As lawmakers in Washington finalized a $900 billion pandemic relief package Monday afternoon, the Democrats and Republicans in the Georgia Senate runoffs that will determine majority control of the chamber held dueling rallies with two high-profile surrogates, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and first daughter Ivanka Trump.
Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and their respective Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, had rushed to release statements over the previous 24 hours that cherry-picked aspects of the pandemic deal they liked and blamed the other side for the months of inaction leading up to it.
But when it was their turn to address the crowds of Georgia voters Monday, none of the candidates mentioned the new round of relief, opting instead for stump speeches and imploring voters to cast ballots as soon as they can. Early voting in the Jan. 5 runoffs is underway.
The omission was surprising, given the central role that COVID-19 relief has played in both campaigns, and raises the question of whether either side has determined how to talk about the new agreement with the base voters they need to turn out.
“I would have thought the Republicans in particular might have wanted to take credit for it,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “Both of them have been beaten up in ads from their opponents.”
Bullock cited months of Democratic attacks on Perdue and Loeffler for inaction on the pandemic while they allegedly made money off coronavirus-related stock trades.
“For the Democrats, the judgement may have been that this is too much inside baseball. They don’t want to give the Republicans credit for passing anything. They want to continue to bash Republicans for ignoring Georgians,” he said.
As an expected deal was repeatedly delayed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately urged Republican senators last week to cooperate with the negotiations because Loeffler and Perdue were “getting hammered” for Congress’ failure to deliver earlier aid.
But as leaders in the House and Senate worked through the weekend to iron out their differences in time to avoid a government shutdown, Loefler and Perdue were campaigning in Georgia, including at a rally Sunday with former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley.
Warnock’s campaign seized on Loeffler’s absence from Washington in a Sunday afternoon statement that called the relief package necessary but insufficient.
“But make no mistake, Kelly Loeffler deserves no applause for allowing nearly nine months to pass without relief and spending the last few days on the campaign trail trying to save her job instead of doing her job in Washington,” he said.
Ossoff, meanwhile, repeated his attack on Perdue for his early opposition to direct stimulus payments and blamed him for cuts to those payments in the new bill.
Perdue opposed $1,200 in stimulus payments to individuals this spring, but he and Loeffler eventually voted for a $2 trillion package that passed with bipartisan support in March and included direct payments up to that amount.
The new package includes direct stimulus payments of up to $600, and a temporary $300-a-week boost to unemployment benefits..
“With Georgia’s unemployment rate rising and many Georgia families in dire financial straits, the need for meaningful direct payments to families is clear to everyone,” Ossoff said in a statement Monday. “That’s why it is shameful that after eight months of obstruction Senator Perdue and Senate Republicans insisted on cutting direct relief checks for Georgia families in half, while so many are struggling this holiday season.”
Perdue and Loeffler, meanwhile, issued a joint statement Monday saying they “helped champion” the relief checks and numerous other measures while Democrats delayed its passage by “playing politics with Americans’ health and livelihoods.”
“Sadly, but not surprisingly, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi made this much harder than it ever needed to be, purposely holding up relief that could have been delivered months ago,” the senators said.
Congressional Democrats have said they pressured Republicans to agree to several measures to help unemployed, middle-class and low-income people hit by the pandemic that were omitted from an earlier GOP proposal, including $25 billion in rental assistance and $13 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Democrats in Washington have promised more money for such programs if Ossoff and Warnock win their Senate races and give their party 50 seats in the Senate, which is effective control since the vice president would breaks ties. Speaker Nancy Pelosi alluded to that possibility when asked about future negotiations Sunday night.
“I think we’re going to have a much easier time than we’ve had with a Republican Senate and Republican president,” she said.
But Ossoff and Warmock made only glancing references to future rounds of relief talks during their drive-in rally Monday. Ossoff said only that a Senate controlled by McConnell would “block the COVID relief that we need,” while Warnock just said that coronavirus relief was at stake in the election.
Harris, for her part, mentioned that she had to return to Washington to vote on the bill, a statement that was greeted by appreciative honks from the car-bound crowd.
The bill came up even less during the Republican event Monday. Loeffler didn’t mention it or the virus, and Perdue made one mention of saving small banks, an apparent references to the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans.
They left it to Ivanka Trump to give them credit more than 20 minutes into the event for “heading back to Washington to get more money to PPP loans.”
Republicans said the new package would help the GOP candidates more than their opponents because they would be able to point to action in Washington and blame Democrats for the months of delay. They also pointed out that Democrats already tried to pin pandemic inaction on Republicans during the general election, and they were rewarded with losses in multiple House and Senate races that were expected to be more competitive..
“This is just another example of Republicans doing their job on behalf of their constituents and delivering critical relief when they need it most,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt said. “I think Democrats suffered down ballot because of their inaction and their strict adherence to that liberal wishlist.”
Democrats believe they’ve laid the groundwork for Republicans to take the blame by blanketing the Georgia airwaves with ads pointing out the GOP senators’ stock trades as the virus spread.
A new ad launched over the weekend from a group tied to the Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC uses footage of Loeffler saying in a TV interview that she is “not seeing a big need to extend the federal unemployment insurance.”
“It’s really been drilled into voters that they’re corrupt and while the virus is hitting throughout the year, Loeffler and Perdue have had more urgency about protecting their portfolios,” SMP spokeswoman Rachel Irwin said.
Perdue and Loeffler say their portfolios are managed by third parties, noting that they have been cleared of any wrongdoing by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee.
But Bullock, of the University of Georgia, pointed out that the relief package vote might be coming too late for either side to profit from it. More than 1.4 million people have already cast early ballots, heeding both parties’ calls to avoid the one-two-three punch — of the holiday rush, a potential rise in coronavirus cases and the threat of winter weather — on election day turnout.
And the money in the new round of relief will likely be delivered after all the votes have been cast.
“This could be a case of too little, too late.” Bullock said.