helped Ossoff build a volunteer base that made him, in the words of a Democratic party memo released last week, “the strongest Democratic Senate candidate heading into a runoff that Georgia has seen in decades.” 

“We’re focused on running out the most ambitious voter registration and get-out-the-vote program in American history for these two Senate races,” Ossoff said at a virtual news conference Tuesday. 

Ossoff has welcomed support from popular Democrats such as Barack Obama, who filmed ads for him and Warnock in October, and Biden, who is expected to visit the state before election day.

He has hedged, however, on whether he would accept similar attention from more progressive surrogates, perhaps because of Republicans attacks linking him and Warnock to the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All” and defunding the police — policies they do not support. 

The Republican super PAC American Crossroads released a TV ad this week tying Warnock to the “defund the police” movement and labeling him a “radical.” And Senate Leadership Fund, an affiliated super PAC, launched an ad tying Ossoff to national Democrats, saying if elected Ossoff would “jam through their radical agenda.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have sought to focus on what they say are the Republicans’ refusal to answer to their constituents, including Perdue’s decision not to debate Ossoff during the runoff and Loeffler’s stock trades in the early days of the pandemic.

“Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are two of the richest and most corrupt politicians in Washington, and they are both hiding from voters, the press and debates because they can’t defend their out-of-touch records,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Stewart Boss said.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.