Campaign Watch: Georgia Runoffs

As President Trump and the bulk of his allies spout off one conspiracy theory after another to rationalize his humiliating election loss to Joe Biden, no state has received more attention than Georgia, which flipped blue in a presidential race for the first time since 1992. President Trump has accused the state’s top elected officials- Governor Brian Kemp, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, and Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger (all Trump supporters)- of complicity in a massive campaign of election fraud to deliver the victory to Biden.

This sort of behavior is nothing new for the outgoing President, who, following his 2016 electoral college victory, loudly and wrongly claimed that millions of votes were illegally cast for Hillary Clinton to explain why he lost the popular vote by three million. But in Georgia, these allegations may have an outsized effect on the immediate future of American politics, as both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats are up for grabs in a pair of runoff elections scheduled for January 5. If both Democratic candidates secure a victory, the Senate will be evenly split between liberals and conservatives, with the Vice President (soon to be Kamala Harris) serving as the tie-breaking vote, essentially giving Democrats control of the Senate for the first time since 2014.

The fear for Republican strategists (and perhaps hope for Democratic strategists) is that President Trump’s outrageous claims may have caused his own base to lose confidence in the elections process, leading them to stay away from the polls on January 5. Indeed, some Trump supporters called for a boycott of the election, while others are insisting that they will not vote by mail or machine (the only two ways to vote in Georgia). In fact, Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, one of the most conservative districts in the country, has seen very low turnout for early voting, despite a strong showing by Republicans in early voting for the presidential election.

Of course, none of this guarantees a Democratic victory next week. Georgia is only just now emerging as a swing state rather than a conservative stronghold, and the biggest obstacle for both sides will be turning out voters, as runoff elections typically see sharp drops in voting rates. For Republicans, that means a focus on turning out white, primarily non-college-educated men in rural counties, while Democrats again seek out a more diverse but similarly sized coalition of voters: white college-educated women, Blacks, Asian-Americans, and Latinos in urban and suburban counties.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these races.

In the first, we have a special election between Republican Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat less than a year ago, and Democrat Raphael Warnock. Loeffler refers to herself as the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate, and she’s probably right: she is the only Senator to vote in line with President Trump one hundred per cent of the time time (a fact that she has touted in her campaign). Her support of President Trump borders on conspiratorial. In a recent debate, Loeffler refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden won November’s presidential election. Incredibly, Loeffler has even claimed that she is “not familiar with” the well-publicized recording of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, and called the recording of President Trump admitting to Bob Woodward that he intentionally downplayed the severity of COVID-19 “fake news.” She has campaigned with QAnon conspiracy theorist and representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose rise to prominence may be the greatest symbol of the Republican Party’s shift from “compassionate conservatism,” and she has aligned herself with Chester Dole, a former KKK leader who was convicted of beating a Black man nearly to death, and who marched in the notorious white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville three years ago.

Loeffler seems to embrace this sort of extremism in an ill-advised effort to position herself as someone who understands everyday conservatives despite her status as the wealthiest member of the U.S. Senate., and to deflect from the controversies that have come with that status. Loeffler and her husband (who quite literally owns the New York Stock Exchange) sold off millions of dollars in stock in early 2020, beginning the day she attended a closed-door briefing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on the severity of COVID-19, before the American public became fully aware of the dangers and well before the 2020 stock market crash.

Loeffler is also co-owner of the WNBA team Atlanta Dream. She drew controversy over the summer for criticizing WNBA players for wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts. The players on Loeffler’s own team responded by wearing T-shirts emblazoned, “Vote Warnock.”

The team derives its name from the famous speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who once led Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, now pastored by none other than Raphael Warnock. Warnock identifies himself as “a Matthew 25 Christian,” referring to the biblical parable of nations being judged by whether they have fed the hungry, housed the poor, and cared for the sick. He is a champion of the same sort of social gospel preached by both Dr. King and Georgia’s recently deceased congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, whose funeral Warnock presided over. He was one of several prominent Black candidates for U.S. Senate seats in the South this November, along with Mike Espy of Mississippi, Marquita Bradshaw of Tennessee, Adrian Perkins of Louisiana, and Jaime Harrison of South Carolina. That group, backed by figures like Stacy Abrams and Representative Bennie Thompson, hoped to prove that Black Democrats are capable of winning senate seats in the South. Unfortunately, Espy, Bradshaw, Perkins, and Harrison were al defeated in landslides. Of the group, only Warnock remains, after securing a clear plurality in a crowded special election, finishing seven points ahead of Loeffler, but still far from the required fifty per cent.

Beyond his lack of political experience (a lack shared by Loeffler, who never held public office before her appointment to the Senate less than a year ago), Republicans are struggling to find a weakness in Warnock to exploit. Many have attempted to question his Christianity, betraying their previous indignation at media coverage of Amy Coney Barrett’s religion. Others have pointed to Warnock’s previous run-ins with law enforcement, ignoring the important details: in once case, police officers later admitted that arresting Warnock was a mistake, and that he had actually been helpful in resolving a dispute; in another instance, Warnock was arrested at the state capitol for practicing civil disobedience in protest of the state government’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the same sort of civil disobedience that John Lewis racked up arrests for his entire life. Loeffler herself has stuck to one quick label for Warnock, referring to him as a “radical liberal” more than a dozen times in a recent one-hour debate.

In the other runoff race, we have incumbent Republican David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, who finished within two points of each other in November’s regularly scheduled election.

Perdue was elected to the Senate six years ago on a vow to fight then-President Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, and has indeed supported repealing the Affordable Care Act. But in the time of a global pandemic, more and more conservatives have realized how critical the legislation actually is. While Kelly Loeffler has branded herself as running to “the right of Atilla the Hun,” Perdue has largely chosen to take a softer approach, directing attention from his Senate record in favor of promises of future bipartisan problem-solving.

Like Loeffler, though, Perdue has been a vocal supporter of President Trump’s efforts to overturn the presidential election results in Georgia, going as far as calling for Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to resign in a joint statement with Loeffler. In fact, similarities abound between Loeffler and Perdue. For all his claims of bipartisanship, Perdue has a track record as one of President Trump’s closest allies over the last four years. And like Loeffler, he has a controversial record of potential profiteering in his role as an elected official.

While chairing the Senate subcommittee that oversees naval purchases, Perdue traded stocks in a submarine parts manufacturer, and traded heavily in cybersecurity firm stocks while on a subcommittee overseeing cybersecurity. In fact, Perdue’s stock transactions make up about a third of all trades by senators in the last six years.

Perdue, a lifelong corporate executive, once bragged that he “spent most of my career” sending jobs overseas, a clear contradiction to the populism that President Trump and most modern Republicans espouse. And that’s far from the only contradiction: despite his platform as a deficit hawk focused on fixing the federal budget, Perdue was a major supporter of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which is projected to add more than one trillion dollars to the federal budget deficit by 2027.

The thirty-three-year-old Jon Ossoff, who hopes to become the Senate’s youngest member since 1981, hasn’t shied away from taking Perdue to task for his questionable record. He recently declared during a live Fox News broadcast that both Perdue and Loeffler “have blatantly used their offices to enrich themselves.”

Ossoff’s interest in politics began early: he interned for John Lewis at the age of sixteen, and went on to become a congressional staffer. He later purchased a film production company that produces documentaries exposing corruption around the world, a focus that Ossoff insists makes him perfectly qualified to take on Washington. While that talking point may bear tinges of “drain the swamp,” what is undeniable is that Ossoff is in many ways an outsider who is knowledgeable and composed enough to come off as a seasoned veteran of Washington. He seems to effortlessly toe the line between Warnock’s progressivism and more centrist ideals, hoping to court both Georgia’s enormous Black share of voters (nearly 300,000 people of color have registered to vote in Georgia since Stacy Abrams’s 2018 gubernatorial loss) and suburban white women who may be lifelong Republicans but have soured on Donald Trump. While Perdue and his allies have tried to label Ossoff a “trust fund socialist,” Ossoff is clearly a center-left candidate, more akin to Joe Biden than Bernie Sanders.

Polls show both races as incredibly tight, but the political landscape is constantly shifting as we draw closer to January 5. The recent COVID stimulus package is a prime example. Both Perdue and Loeffler have fought COVID relief legislation for most of the year, but have taken a more sanguine tone since November, passing the package that included $600 direct payments to Americans. When President Trump demanded that the payments be raised to $2,000, House Democrats agreed and quickly passed an amendment to the bill and sent it to the Republican-controlled Senate. While Loeffler and Perdue have both timidly suggested that they support the amendment, neither have, as of this writing, made any effort to bring the amendment to a vote. How the pair would vote if actually given the chance to do so remains unclear, but what is very clear is that if Democrats controlled the Senate, the amendment would easily pass, and Georgians would be receiving $2,000 in stimulus rather than $600.

Loeffler and Perdue both seem to be betting the house on alignment with President Trump, endorsing his conspiracy theories around the election and planning to join him at a rally on the eve of the runoff. And while the Trump base is certainly energetic, Trump just lost Georgia by about 11,000 votes. Whether embracing a proven loser in Georgia can be a viable political strategy remains to be seen.

The results in Georgia next week will determine what the next two years in Washington will look like. A win for Warnock and Ossoff will open the path for the Biden Administration to make significant policy achievements. A win for Loeffler and Perdue will guarantee congressional gridlock.

The fate of the nation belongs, perhaps predictably, to Southerners.

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