Perdue, Ossoff clash in debate centered on COVID-19, health care

Investigative journalist Jon Ossoff (left) and U.S. Sent. David Perdue (right) clashed in a debate Wednesday night (Oct. 28, 2020) with days left to go before the Nov. 3 election. (Credit: Ossoff and Perdue campaigns)

U.S. Sen. David Perdue and challenger Jon Ossoff sniped at each other in an hourlong debate Wednesday night less than a week before the Nov. 3 election that echoed attacks the pair have lobbed at each other for months in television and social-media ads.

It was the second time Perdue, a Republican, and Ossoff, a Democrat, have squared off directly rather than through attack ads, which have racked up tens of millions of dollars and injected a bitter tension into the race.

Much of Wednesday night’s in-person debate hosted by WTOC-TV in Savannah revolved around keystone issues and political jousting that have come from both campaigns for months in Georgia, as Democrats aim to flip a crucial Senate seat and Republicans seek to stand their ground.

Perdue, a corporate executive seeking a second six-year term in office, has positioned himself as a staunch defender of President Donald Trump’s policies while casting Ossoff as a socialist aligned with progressive Democrats eager to reduce funding for police agencies and apply more government control to health insurance.

Ossoff, who runs an investigative journalism firm, has framed Perdue as an absentee politician more interested in his own personal and financial gain via the power of his Senate office, and slammed Perdue for following Trump’s lead in downplaying the threat of coronavirus during the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days.

Throughout the debate, Perdue slammed Ossoff for not acknowledging ties he had with a Chinese company on his campaign financial disclosure forms, accusing Ossoff of being too cozy with China. Republicans have villainized China this election cycle as the originator of COVID-19.

“Clearly, China was responsible about this [virus],” Perdue said. “What we have to do is hold China accountable, and Jon Ossoff will not do that.”

Ossoff dismissed the accusation, calling it a diversion tactic to avoid talking about the state and country’s response to the virus. After the debate, an Ossoff campaign spokesman said the matter referred to a Hong Kong media company that bought one of Ossoff’s films.

Ossoff also framed Perdue’s comments as a tactic to avoid discussing his stance on health care and insurance coverage. Democratic candidates including Ossoff have posed health care as a key plank in their campaigns this election cycle.

“Blaming the Democrats, blaming foreign countries,” Ossoff said. “As I predicted, Sen. Perdue doesn’t want to talk about COVID-19…. He is going to spend this entire debate deflecting from a substantive conversation about the most serious public-health crisis in generations.”

Ossoff homed in on health care and insurance coverage for long stretches of the debate, claiming Perdue’s votes against the Affordable Care Act meant he sought to gut health-care options for Georgians with pre-existing conditions.

“David Perdue does not care about our health,” Ossoff said. “He only cares about his donors.”

Perdue cried foul on that attack, arguing he supports expanding coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions despite opposing the Affordable Care Act, which he claimed increased health-care costs and limited insurance options for many Georgians.

“What [Georgians] want is protection for pre-existing conditions, get rid of surprise billing, which we can do, and also get at drug costs,” Perdue said. “He’s talking about politics. We’re talking about real potential solutions.

Perdue punched back by drawing attention to a large amount of campaign donations that have come to Ossoff from outside Georgia. Ossoff, in turn, accused Perdue of being in the pocket of insurance companies. Both dismissed the shots fired against them.

Ossoff also addressed past comments on calls from some Democratic leaders and advocacy groups to reduce funding for local police agencies, saying he does not support “defunding” police but does want local law enforcement agencies to “be held to a high standard” when applying for federal grants.

Perdue called that stance double-speak from Ossoff, who he accused of trying to “hide this radical socialist agenda that the Democrats are trying to perpetuate right now.”

Wednesday’s debate did not feature Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel, who participated in the first debate held on Oct. 12. A third debate between Perdue and Ossoff is scheduled for Sunday.

Both campaigns have kept up a steady and intense back-and-forth with polls showing a tight race that could result in a runoff in January, depending on how well Hazel fares on Nov. 3.

A candidate must gain more than 50% of the vote in the general election to win outright. If not, the top two finishers will head to a runoff.

The same scenario holds true for a second Senate race running in tandem with Ossoff and Perdue’s, in which U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is fighting to hold her seat against challenges on two fronts.

Ossoff has campaigned frequently in recent weeks with Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church who has risen as the Democratic frontrunner challenging Loeffler.

Warnock is also battling U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a preacher and four-term Republican congressman looking to edge Loeffler out of an expected January runoff.

The two races have helped elevate Georgia in the national spotlight with the election outcomes capable of potentially tipping the balance of power in the Senate. Energized by the election’s importance, Georgians have begun casting ballots in record-breaking numbers even before Election Day.

Nearly 3.4 million mail-in and early votes had been counted in Georgia as of Wednesday evening, marking a huge surge in pre-Election Day turnout that has already dwarfed early voting in the 2016 presidential election.

State election officials anticipate the final tally in the Nov. 3 election could top 5.5 million votes, shattering past turnout records in Georgia. Early voting lasts through Friday.

This story has been updated to clarify Sen. Perdue’s comments regarding Jon Ossoff and China.

Poll shows Joe Biden with narrow lead over President Trump in Georgia

ATLANTA – Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has opened up a slight lead over President Donald Trump in Georgia less than a week before Election Day, according to a new poll.

The statewide survey of 504 registered Georgia voters conducted by New Jersey’s Monmouth University Polling Institute Oct. 23-27 found Biden’s support at 50% and Trump’s at 45%. The poll’s margin of error is plus-or-minus 4.4%.

More than half (58%) of the voters surveyed said they had already cast their ballots. Among that group, Biden enjoyed a huge lead, 55% to 43%. Trump held a 48% to 44% advantage among those who had yet to vote.

“Trump is likely to win the Election Day vote. The question is by how much,” said Patrick Murray, the polling institute’s director. “The Democratic voters left on the table at this point tend to be less engaged and thus harder to turn out. So, it is still possible for Trump to make up his deficit in the early vote.”

In demographic breakdowns, Trump held a solid lead among voters ages 65 and older, 58% to 42%. That’s a bit less of an advantage than the 61% to 36% margin for Trump in a Monmouth poll released last month.

However, Biden holds a 54% to 40% lead over Trump among voters under 50 years old, up from his 47% to 42% lead with this group last month.

No Democrat running for president has carried Georgia since Bill Clinton won his first term in the White House back in 1992.

Meanwhile, Democrats running for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats also fared well in the Monmouth poll.

Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff narrowly leads Republican Sen. David Perdue, 49% to 46%, well within the poll’s margin of error. Perdue was six points up on Ossoff in two previous surveys Monmouth released last month and back in July.

In the other contest, a blanket primary with 20 candidates on the ballot to fill the unexpired term of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson, Democrat Raphael Warnock holds a big lead with 41% of the vote. Warnock has gained steadily, up from 21% last month and just 9% in July, mostly at the expense fellow Democrat Matt Lieberman, who has fallen in the Monmouth poll to just 4% from a high last summer of 14%.

Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, appointed to the seat by Gov. Brian Kemp late last year, and GOP U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville are in a close battle for second, with Loeffler holding the advantage 21% to 18%.

“Loeffler and Collins are now battling it out for a spot in the runoff,” Murray said. “It may come down to who is seen as the stronger Trump loyalist among Republican voters.”

With no one likely to win more than 50% of the vote, the margin needed to avoid a runoff, the expected second round between Warnock and either Loeffler or Collins would be held in early January, possibly determining whether Democrats take control of the Senate or Republicans keep their majority.

‘Make a plan’: Georgia facing final days of early voting for Nov. 3 election

Voters trickle in to cast ballots during the early-voting period at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Oct. 28, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgians who have not yet voted for the Nov. 3 election need to plan ahead for long lines in the final days of early voting as well as on Election Day, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Wednesday.

Anyone still planning to vote by mail also needs to hand in their absentee ballot at a county elections office or in a local drop box, rather than trust their vote to the over-stressed U.S. postal system, Raffensperger added.

With the early-voting period set to run through Friday, Georgians have already cast more than double the number of early and mail-in ballots for this 2020 presidential election than were cast in the 2016 election. So far, more than 3.2 million Georgians have voted early and by mail, Raffensperger said.

The secretary of state’s office now expects around 5.5 million Georgians to vote in the Nov. 3 election, vastly more than the 4.1 million votes tallied in 2016.

“Our election is functioning well because voters have information,” Raffensperger said at a news conference Wednesday. “They have access to the ballot box, and they have the will to exercise their voices. Your vote counts.”

Raffensperger delivered remarks from State Farm Arena in Atlanta where voters so far have cast roughly 33,500 ballots, marking the state’s largest early-voting precinct and what Raffensperger called “a showcase of democracy.”

Even with such high early turnout, state and local election officials expect Thursday and Friday to potentially draw the largest numbers of Georgia voters, likely prompting long lines that have already been seen since early voting kicked off on Oct. 12.

On Wednesday, Raffensperger urged Georgians still needing to vote to “make a plan” for the last two days of early voting or for Election Day, when he estimates 2 million more Georgia voters could cast ballots in person.

Raffensperger also urged mail-in voters to deliver their absentee ballots quickly to one of hundreds of drop boxes scattered throughout the state or at a local elections office, particularly since officials are now able to start processing those ballots to help curb possible delays in reporting results next week.

“If that was me, I’d be filling that thing out today and I’d be running it down to either an absentee-ballot drop box or taking it to your election official to make sure they got it in there,” Raffensperger said.

Come Election Day, the state and counties have recruited around 50,000 volunteers largely as poll workers, while several hundred contractors and others trained in how to troubleshoot Georgia’s new voting machines will be at precincts for technical assistance, Raffensperger said.

Gaps in poll worker know-how and minor technical glitches contributed to long lines during the June 9 primary, along with delays caused by safety and sanitization measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the state’s roughly 3,000 precincts, Raffensperger said enough tech workers have been tapped so far to serve all but between 50 to 100 precincts, while counties also have access to a new real-time dashboard for reporting problems.

“We feel like we’re in as best shape as possible,” Raffensperger said.

Georgia EMCs, telecom providers float competing rural broadband offers

ATLANTA – Electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) are offering to accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet in rural Georgia through a deep discount to telecom providers for attachments to EMC utility poles.

But one of those providers, the Georgia Cable Association, is calling the proposal a “gimmick” that would do nothing to increase the availability of broadband in unserved rural communities.

Under legislation the General Assembly passed in June, the state Public Service Commission (PSC) will decide later this year how much EMCs can charge telecom companies for pole attachments. Pole fees have long been a sticking point as the EMCs and providers work to solve the “digital divide” between Georgia’s urban/suburban centers and rural areas.

In documents filed with the PSC late last week, the EMCs proposed what they are calling the “Georgia Solution,” a plan to charge broadband providers just $1 per pole per year for pole attachments. The offer would be good for five years as long as the new attachments bring broadband service to unserved rural EMC customers.

Georgia EMCs currently are charging telecom providers $20 per pole per year on average for broadband attachments, well above the average of about $7 per pole set by the Federal Communications Commission.

A second component of the EMCs’ plan would reduce wait times for providers to get permits for pole attachments, improving efficiency and lowering costs.

“The brave and bold solution offered by the EMCs creates real savings for broadband providers, ensures broadband expansion for those who desperately need it, and ensures consumers’ investment in broadband expansion does not leave this state,” said Dennis Chastain, president and CEO of Georgia EMC, the trade association for local EMCs representing about 4.4 million Georgians. “It’s one solution to connect all of Georgia.”

But officials with the cable association say the EMCs’ offer isn’t enough of an incentive to spur telecom providers to invest what would be required for a significant broadband expansion because it’s only good for five years. After that, EMCs could return to charging fees the providers argue are too high.

“It has no real long-term benefit,” the association said in a statement.

The cable association also points out the $1-per-pole offer only applies to new pole attachments in unserved areas. To generate enough savings to make the numbers work for providers, the EMCs would have to offer a “just and reasonable” rate for pole attachments statewide, the association argues.

In testimony filed with the PSC this week, the cable association cited an offer by Comcast to spend $27 million over three years expanding broadband into unserved rural areas if the PSC sets a “cost-based” pole attachment fee. That investment would represent almost three times the $10 million in savings Comcast would expect to achieve from lower pole fees.

Charter Communications has put another $10 million investment on the table, about twice what it would save from lower pole attachment costs.

“That’s doing exactly what we said we were going to do – put the savings into unserved areas,” the cable association said.

The two sides will have a chance to expand upon their written arguments next month when the PSC holds hearings on the pole attachment fees issue.

The commission is due to decide in mid-December the rates Georgia EMCs will be allowed to charge providers under all pole attachment agreements entered into on or after next July 1.

Biden speaks in Warm Springs, Atlanta one week before Nov. 3 election

Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop in Warm Springs, Ga., on Oct. 27, 2020. (Biden campaign video)

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden rallied in Warm Springs, Ga., and Atlanta Tuesday to deliver a speech focused on unity and healing with one week left before the general election on Nov. 3.

Biden’s appearance at the retreat of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt highlighted Georgia’s growing importance as a potential swing state after years of firm Republican control and high hopes among local Democratic leaders for flipping state legislative, congressional and U.S. Senate seats.

In a roughly 20-minute speech, the former vice president invoked Warm Springs as a place of healing for the polio-stricken Roosevelt, likening it to the symbolic healing Biden said his campaign offers in contrast to the often chaotic administration of President Donald Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This place, Warm Springs, is a reminder that though broken, each of us can be healed,” Biden said. “That as a people and a country, we can overcome this devastating virus, that we can heal a suffering world and, yes, we can restore our soul and save our country.”

Recent polls have shown Biden and Trump neck-and-neck in the fight for Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, which have not gone to a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992.

Biden has sought to emphasize Trump’s response to coronavirus as evidence of the president’s being unfit for office and out of step with average Americans. Trump has largely stuck with questioning Biden’s physical health and likening his policies to socialism.

Georgia Democrats are banking on changing demographics and voting patterns, particularly in the Atlanta suburbs, to help flip the presidency, a congressional seat and control of the state House of Representatives in their favor.

Trump’s campaign and state Republican leaders are not sweating Biden’s late-race appearance in Georgia despite Trump’s narrow margin of victory in the 2016 election and strengthening support for Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, who are competing for the state’s two U.S. Senate seats.

The president’s campaign was quick to note its field organizers have fanned out across the state and reached millions of people via mailers and phone calls.

“After ignoring Georgia for months, a last-minute visit from Biden won’t make a dent in the advantage we’ve built thanks to our field army and frequent visits from President Trump and his family,” said Savannah Viar, a Trump campaign spokeswoman.

The president as well as his son, Donald Trump Jr., and daughter, Ivanka Trump, have made several stops in Georgia in recent months. Tuesday’s speech in Warm Springs was Biden’s first visit to Georgia since winning his party’s nomination.

Speaking at a second rally Tuesday evening in Atlanta, Biden framed Georgia as a battleground state this election especially due to its two U.S. Senate seats being up for grabs, saying, “I can’t tell you how important it is that we flip the United States Senate.”

“There’s no state more consequential than Georgia in that fight,” Biden said.

Biden was joined at a get-out-the-vote rally in Atlanta Tuesday evening by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, local elected officials and the musician Common. His visit came on the heels of a campaign stop last week by his running mate, Kamala Harris.

While Biden spoke in Warm Springs, Ossoff and Warnock joined forces as they have done frequently in recent months to hold a rally in Jonesboro.

Trump supporters including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also rallied in Manchester, Ga., just outside Warm Springs. Warnock’s opponents, U.S. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, were scheduled Tuesday and throughout this week for campaign events elsewhere in the state.

The three-week early voting period, which has already drawn more than 3 million votes in Georgia along with absentee ballots, is set to last through Friday.