Democrats hope for tidal moment in Georgia with two Senate seats in play

Republicans are scrambling to defend both of their Senate seats in Georgia as signs of trouble pile up for President Trump in the state.

Two GOP outside groups are preparing to pour tens of millions of dollars into television advertising in Georgia this week to bolster Sen. David Perdue’s (R-Ga.) reelection bid against Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist and former House candidate who won the state’s Democratic Senate primary last month.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s junior senator, Kelly Loeffler (R), is leaning into a dispute over the Black Lives Matter movement with the WNBA team she co-owns as she looks to bolster her conservative credentials ahead of November, where she will face both Republicans and Democrats on a jungle primary-style general election ballot.

On Wednesday, the Cook Political Report shifted the state and its 16 Electoral College votes to “toss-up” status in the presidential race. And while Georgia’s two Senate seats remain in the “lean” Republican column, Democrats say that they are on the cusp of winning in a historically red state that has long been on their political wish list.

“Georgia is the linchpin, the most competitive state, the top battleground,” Ossoff said in an interview on Thursday.

“Georgia has seen some of the highest-profile, most competitive races of the past decade. Each of those battles built mighty infrastructure, trained tens of thousands of volunteers, moved the needle, and now Georgia is the most competitive state in the country.”

Ossoff, who rose to prominence in 2017 during his close but ultimately unsuccessful special election bid for a suburban Atlanta House seat, emerged last month from a crowded primary field to take on Perdue, avoiding what many expected to be a contentious runoff election. In the three weeks that followed, his campaign raked in about $2.35 million, a sum that made up one third of his entire second-quarter fundraising haul.

Polling shows Ossoff and Perdue nearly deadlocked. A Fox News survey released last month put the GOP incumbent ahead by only 3 points, while another from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) conducted shortly before that showed Ossoff leading by 1 point.

The tight race has spurred a wave of spending. Perdue went up with the first ads of his general election campaign this week, while two Republican-affiliated outside groups, One Nation and Senate Leadership Fund, are spending a combined $22 million on ad reservations in support of him.

In Ossoff’s corner, Majority Forward, the political nonprofit affiliated with the top Senate Democratic super PAC, waded into the race on Thursday with $3 million in statewide ad reservations and an initial TV spot. And Ossoff’s campaign unveiled its first general election ad, a six-figure buy talking up his career as an investigative journalist.

Loeffler, meanwhile, is facing a messier race to hold her seat.

She was appointed to the Senate late last year by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) after Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) announced his early retirement. But her appointment drew the ire of some Republicans who have questioned her conservative credentials, and prompted Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), a steadfast Trump ally, to launch a challenge for her seat.

Under the state’s current rules, there will not be partisan primaries to determine the Republican and Democratic nominees in the November election for the remainder of Isakson’s term. Instead, candidates from all parties will appear on the same ballot, and if no one secures at least 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will head to a runoff election in January.

Democrats believe that runoff could give a crucial opening to the Rev. Raphael Warnock, Loeffler’s top Democratic opponent. Recent polls show Warnock beating Loeffler in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup, while Collins only leads the reverend by a slim margin.

This week, Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team, came out against a plan by the league to allow players to wear warm-up jerseys emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name,” insisting instead that jerseys feature an American flag.

Loeffler’s dispute with the WNBA was seen by some as an attempt to strengthen her standing among conservatives, especially given Trump’s criticism of the recent civil unrest over racial injustice. In a statement to The Hill, Loeffler’s communications director Stephen Lawson said that Georgia’s junior senator “has significant campaign advantages in resources, infrastructure, message and path to victory, and is working to deliver a big win for Georgia in November.”

Georgia voters haven’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in two decades, and both parties saw the state as an electoral safe haven for Republicans for years; the last Democrat to win a presidential race in Georgia was former President Clinton in 1992.

But Democrats say the Peach State is trending in their favor.

Hillary Clinton lost it to Trump in the 2016 presidential election by 5 points after former President Obama lost it to Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 by 8 points. In 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams came within 1.5 percentage points of winning the governor’s mansion.

Democrats also point to favorable demographic shifts in the state. Last year, some 322,000 active voters joined Georgia’s rolls, including many younger voters and people of color. Meanwhile, the percentage of white voters has dropped slightly since 2016, a trend that Democrats say works in their favor.

“We don’t have all that many swing voters here. It’s a turnout state with a whole lot of Democrats who we can turn out,” said Seth Bringman, a spokesperson for Fair Fight, the voting rights group founded by Abrams after her 2018 gubernatorial run. “And when Georgia Democrats are as motivated as we are — and one-third of our electorate being Black — that puts us in a position for victory.”

Jay Williams, a longtime Georgia Republican strategist, said that it is unsurprising that the Senate races are competitive for Democrats, but acknowledged that the national landscape — including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, an economic downturn and widespread protests over racial injustice and police brutality — has further complicated the outlook for Republicans in Georgia.

Trump’s handling of those crises hasn’t helped, he said.

“I think it’s probably a little more competitive simply because the president is making it more competitive,” Williams said. “Obviously he’s got some issues that are going to be hard for Republicans to shake.”

But Williams also cautioned that, with four months to go until Election Day, there are still plenty of opportunities for the political tides to change, pointing to Democrats’ leftward shift on issues such as police policies and calls by some to defund local law enforcement.

“For the most part, the Georgia electorate is a little more right of center,” he said. “They’re not going to be OK with the kind of nonsense that’s going on with the left right now.”

Still, Democrats say that Georgia is within reach, pointing to Trump’s sagging poll numbers in the state — a Fox News poll late last month showed him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by 2 points in the presidential race — and record voter turnout in last month’s Democratic primaries as signs that 2020 could be the year that Georgia turns blue.

“There is zero doubt at this point that Georgia is the single most crucial battleground state in 2020,” Joshua Karp, an adviser to Ossoff’s campaign, said. “Trump is running ads there, the Biden campaign is eyeing opportunities there, you have two Senate seats open and Democratic enthusiasm is reaching historic levels.”

Tags 2020 2020 campaign 2020 Senate election 2020 Senate race 2020 Senate races Donald Trump Doug Collins Fox News Georgia Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Johnny Isakson Kelly Loeffler Mitt Romney Public Policy Polling Raphael Warnock

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