Georgia Dems finally face off in high-stakes U.S. Senate primary

The June 9 primary will at least narrow the field of Democrats vying to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue this fall. Tuesday, early in-person voters spread out as they lined up to cast ballots on the state's new touchscreen voting machines at Garden Hills Elementary in north Atlanta. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

WASHINGTON — Georgia Democrats are increasingly bullish that their candidate will oust Republican Sen. David Perdue in November. 

But it may still be months before they know who that candidate is. 

Georgia’s primary election is scheduled for next Tuesday — it was delayed from its initial May 19 date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The stakes are high for the Democrats vying to take on Perdue in the fall. An outright victory next week could spur voters to rally around a Democratic candidate sooner. But political observers expect the primary contest to head to an August runoff, shortening the time frame for Democrats to coalesce around their eventual nominee and focus exclusively on beating Perdue. 

The Democratic contenders include investigative journalist Jon Ossoff, a former 6th District congressional candidate; former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson; and Sarah Riggs Amico, a businesswoman who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018. They’re each making the case that they’re the best person to beat Perdue. 

Polling has suggested a runoff is likely. 

A survey of likely Democratic primary voters released on Wednesday showed Ossoff leading the field with 42% of the vote. The Channel 2 Action News poll conducted by Landmark Communications showed Tomlinson with 14% and Amico with 9% of the vote. About 28% remained undecided.

In order to avoid a runoff, one of the Democrats will need to net at least 50% of the votes next week. 

“It’s unlikely that any of them will get a majority in the first round,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University. 

The runoff dynamic

Winning the primary outright — and avoiding a runoff — could give a boost to the Democratic nominee, although some political insiders argue that facing voters multiple times can help keep candidates sharp and keep the electorate engaged. 

“The runoff dynamic in Georgia maybe adds another extra step that the Democrats have to be very careful about planning for,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter from the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball has the race rated as “likely Republican” this fall, but Coleman said an outright win in the primary could change their outlook. If Ossoff, who has been viewed as the Democratic frontrunner, can win the primary outright, it could give him a head start heading into the fall, Coleman said. 

“If any candidate were able to clear [50%], it would be a historic, herculean and unprecedented achievement,” Ossoff told the Georgia Recorder this week. 

Abramowitz of Emory University thinks that Democrats will have plenty of time to rally behind their eventual candidate, even if it gets to a runoff. “I think any one of these candidates would be able to unite Democrats,” he said of the three leading contenders. 

Georgia Democrats, meanwhile, have been energized by recent polling showing Perdue is more vulnerable than some had previously thought. 

A poll released in May showed each of the three leading Democrats in close one-on-one races against Perdue. The survey by Civiqs, conducted for the left-leaning publication DailyKos, showed Ossoff having a slightly larger lead over the incumbent senator than Tomlinson or Amico. 

A survey of likely Democratic primary voters released on Wednesday showed Jon Ossoff leading the field with 42% of the vote. The Channel 2 Action News poll conducted by Landmark Communications showed Teresa Tomlinson (center) with 14% and Sarah Riggs Amico with 9% of the vote. About 28% remained undecided.

Georgia Democrats have been increasingly optimistic that both of the state’s Senate seats are in play as GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s stock sales ahead of the pandemic have come under scrutiny. The incumbent senator has since liquidated her third-party managed stock portfolio and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but her critics are hopeful that the negative attention will complicate her bid to hold onto her seat. 

“This latest polling confirms what Georgians already know: our state and both of its Senate seats are in play this election, and Democrats are in a strong position to win across the board,” Alex Floyd, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said last month.

Dems tout strength against Perdue

Georgia is the only state in the nation with both of its Senate seats in play this cycle, due to the retirement of former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. The election comes as national Democrats need to flip at least three GOP-held seats to take control of the Senate next year and as the national party hopes to turn Georgia increasingly blue during statewide contests. 

“If we field the strongest candidate for this nomination,” it will spur national Democrats to say “Hey, we need to pay attention to Georgia,” said Howard Franklin, a Democratic strategist based in Atlanta whose firm is working for Tomlinson. 

Ossoff, Tomlinson and Amico each think they’re best positioned to beat the GOP incumbent Perdue come November. 

“I investigate and expose corruption for a living,” Ossoff said. Perdue, he said, “is the poster boy for corruption. He stands for nothing except his own devotion to Trump.” 

Perdue’s campaign spokeswoman, Casey Black, said in an email this week, “From day one, our campaign has known that this will be a competitive race. Georgians know and trust David Perdue’s leadership, and we’re confident voters will re-elect him to the U.S. Senate. No matter which one of the seven far-left Democrat candidates wins their party’s nomination, Georgia voters will reject their radical socialist agenda in November.”

Tomlinson called herself “the most credible candidate to beat David Perdue” in an interview this week, citing her experience as an elected official.

She pointed to the high percentage of undecided Democratic voters in recent polls. “This is one of those anything-can-happen circumstances,” she told the Recorder

And Tomlinson warned that Democrats’ chances of winning Perdue’s seat are “in jeopardy unless we field the very best candidate.”  

Amico, a former executive at her family’s trucking company, is playing up her business credentials as she vies for the seat. 

“Who sits in the Senate seat will determine whether working folks and small business owners are actually at the front of the line in policymaking and not an afterthought,” she told the Recorder in an interview this week.

“I’m asking people to pick a battle-tested champion for working people,” she said. “The last thing that we need in Washington is more politicians.”