The balance of the U.S. Senate may well be decided this cycle in Georgia.
While media attention over the past few months has focused on competitive elections in Colorado, North Carolina, Maine, and Arizona, two concurrent Senate races for Republican-held seats in the emerging battleground have the potential to flip the Senate for Democrats — or build a firewall for Republicans.
On November 3, Georgia will hold its standard sexennial Senate election alongside a special election to fill the final two years of retired Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. In the standard election, Republican Sen. David Perdue is seeking reelection while fighting to hold off a trio of lead Democratic challengers. Meanwhile in the special election, appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler is facing both a competitive intra-party challenge from Rep. Doug Collins and two major Democratic challengers.
The concurrent 2020 Senate elections in Georgia represent just the 56th time since the introduction of the direct election of senators that a state will elect two senators on the same day. Not since 1966 in South Carolina have two concurrent Senate elections resulted in the election of senators from opposing parties, suggesting that Democrats are likely to either win big or strike out in Georgia.
But ticket-splitting is still possible, even in an age of increasing political partisanship. In 2018 in Minnesota, the most recent concurrent Senate election, Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith ran concurrently under virtually identical platforms for the two Senate seats in Minnesota. Both were elected, but Klobuchar’s 60% vote share ran seven points ahead of Smith’s 53% — Klobuchar likely benefited from name recognition as a two-term incumbent. Had Minnesota been a slightly more purple state, a difference of seven percentage points could have easily meant a split result.
Indeed, Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor told the HPR last month that “the dynamics of the Loeffler seat” put it more in play than Perdue’s seat, what with Perdue being an elected incumbent and not facing the same degree of scandal as Loeffler, who is currently responding to allegations of insider trading.
However, in the time since that interview, Taylor and Cook Political have shifted their evaluation of Perdue’s seat from Likely Republican and Lean Republican, bringing it closer to the toss-up category, as Perdue has been drawn into the stock sell-off scandal and Republicans running for office nationwide have been dragged down by the President’s anemic coronavirus response. Cook Political now rates both races as “Lean Republican.”
Four Different Elections With Senate Control in the Balance
Complicated election laws in Georgia for both seats could leave the Senate majority undecided until January. Georgia’s rules leave open the possibility that voters could go to the polls four different times between now and January to fill these two seats. For Perdue’s seat, party primaries will be held on June 9, with a rare primary runoff with the top two contenders scheduled for August 11 in the event that no candidate in the Democratic primary clears 50% of the field (since Perdue has no Republican primary challenger). If, in the general election on November 3, no candidate hits the 50% threshold, a general election runoff will take place on January 5, 2021, two days after the swearing-in of the next Congress.
A runoff is more likely for the special election, which has no primary prior to November 3 and at least two credible Republicans and two Democrats seeking the seat as of this writing. If none of the four candidates hit the 50% threshold, that race would also be pushed to January 5.
Control of the Senate might therefore not be decided until January, if the Senate is split 49-49 or 48-50 against the incoming president’s party (the vice president having the power to break ties in the Senate) and both Georgia elections go to a runoff — or in a scenario where just one of the two Senate races goes to a runoff and the Senate is split 49-50 against the incoming president.
None of these are unthinkable scenarios, with the special election in particular looking exceedingly likely to trigger a runoff. Both potential incoming administrations might have to prepare for scenarios in which the months following Election Day 2020 are spent not knowing if their cabinet and judicial nominees and preferred legislation will encounter a friendly or hostile Senate.
The Race for a Full Term: An Overview of the Field
Three Democrats are leading the contest to take on David Perdue. But this Democratic primary has not played out along the fault lines of the Democratic presidential primary, as these Democrats are separated less by ideology and more by experience. All would make health care a top priority, they said in interviews with the HPR, and none support Medicare for All. One is a political neophyte fresh off the most expensive U.S. House of Representatives race in history. A second is a former two-term mayor with a record of government efficiency. And a third is a former Romney 2012 donor with strong ties to organized labor who ran for lieutenant governor alongside gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018.
Three other Democrats, including former Georgia ACLU director Maya Dillard-Smith, health care professional Marckeith DeJesus, and Air Force veteran James Knox qualified for the most recent Democratic debate. None of the three candidates have cracked $100,000 in fundraising, as of their most recent FEC filings.
Perdue: Wealthy Trump Ally Popular Among Republicans, but Absent in Georgia
David Perdue, who will be seeking a second six-year term on November 3, enters this election cycle as one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal defenders on Capitol Hill, a polarizing prospect in newly purple Georgia. Polling has shown the President nearly even with and sometimes trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in Georgia, while polls have Perdue in a similar tie with Jon Ossoff, his leading Democratic challenger.
Perdue’s campaign launch advertisement frames the race as a battle between capitalism and socialism, is replete with flattering shots of Trump, and concludes with the ad’s title, “The road to socialism will never run through Georgia.” The senator made headlines in October standing next to Trump as the president was booed at a World Series game in the middle of the House impeachment inquiry.
His campaign website lists “Brands I’ve Helped” directly across from his biography, naming companies like Levi’s and Dollar General as brands he has supported in his pre-Senate private sector career. Perdue is also one of the richest members of the Senate, and the cousin of Georgia’s former governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. He lives on a privately owned island off of the coast of Georgia.
Senator Perdue’s office did not respond to phone, text, or email requests for comment on this story.
Perdue has not held a single town hall in his five-plus years in the Senate. And while Perdue is popular among Georgia Republicans — popular enough to keep him from drawing a single primary challenger in a year where six Republican candidates have declared for the Isakson seat — and his estrangement from the electorate makes him potentially vulnerable in 2020.
To be clear, David Perdue is nowhere near alone in his abstention from town halls. Sixty-one senators have not held a single town hall since January 3, 2019, according to the Town Hall Project, which tracks members of Congress. But it is notable with Perdue facing a competitive reelection campaign. By comparison, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, whose 2020 reelection race is also rated “Lean Republican” by Cook Political, held no fewer than 33 constituent town halls in 2019.
In an interview with the HPR, former Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who is challenging Perdue, noted Perdue’s broken pledge from his 2014 election to balance the federal budget, an alleged failure to manage federal relief from Hurricane Michael in 2018, and weak numbers with female voters as other potential vulnerabilities. Tomlinson cited a poll that showed Perdue’s favorability with white college-educated women nine points below the favorability for Republican Governor Brian Kemp. Kemp eked out a victory by less than two points over Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018 amid widespread allegations of voter suppression.
Meanwhile, Jon Ossoff, the former anti-corruption investigative television producer, has framed his case against Perdue around perceived corruption by the Senator, telling the HPR, “A man who sells access to himself at his home for $7,500 PAC checks, a man who embodies the blind and servile partisanship that’s rotting away our politics, a man who adjusts his stock portfolio during a pandemic to profit while downplaying the threat in public needs to be defeated.”
Indeed, Perdue has come under fire in recent weeks for stock transactions he made after attending a senators-only briefing on the coronavirus, a more subdued version of the scandal currently engulfing Georgia’s other embattled senator, Kelly Loeffler. In the aftermath of that reporting, Perdue pledged to stop trading individual stocks, though he would not commit to placing his assets in a blind trust.
In 2014, during his first political campaign, Perdue cited the burgeoning federal debt as the reason for his run. Six years later, the U.S. government continues to run massive deficits, largely without criticism from Perdue, who voted for the 2017 GOP tax bill, which increased the deficit, and scarcely ever brings up the debt.
Few Senate candidates are tied as heavily to the results of the presidential election as Perdue, who has few signature accomplishments in five years as a Senator, remains an inaccessible figure to many Georgians, and is known mainly for his support of the President. As Trump goes in Georgia this November, so Perdue will likely go.
Ossoff: Right Place at the Right Time or Right Candidate?
The Democratic frontrunner to challenge Perdue is Jon Ossoff, who became familiar to many Georgians — and Americans — as the Democratic nominee in the 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th District, comprising suburbs of Atlanta. The first competitive federal election after Trump took office, the race drew millions of dollars in donations from all over the country and became the most expensive House race in U.S. history, as Ossoff narrowly lost to Republican Karen Handel, who was then defeated in the 2018 midterms by Democratic gun control activist Lucy McBath.
Before running for Congress, Ossoff served as an aide to Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. Johnson credits him with the passage of his first successful legislative initiative, a nonbinding resolution relating to the civil war in Uganda, and for helping Johnson’s first campaign unseat an incumbent in 2006 through his then-pioneering use of Facebook.
In 2012, after leaving Johnson’s office to get a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, Ossoff became the managing partner and CEO of a prominent tele-journalism company, Insight TWI, which has earned a long list of journalistic and media awards for its activism in its nearly 30-year history.
In an interview with the HPR, Ossoff proudly cited his 2017 near-miss loss to Handel as an example of his ability to galvanize voters. “Six weeks before I entered that race,” he said, “the Republican incumbent Tom Price had been reelected by 24%. The Cook Political Report rated the district an R+14 … In six months, we swung the district by 20%, under withering fire from the national GOP establishment and the president himself.”
However, the scale of Ossoff’s accomplishment is a bit murkier. In 2016, Tom Price faced a “ghost candidate” Democrat, Rodney Stooksbury, who could not be located, had no social media presence, spent no money on the campaign, and yet still garnered 38.3% of the vote. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, only lost the district by a percentage point with 46.8% of the vote, so Ossoff’s 48.2%, earned early in the Trump presidency when Democrats were energized and leading nationwide generic ballot polling, is no enormous feat.
Still, Democrats typically do not turn out for off-year elections, and while Ossoff had a lot of help from liberal donors wanting to deliver their first referendum on Trump, the New York Times credited Ossoff for turning out a large number of young and nonwhite voters, and for generating the largest overall Democratic turnout in a special election in over 10 years.
Moving the needle from 46.8% Hillary to 48.2% Ossoff is not the political tsunami that Ossoff makes it out to be. But he deserves credit for the breadth of his get-out-the-vote operation and his ability to harness anti-Trump furor through fundraising.
Ossoff chose not to seek a rematch with Handel in 2018 and defended that decision alongside his decision to run for Senate, noting, “I worked very hard to elect Lucy McBath [to the 6th District], but I was getting married, I had a business to run, and … I needed to attend to other dimensions of my life at that moment.”
The investigative journalist and media executive also paces the field in fundraising this cycle, using the prodigious network he built for his congressional race to take in over $1 million in the first quarter of 2020, bringing his campaign to $1.8 million cash on hand (though that number is relatively low by the standards of modern Democratic Senate challengers — astronaut Mark Kelly, currently challenging Republican Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, raised over $10 million in the first quarter).
Ossoff is running this year with the endorsement of civil rights icon John Lewis, the Democratic congressional representative for Georgia’s 5th District and someone Ossoff credits as a mentor. “I read [Rep.] Lewis’ memoir, ‘Walking with the Wind,’ when I was 16 years old,” Ossoff told the HPR. “I wrote him asking if I could spend some time working in his office and he invited me for a summer to work for him. And that experience as a very young man changed my life.”
Ossoff is not the most experienced Democratic candidate in the race, but so far he is the one who has generated the most attention in fundraising and social media. Whether he can turn his thin political resume, prolific endorsements, and anti-corruption message into votes in June — and November — is the question mark upon which his candidacy hangs.
Two other Democrats appear in the hunt for David Perdue’s seat: former Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and 2018 lieutenant gubernatorial nominee Sarah Riggs Amico. Part II of this series will profile their candidacies and look at the special election for former Sen. Isakson’s seat.
Image 1 Source (collage, from left to right): Courtesy of Teresa Tomlinson for Senate, Courtesy of Jon Ossoff for Senate, Courtesy of Sarah for Georgia, Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Image 2 Source: Courtesy of Jon Ossoff for Senate
Editor’s note (5/28/20): A quote in this story has been corrected to reflect $7,500 PAC checks. Jon Ossoff’s title has also been corrected to “investigative journalist and media executive.”