Georgia’s high-stakes U.S. Senate race features pair of combo campaigns

Senators Kelly Loeffler and Marco Rubio waved to the crowd in Marietta Wednesday. Rubio is among the first high-profile politicians to come to Georgia to stump for candidates in the January runoff. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Even as Georgia election officials prepared to recount votes in the last presidential election, campaigning intensified in a new race to get staunch partisans to vote in the state’s pair of U.S. Senate runoffs.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio led a rally in Marietta Wednesday to make the case for backing Georgia U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue who are in Jan. 5 runoffs with the Senate majority at stake.

Loeffler is facing Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Perdue is running against investigative journalist Jon Ossoff. The two Democrats and two Republicans essentially square off in pairs with shared resources and messages.

If Warnock and Ossoff both win, Democrats are set to gain control over the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and the White House, so Georgians should expect to see and hear a lot of campaigning over the holiday season, Rubio told the crowd in the packed and semi-masked Cobb County GOP headquarters Wednesday.

“If you’re a local television station, I see they’re represented here today, you’re going to make a lot of money over the next few weeks in advertising,” Rubio said. “You’re going to have a lot of political visitors from all across the political spectrum coming to speak.”

Vice President Mike Pence is set to return to Georgia before Thanksgiving, and Democrats are hoping the Biden campaign will send high-powered surrogates like former President Barack Obama or First Lady Michelle Obama, according to Politico.

Perdue and Loeffler’s business acumen make them the best choice to help oversee the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout, Rubio said.

“I want you to know what we run into all across the country, what we run into are people who run for office, and they will tell you, ‘I am not a radical, I am going to be a moderate,’ and that may very well be who they are,” Rubio said. “Unfortunately, when it comes time to vote, they vote right down the party line.”

Sen. Marco Rubio drew a big crowd to the Cobb County GOP headquarters. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Rubio played to an audience that cheered his red meat speech. Cobb was recently considered a stalwart conservative county with a welcome mat for the former Trump foe. Rubio beat President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential primary in the county, scoring more votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton, who went on to win Cobb in the general election.

And despite the county’s increasingly blue hue, Republicans would ignore it at their peril. Because of its large population with many conservatives, Cobb delivered more votes for Loeffler and Perdue than other Georgia counties with more people.

The crowd jeered as Rubio rattled off a string of GOP campaign claims of looming chaos if Democrats control the three branches of government: Rioting in the streets, defunding the police and growing numbers of radical college professors.

“If we don’t control the United States Senate, that is the agenda that’s going to be pushed,” Rubio said. “And it doesn’t even matter if the majority of the Democrats, if you polled them and gave them truth serum, were not in favor of it, because all the energy in that party, all the money in that party, all the people who get on the cover of magazines in that party, are in favor of these radical things.”

Democrats Ossoff and Warnock are campaigning on many of the same issues as President-elect Joe Biden did during a late October visit, expanding access to health care and getting a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic. During the general election, Ossoff campaigned against Perdue with criticism that Georgia’s senior senator voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act with its protections for preexisting conditions and that he voted to cut funding to Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ahead of the pandemic.

Ossoff kicked off a statewide tour Tuesday, arguing at stops along the way Republicans worry more about what the president thinks of them than what benefits their constituents.

Perdue was in Washington Wednesday and his wife Bonnie stood in for him at the rally.

Loeffler survived a crowded bipartisan race to Nov. 3 that included a bitter war of words with rival U.S. Rep. Doug Collins. They fought for the claim to most conservative candidate and for a time polls indicated both could make the runoff. Wednesday, Loeffler showed no sign of tacking toward the center now that her runoff opponent is a Democrat.

“Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, you’re not going to take Georgia,” she said. “We have no interest in your Green New Deal and your socialized medicine and turning the DMV into the doctor’s office. We don’t need high taxes. We don’t need job-crushing regulations. What we need is the American dream, that opportunity that can lift every single American up. That’s right. You have a choice between socialism and the American dream.”

Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks with the crowd at a rally in Marietta. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

In a debate leading up to the Nov. 3 election, Collins suggested Loeffler held unsettling business ties to China and accused her of keeping a portrait of Chinese Communist Party founder Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in her home. Warnock asked Loeffler to denounce the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory and she claimed not to know about it.

The fact that both Republican candidates seem to be appealing to the most Trump-loyal wing of the GOP makes sense given the shape of the race, said Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia.

“Generally, what we expect in a runoff is for candidates to moderate, attempt to broaden their appeal. Given what it’s like to be a Republican these days, they’re very hesitant to do anything which seems to indicate that they are moving away in any sense from the president. The worst thing I guess that could happen to a Republican would be for the president to send out some hostile tweets attacking them for disloyalty to him or something like that. So I think we’re going to see them continue to toe the Trump line.”

Loeffler and Perdue Monday called for the resignation of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, citing unspecified voting irregularities. Trump has disputed the election results without evidence.

Wednesday, Raffensperger announced a full recount of all 5 million Georgia ballots cast in the presidential election. Experts say the 14,000-vote lead Biden holds over the president is likely too large to overcome.

In runoffs, turnout is the name of the game, and Loeffler and Perdue will want to hang on to as many votes as they can now, Bullock said.

“The first thing you want to concentrate on is the people who voted for you the first time around, getting them to come back and do it a second time,” he said. “Invariably, there’s a drop-off in participation, so whether you placed first or second initially, usually, if you can get the same number of votes in the second round, you win, because there’s that much dropoff.”

The Democratic Party of Georgia proved this election that they know how to drive turnout, especially with absentee ballots, said Jason Shepherd, chair of the Cobb County GOP, but Republicans are hungry for a win.

“We have people emailing, calling, reaching out who are Republicans who have never been involved,” he said. “What happened last Tuesday has basically shocked them to the core. They say, ‘we thought we had a Republican county in Cobb –‘ despite the fact of how the vote totals have gone the last couple cycles– ‘and we thought Donald Trump had in the bag. I know I could have done more,’ is what they’re saying. And they’re now ready to do more to try to get Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue across the finish line.”