U.S. Senate campaigns deploy team effort to win ‘unprecedented’ stakes

By: and - December 14, 2020 6:00 am

Georgia voters will get the rare opportunity to send two candidates to the U.S. Senate in a Jan. 5 runoff. At top, appointed GOP U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is set to face Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock. Bottom left is Democrat Jon Ossoff who will face incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Photos by Georgia Recorder staff

The last time two U.S. Senators from Georgia were up for election at the same time, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover were at the top of the ballot.

Nearly a century ago, it was the death of a sitting senator that made way for the rare appearance of dual Senate races. 

“Of course, at that point, control of the Senate was not up for grabs, and it didn’t go to a runoff or any of that,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “So the exact situation we have here is unprecedented.”

If both Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are victorious in the Jan. 5 runoff, Democrats will control 50 seats in the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris able to break ties. If either Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue or Sen. Kelly Loeffler hang onto their seat, the Republicans will keep the majority in the Senate, which they can use to scuttle President-elect Joe Biden’s plans.

A team effort

Both sides have teamed up on the campaign trail, but because of the unique situation, the Democrats have gone a step further and merged their campaign leadership teams into one. 

They also recently beefed up the joint campaign’s staffing for coalition outreach, which is seen as a key element of Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia. The tag-team Senate campaign is also working to boost the campaign of Daniel Blackman, a Democrat who is in a runoff with incumbent Republican Lauren “Bubba” McDonald for a seat on the state Public Service Commission. 

“This work is really crucial because not every voter is plugged in to the fact that there is the runoff,” said Anjali Enjeti, co-founder of They See Blue Georgia, a group focused on mobilizing Americans of South Asian origin, during a Friday call with reporters about the consolidated coalition outreach for the runoffs. 

“Not everybody knows that there are three races that they have to vote in and what those races are, and not everybody understands the importance of flipping the Senate,” she added. “So we find that we’ve needed this support even to get people aware of the election” 

Ossoff says the candidates’ tag-team approach is part of an ambitious get-out-the-vote push, but he has painted it as more than strategy. He often says on the campaign trail the partnership also represents the deep ties between Georgia’s Black and Jewish communities – an important history that he says his mentor and former boss, the late civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, emphasized to him.

Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff wave to the crowd from a joint campaign event. Photo courtesy of Jon Ossoff for Senate

“Right now what we have in Georgia is the young, Jewish journalist son of an immigrant running alongside a Black preacher who holds Dr. King’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, building a movement for health, jobs and justice in the midst of a terrible crisis,” Ossoff told reporters after his solo debate performance Sunday.

The partnership feels like a callback to the 2018 gubernatorial election when Stacey Abrams and Sarah Riggs Amico, who ran for lieutenant governor, joined forces for campaign stops, even though Georgians vote for the two offices separately.

“They’re adopting that model to great effect, because they have, frankly, different outreach strengths,” said former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who placed second against Ossoff in the Democratic primary for the Senate race. “Warnock has a great statewide network because he is from Savannah, but he’s also had, through his civic career and through his faith-based outreach organizations, a statewide footprint for many, many years.”

Warnock also has credibility with Black voters, Bullock said, and Democrats are likely hoping that will have a halo effect for Ossoff as well.

Ossoff, who is a 33-year-old investigative journalist with more than 115,000 followers on TikTok, appeals to a younger crowd, Tomlinson said.

“He is able to energize the youth voters, 39 years of age or less, and we had in Georgia the highest younger voter turnout in the country with a little over 21% of those under 40 coming out, and that’s what made the difference. Jon appeals to those individuals, and of course, he has wonderful, strong influence in those northern Atlanta suburbs, where you have really a deluge of voters coming out.”

Ossoff got his political start in 2017 when he narrowly lost to Karen Handel in the closely watched 6th Congressional District in those northern suburbs in a district once held by conservative stalwarts like Newt Gingrich and Tom Price.

That part of the state has been on the leading edge of a blue trend in Georgia for years, and Democrats think this is their opportunity to flip the Senate, pointing to higher participation in Democratic areas

“Add to that the fact that the Republican Party is in a tailspin threatening to lock up or force to resign everyone from the secretary of state to the governor, this being fueled by Republican senatorial candidates,” Tomlinson said. “I think it’s a real political opportunity.”

‘Working in lock-step’

Republicans see the paired up Democratic campaigns as an opportunity as well, to tar both opponents with one brush. In campaign communications, Perdue attacks Warnock as Ossoff’s running mate in attempts to link Ossoff to Warnock’s alleged scandals.

Perdue and Loeffler have a similar, if less formal dynamic than their opponents, appearing together at campaign events and releasing joint statements to the press, but rather than unifying their ticket, Republicans are focused on motivating their base to vote a straight GOP ticket Jan. 5.

Loeffler was appointed to the Senate by Gov. Brian Kemp after Sen. Johnny Isakson stepped down at the end of 2019 for health reasons. Loeffler and Warnock are now running to serve out the remainder of Isakson’s term, which expires in 2022.

The Republican side of the race was complicated by the entry of Rep. Doug Collins, a key ally of President Donald Trump and seemingly Loeffler’s biggest threat in the crowded primary. Loeffler was relatively unknown before her appointment, and though she fought to distinguish herself as a hardcore conservative, Collins tried to paint her as an out-of-touch elite who bought her position in the Senate.

Loeffler defeated Collins with 1.2 million votes to Collins’ 980,000. Warnock took 1.6 million votes, and over 1 million votes were split among 17 other Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Perdue understandably kept his distance from that race, Bullock said.

“David Perdue particularly wanted to try to stay out of that first round rather than to cozy up to either Loeffler or to Collins, which would risk alienating some people,” Bullock said. “It made a lot of sense for him to stay out of that, let it be fought out between those two.”

Collins threw his support behind Loeffler on election night and has been campaigning for the Republican Senate candidates in person and on television. But whether Collins’ supporters are open to his conciliatory message after a bitter primary fight is still an open question, Bullock said.

“She accused Collins of being a fake conservative, said that he was a career politician who helped out the career criminals,” Bullock said. “That kind of language, I would think, offended some share of his supporters who probably thought she was being incorrect, unfair.”

Perdue, who was elected in 2014, is more familiar to Georgians, and his support may be the boost Loeffler needs, he said. 

“She needs to get strong support from Collins supporters, and if they turn out because they want to go and vote for Perdue, that may also encourage some of them to also vote for Loeffler,” Bullock said.

Republicans are pulling out all the stops to make sure voters hear their message, said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Nathan Brand. 

“With Sens. Perdue and Loeffler’s leadership, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the RNC, and the entire Republican ecosystem are working in lock-step to reject the far-left’s socialist agenda,” he said in a statement. “Republicans are reaching voters in every corner of the state, as a presidential-sized voter turnout, communications, and surrogate operation in full force.”

Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue share the stage at a campaign event in Forsyth County in November. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Since November, Loeffler and Perdue have traveled the state together for joint campaign appearances. Nowhere is their united front more visible than their support of Trump, nodding to bizarre conspiracies about his loss in Georgia and issuing joint statements calling on Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign and to show support of a legally suspect Texas lawsuit in the Supreme Court alleging the vote in swing states including Georgia was rigged. 

Trump has repaid their support with his own, flying to Valdosta recently as part of a string of high-profile Republicans who have stumped for the two senators in Georgia and argued that the pair represent a “firewall against socialism.” Trump has not conceded defeat. “These seats are the last line of defense to save America and protect all that we have accomplished, and we’ve accomplished things that no other president has accomplished, no other administration, and I did it with these two people,” Trump said.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.

Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.