Biden, Harris travel to Georgia with 2022 battle ahead

Democrats go all in on COVID-19 law, with Warnock a top GOP target

Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock is expected to emphasize the COVID-19 relief law in his 2022 campaign.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock is expected to emphasize the COVID-19 relief law in his 2022 campaign. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 18, 2021 at 5:00am

President Joe Biden wraps up the first week of his “Help is Here” tour to promote pandemic relief Friday by joining Vice President Kamala Harris in Georgia, the state where a pair of Senate runoff wins in January gave Democrats control of Congress.

Victories by Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock allowed Democrats to pass the $1.9 trillion package without Republican votes, and Biden’s trip highlights how a state he barely won in November will remain a Senate battleground in 2022, when pandemic relief could once again be an issue as Warnock runs for a full term. 

Warnock’s campaign would say only that he will be in Atlanta on Friday and would not confirm whether he’ll be joining Biden and Harris. But both he and Ossoff made COVID-19 relief, especially direct payments totaling $2,000 per person, a focus of their campaigns.

“Voters want to know, do you see them? Do you recognize the pain that their families are going through?” Warnock told CQ Roll Call in a brief interview at the Capitol this week. “And as a pastor, I’ve seen firsthand the devastation this pandemic has visited upon working families. And the American Rescue Plan is a really strong response.”

Republicans say the relief package’s popularity will diminish as voters learn more about it. But Democrats are expecting the law to bolster their party in the 2022 midterms, which are historically problematic for the president’s party. And Georgia will be at the center of the fight for control of Congress. 

“Once again, Georgia is the single most important battleground state in the country,” said Joshua Karp, a senior adviser to Ossoff’s Senate campaign. 

“Both the future of the Senate and House majority could be easily decided in Georgia,” he added. 

Pandemic politics 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week that, in Georgia, Biden and Harris will focus on the direct payments included in the relief package. 

That promise to deliver aid is fresh in voters’ minds, two months since the hotly contested runoffs that saw Warnock defeat appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler by 2 points and Ossoff unseat Republican David Perdue by 1 point.

Those closely watched races witnessed record amounts of spending and smashed runoff turnout records. In November, Biden won Georgia by less than half a percentage point, becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state in 28 years.

Warnock and Ossoff made additional pandemic relief, specifically $2,000 checks to Americans, central to their closing arguments, and Biden appeared with them a day before voting ended to emphasize the promise.

“If you send Jon and the reverend to Washington, those $2,000 checks will go out the door, restoring hope and decency and honor for so many people who are struggling right now,” Biden said then.

Some Republicans have said that Democrats haven’t delivered since the COVID-19 law includes $1,400 payments. Democrats counter that the new round of payments supplement the $600 checks included in the relief package enacted in December, fulfilling the $2,000 promise. 

Democratic members of the Georgia delegation hold a March 10 news conference prior to the final House vote on the coronavirus relief bill. From left, Carolyn Bourdeaux, Nikema Williams, Warnock, Jon Ossoff, Lucy McBath and Hank Johnson. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump’s call in December for increased direct payments complicated GOP messaging in the Georgia runoffs. Perdue and Loeffler initially opposed or declined to take a position on additional payments, but eventually sided with Trump, putting them at odds with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell. 

“The checks became shorthand for saying, ‘People need direct relief now. They need relief from the government. They need it as fast as possible,’” one Democratic strategist familiar with the runoffs said.  

Some Republicans don’t believe the emphasis on pandemic relief played a decisive role in the losses. 

“One thing overshadowed the runoff — one thing,” said Brian Robinson, a GOP strategist in Georgia. “And it was Trump’s claims of the election being stolen.”

Robinson and others point to lower turnout in Republican parts of the state as evidence that Trump’s falsehoods about a rigged election discouraged GOP voters

In a close race, it’s difficult to pinpoint just one factor that made the difference. But Democrats say that emphasizing more pandemic relief was critical. And they believe it will still be front and center in the midterms, even though a lot can happen before voters head to the polls in November 2022. 

“We made the commitment that help was on the way and, that, people will absolutely remember because people remember the difference that you make in their lives,” said Georgia Rep. Nikema Williams, who is also the state Democratic Party chairwoman. 

Gearing up

Some Republicans don’t think the COVID-19 relief package will be the top issue next year.

“It’s just so far away. … I just can’t imagine that it’s going to be front and center,” Robinson said. “By 2022, all of us are going to want to be talking about anything besides COVID and COVID relief.”

The GOP is also betting that the law’s popularity will wane over time. 

Last week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched digital ads targeting Warnock and Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly, who is also running for a full Senate term after winning a special election last cycle, for voting for the relief package. 

In the ad, the narrator says the Biden package “isn’t the relief Americans want,” leveling multiple criticisms of the law, including that stimulus checks will be sent to undocumented immigrants. A CNN fact check found that some undocumented immigrants will receive direct payments, but the same rules governed the checks in the last round of relief that Trump signed into law and that Republicans supported.

The NRSC spent between $1,000 and $1,500 on the ad targeting Warnock on Facebook, according to the platform’s ad library, and it is no longer active. The committee also ran the ad for two days on Google, where it spent between $100 and $1000 according to Google’s transparency report.

Despite GOP criticisms and early attacks, a senior adviser to Warnock’s campaign said the senator would continue to stress the relief law on the campaign trail. 

So far, Warnock has had the race to himself. He does have to quickly ramp up his campaign after a high-profile and expensive runoff, during which his team followed the mantra, “Remain the reverend,” a reminder to leverage his strengths as a messenger. Even as a senator, he is continuing to serve as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. 

There are plenty of potential GOP candidates, but no one has jumped into the fray as yet.

Trump waded into the Senate race last week, encouraging former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker, who lives in Texas, to challenge Warnock. 

Walker “would be unstoppable, just like he was when he played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and in the NFL,” Trump said in a statement. “He is also a GREAT person. Run Herschel, run!”

Trump’s endorsement would be coveted in a GOP primary, but his statement about Walker may not deter other Republicans from considering a run. Potential candidates include Loeffler and former GOP Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally who finished third behind Warnock and Loeffler in the Senate special election last cycle.

Regardless of who decides to run, Democrats have pledged to tie the eventual GOP nominee to the relief package as well. 

“Any Republican who runs for this Senate seat will be forced to explain why they would have sided with Mitch McConnell and the Washington politicians who voted to block urgently needed relief for Georgia,” said Shea Necheles, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

Ellyn Ferguson and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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