Campaigning continued in Georgia on Saturday in two Senate runoff elections which will define much of Joe Biden’s first term in office.
The contests on Tuesday will decide control of the Senate and therefore how far the new president can reach on issues such as the pandemic, healthcare, taxation, energy and the environment.
Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev Raphael Warnock must win to split the Senate 50/50. Kamala Harris, the vice-president-elect, would then act as tiebreaker as president of the Senate. Responding to that threat, Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have placed themselves squarely behind Donald Trump, making hugely exaggerated claims about the dangers their opponents supposedly pose.
In Perdue’s and Loeffler’s telling, a Democratic Senate would “rubber stamp” a “socialist agenda”, from “ending private insurance” and “expanding the supreme court” to adopting a Green New Deal that would raise taxes by thousands each year.
Besides misrepresenting the policy preferences of Biden and most Democratic senators, that characterization ignores the reality of a Senate in which centrist Democrats and Republicans are set for a key role.
At one campaign stop this week, Ossoff said Perdue’s “ridiculous” attacks “blow my mind”. He also scoffed at the claim that his ideas, aligned closely with Biden, amount to a leftist lunge. But he agreed with his opponent on how much Georgia matters.
“We have too much good work to do,” Ossoff said, “to be mired in gridlock and obstruction for the next few years.”
Ossoff also made headlines this week with his response to a Fox News reporter about Loeffler’s claims that her opponent, Warnock – pastor of a church formerly led by Martin Luther King Jr – is “dangerous” and “radical”.
“[H]ere’s the bottom line,” he said. “Kelly Loeffler has been campaigning with a klansman. Kelly Loeffler has been campaigning with a klansman and so she is stooping to these vicious personal attacks to distract from the fact that she’s been campaigning with a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Ossoff’s claim was misleading: Loeffler was pictured with a former member of the Klan but did not campaign with him. Loeffler responded by calling Ossoff “a pathological liar” and “a trust-fund socialist whose only job has been working for the Chinese Communist party in recent years”, a reference to payments to Ossoff’s media company from a Hong Kong conglomerate.
Perdue entered quarantine this week after exposure to Covid-19. He and Loeffler must also contend with a deepening Republican split over Trump’s refusal to concede defeat in the presidential election.
Trump has spread unfounded assertions of voter fraud and blasted Georgia Republicans including the governor, Brian Kemp, who have defended the elections process. When Perdue and Loeffler backed up Trump’s claims, some Republicans expressed concern it could discourage loyalists from voting. Others are worried the GOP candidates have turned off moderates repelled by Trump.
“No Republican is really happy with the situation we find ourselves in,” said Chip Lake, a longtime Georgia Republican consultant. “But sometimes when you play poker, you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and for us that starts with the president.”
Trump will visit Georgia for a final rally with Loeffler on Monday evening, hours before polls open. It is unclear whether Perdue will attend.
Democrats are fine with their opponents’ decision to run as Trump Republicans and use exaggerated attacks.
“We talk about something like expanding Medicaid. We talk about expanding Pell Grants” for low-income college students, Ossoff said at a recent stop in Marietta, north of Atlanta. “David Perdue denounces those things as socialism?”
Ossoff noted Perdue’s claims that a Democratic Senate would abolish private health insurance. Ossoff and Warnock in fact back Biden’s proposal to add a federal insurance plan to private insurance exchanges.
“I just want people to have the choice,” Ossoff said.
Biden beat Trump by about 12,000 votes out of 5m in Georgia, making him the first Democrat to carry the state since 1992. His record vote total for a Democrat in the state was fueled by racially and ethnically diversifying metropolitan areas but also shifts in key Atlanta suburbs where white voters have historically leaned Republican.
Yet Perdue landed within a few thousand votes of Trump’s total and led Ossoff by about 88,000. Republican turnout also surged in small towns and rural areas and Democrats disappointed down-ballot, failing to make expected gains.
“We’ve won this race once already,” Perdue has said. His advisers think they can corral the narrow slice of swing voters by warning against handing Democrats control of the House, Senate and White House.
For Biden, who sold himself as a uniter and a seasoned legislative broker, the Georgia elections will help determine whether he can live up to that billing. Even a Democratic-held Senate wouldn’t give him everything he wants: rules still require 60 votes to advance most major legislation. Biden must win over Republicans.
A Democratic Senate would, however, clear a path for nominees to key posts, especially on the federal judiciary, and bring control of committees and floor action. A Senate led by current majority leader Mitch McConnell almost certainly would deny Biden major legislative victories, as it did in Barack Obama’s tenure.
Biden will travel to Atlanta on Monday to campaign with Ossoff and Warnock for the second time in three weeks. Harris will campaign on Sunday in Savannah.
In his last visit, Biden called Perdue and Loeffler “roadblocks” and urged Georgians “to vote for two United States senators who know how to say the word ‘yes’ and not just ‘no’.”