Sen. David Perdue could not have thought his campaign would end like this.
With more than 3.8 million people having already voted in Georgia, the Republican is in a dead heat with a Democratic opponent less than half his age, in a state represented by conservatives for decades. Republicans now fear that the state’s two Senate seats are in danger of flipping, amid changing demographics, party infighting and President Donald Trump’s unpopularity during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the final days of the campaign, Perdue is acting like a candidate on the run. He abruptly pulled out of a high-stakes debate scheduled for Sunday, choosing to instead campaign with Trump. On TV, Perdue is pumping big bucks into ads defending himself from attacks that he sought to profit off the coronavirus crisis. And he has faced criticism from Democrats for mocking Sen. Kamala Harris’ first name at a Trump rally, which his campaign said was a simple mispronunciation, even though they have served in the Senate together for three years.
Perdue has warned for months that the state is up for grabs. But the first-term senator is increasingly showing signs of frustration in the final weeks of the campaign.
As he barnstorms the state on his campaign bus – with his picture next to the slogan, “The Original Outsider” – Perdue has offered scant details about his whereabouts to the press. After CNN learned that he was appearing in a parking lot in this small town in central Georgia, his supporters tried to physically block a reporter from asking questions, while putting signs up in front of a photographer’s camera to try to prevent him from shooting the event.
When asked why he wasn’t disclosing his schedule to the press, Perdue declined to explain. “That’s a campaign question,” he told CNN. Perdue didn’t respond to another question on whether he regretted mispronouncing Harris’ name, criticized Democrat Jon Ossoff as a “rubber stamp” for the Democratic agenda, and stepped onto his bus.
This week, Ossoff attacked Perdue in personal terms, telling CNN that the senator’s butchering of Harris’ name was “unquestionably” racist. In their second and final debate on Wednesday evening, Perdue, a 70-year-old former Fortune 500 CEO, dismissed Ossoff, a 33-year-old media executive, for not knowing how to create or keep a job. Ossoff called the senator a “crook” who was “fending off multiple federal investigations for insider trading” while attacking “the health of the people” that he represents. Perdue snapped back that the Democrat had worked for “the mouthpiece of terrorism and Communist China” – claims Ossoff called “ridiculous.”
At the end of the debate, Perdue was asked if there was anything he wanted to correct in this campaign.
“We don’t have enough time,” said Perdue.
Republicans in Georgia are facing a perfect storm that puts the White House and its two GOP-held Senate seats at risk. Trump is historically unpopular. The state’s suburbs are becoming more diverse. The Democratic Party’s presidential nomination of Joe Biden, the epitome of the establishment, has stifled the GOP cry that socialism is invading America. The coronavirus pandemic tanked the economy, Trump botched the response, and the state prefers Biden to handle the crisis, according to a Monmouth University poll.
The other Senate race in Georgia, featuring an intraparty feud between appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler and GOP Rep. Doug Collins, has also damaged the Republican brand. Loeffler and Collins have tried to outdo each other in touting their ties to Trump in a state where he is less popular than he was four years ago. And they have bashed each other as insufficiently conservative, potentially weakening whoever makes it to a January runoff election against Rev. Raphael Warnock, the leading Democratic candidate.
Some Republicans in Washington predicted Collins’ entry into the race would hurt the party.
In private conversations earlier this year, top Senate Republicans warned the White House about the risks of a contested race for Loeffler’s seat. But White House officials made clear that convincing Trump to help clear the field would fall on deaf ears because the President thought he would resoundingly win the state, which he believed would help down-ticket Georgia Republicans, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
But Republicans in these Georgia Senate races are now all neck and neck with their Democratic opponents, who outraised them in the last financial quarter. Republicans have had to spend heavily on the two Senate races – over $100 million – compared to over $69 million from Democrats, according to Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has spent more in Georgia than in any other state.
“Obviously the situation is complicated by having two Republicans in the race,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune told CNN. “It would have been nice if (Collins) had sort of allowed Loeffler to have a clear field there. But that’s not the way it worked out.”
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has accused Collins of putting his personal ambition ahead of preserving a seat central to the Senate majority.
In an interview, the congressman pushed back on that accusation.
“I’d ask them to actually figure out how to get outside the Beltway and come understand Georgia, and that’s what the issue (is) here,” Collins told CNN outside a Steak ‘n Shake in Dublin, Georgia. “We’re not putting this seat in jeopardy.”
Collins’ race is a special election without a primary. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who appointed Loeffler to the seat, resisted efforts to create one. Instead, all candidates are on the ballot on Tuesday — and the top two finishers will go to a January runoff if no one reaches the 50% threshold. Since Collins and Loeffler are competing to get into the runoff, they are courting conservatives and Trump supporters rather than the swing voters who will ultimately decide the winner.
Loeffler has tried to portray herself as the true Trump loyalist, boasting of a “100 percent” pro-Trump voting record. She has refused to criticize the President, even when asked about his past comments bragging of sexual assault, saying she wasn’t familiar with the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. She recently announced the support of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conservative House candidate who promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and made a string of bigoted comments, but whom Trump has called a “future Republican star.” Loeffler has even taken on her own WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream, over the players’ support of Black Lives Matter.
The senator dismissed concerns that she was turning off moderate voters in an interview, saying she had the “momentum in this campaign.” When asked if she would disavow QAnon, Loeffler said: “Yes, I disavow it. I don’t know what it is.”
Ties to the top of the ticket
Trump, of course, is in part to blame for putting Perdue’s and Loeffler’s seats at risk. He won the state by five points in 2016, but is now even with Biden in the polls.
The coronavirus has killed about 8,000 people and infected over 358,000 in Georgia, giving voters a reason to yearn for change. But neither Collins nor Loeffler has criticized Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
“I don’t quibble,” Collins said in an interview. “I don’t go back and forth with him on his response, I think he said what he believes, and I think we’re seeing that actually played out in America.”
Collins, who led the Republican defense of Trump during the House impeachment, has forced Loeffler at this late stage of the campaign to continue focusing on the party’s base voters rather than those in the middle. The senator told CNN on Wednesday that there are “no” issues on which she disagreed with the President.
Biden is strong enough in the state that neither Warnock nor Ossoff could describe how they would differ from him, but both expressed in interviews a willingness to be independent.
“I’m running against somebody who said that she’s 100% with Donald Trump. I think that’s a bizarre thing for anybody running for the Senate to say,” said Warnock. “I’m 100% with the people of Georgia.”
Running to the right
Late last year, Kemp appointed Loeffler to fill the seat left by Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned over health concerns. Loeffler, who is married to New York Stock Exchange CEO Jeff Sprecher, was an appealing choice because she could self-fund her campaign in 2020 and when the seat is up for reelection in 2022, as well as potentially play to the diversifying suburbs, especially women voters. Loeffler and Sprecher have spent over $20 million on her Senate race this year.
But instead of trying appeal to those moderate suburban voters, she’s locked in a race to the right. Collins has attacked Loeffler for strongly backing Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign, and for co-owning the Dream, which partnered with Planned Parenthood for an event a couple years ago. Loeffler has retorted that she has been endorsed by a number of prominent anti-abortion groups and “will always defend innocent life.”
In her speech in Buford, Georgia, Loeffler repeatedly criticized Collins, trying to tie him to Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling him “one of the most liberal Republicans in the US House of Representatives.” The event was held indoors with roughly 70 people – many of whom were maskless – and in defiance of state rules prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people.
Collins, who has criss-crossed the state and held gatherings with pockets of voters, has been unsparing in his criticism of Loeffler, characterizing her as a fake conservative.
“It seems like Senator Loeffler is trying to make it sound like I have a moderate voting record, which nobody will actually believe,” he told CNN.
Collins brought up Loeffler’s stock trades ahead of the market downtown, which drew scrutiny because she was privately briefed by the administration on the coronavirus outbreak before the market nosedived. He noted that Loeffler had criticized his career as a defense attorney. “She got accused of insider stock trading,” said Collins. “I guess attorneys are good at that point. Aren’t they, Senator Loeffler?”
The candidates are planning for the race to head to a runoff election in January, since no one is likely to surpass 50% of the vote. Collins told a crowd in Dublin that when he comes back around Christmas he likes “cranberry sauce with a little berries inside.”
He added, “Can y’all make sure we have something?”
A rapidly diversifying state
Unlike the divide between the Republicans, Democrats have been campaigning as a unity ticket, with both Ossoff and Warnock appearing together along with the rapper Common at an outdoor event with masked supporters in the Atlanta suburbs.
The strategy could be particularly effective for a Georgia electorate sharply defined by race. Around 30% is Black, which is overwhelmingly liberal, and over 60% is White, which is overwhelmingly Republican.
The police killing of George Floyd again inserted the issue of racial justice into the Senate campaigns. Over the summer, Loeffler sparked a backlash when she wrote to WNBA commissioner that she “adamantly” opposed the Black Lives Matter movement. Some players wore t-shirts that said, “Vote Warnock.”
While Loeffler has campaigned on standing with law enforcement, and bashing the defund the police movement, the Democrats have aligned themselves with Black Lives Matter. At the Jonesboro rally, Ossoff noted that Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man, was fatally shot this year while jogging in his state, making “a mockery of equal protection under the law.”
Former state House of Representatives Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in 2018, has led voter registration efforts aimed at those who she says have been targeted by voter suppression efforts, particularly people of color. But the effort has also drawn in new transplants, and young people, who the state began to automatically register in 2016 when they apply for a driver’s license. The population of Latinos and Asians has also swiftly increased; Between 2017 and 2018, Forsyth County – north of Atlanta – saw the fastest-growing Asian population of any US county with more than 20,000 people.
In 2018, Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath flipped a House seat in the northwest Atlanta suburbs for the first time in 40 years, and Democrats are aiming to flip another seat northeast of the city in 2020.
Dr. Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor, said that almost half of the new voters are under 35, and that almost two-thirds are people of color. Georgia has a record 7.6 million registered voters, a million more than it had in 2016 and about 1.6 million more than in 2014, when Perdue first ran for the Senate, according to Georgia’s Secretary of State office.
At the Slutty Vegan restaurant on Tuesday, Ossoff told CNN that “the whole world is watching Georgia.”
“This is the top battleground state in the country,” he said.