A defining moment in American history. The most important election of a lifetime. A must-win.
These are some of the ways next month’s U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia have been described on the campaign trail by competitors from both political parties over the past nearly seven weeks.
This time, the stump-speech slogans are not hyperbole.
On Jan. 5, 2021, incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler will face Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock in contests to decide control of America’s federal government, following President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the Nov. 3 general election.
Victories by both Ossoff and Warnock would hand Democrats control of both chambers in Congress and the White House for at least the next two years, a scenario that has flooded Georgia with ad dollars and famous figures as Democrats push to seize power and Republicans look to stop them.
More than 1 million Georgians have already cast ballots in the early-voting period that started Dec. 14, nearing similar numbers seen in the general election’s record-breaking turnout. And the tight races’ fates may hinge on the tens of thousands of new voters who have registered in Georgia since Nov. 3.
The dueling campaigns have been high-octane and fierce, as the Republican incumbents paint their opponents as radical extremists bent on socialist policies, and the Democratic challengers accuse the wealthy senators of caring more for their pocketbooks than the American public’s welfare.
Ossoff, who owns an investigative journalism company, and Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, have lobbed constant attacks at the Republican senators over stock swaps they made early this year that seemed geared to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic, sparking allegations of insider trading.
Democratic leaders have also hammered Perdue and Loeffler over news reports highlighting close ties with companies they regulate as members of several finance-focused Senate committees, most recently by lodging an ethics complaint over trades made by Loeffler’s husband, Intercontinental Exchange CEO Jeffrey Sprecher.
“[We’re] running against the Bonnie and Clyde of politics,” Ossoff said at a recent rally in Atlanta. “We have two United States senators more concerned with using their offices to enrich themselves than taking care of ‘we the people’ who pay their salaries.”
Perdue, a former corporate executive from Sea Island, and Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman before being appointed to the Senate late last year, have called the attacks on their records “lies” and say federal investigators have cleared them of any wrongdoing.
To punch back, Perdue and Loeffler have accused their opponents of being friendly with communist governments and wanting to strip funding from police agencies.
In particular, Loeffler has bashed Warnock for a past sermon in which he said bad-apple police officers have “a thug mentality,” seeking to link him with the “defund-the-police” movement. Perdue has sought to tie Ossoff to Chinese communists over a Hong Kong media company’s past purchase of two of his investigative documentaries.
“The moment of truth is right now,” Perdue said in Atlanta during a seven-city flyover tour. “We’re going to stand up to this onslaught that will perpetrate a socialist state here in Georgia.”
Ossoff and Warnock have rejected those criticisms as distractions, particularly the claim that they favor defunding police. Both have said they support law enforcement reforms like use-of-force restrictions but would not vote for reducing police funding if elected.
“We cannot allow anybody to divide us, to play the politics of distortion and distraction and division,” Warnock said after voting early in Atlanta. “Because one thing I’ve learned is people who have no vision, traffic in division.”
Pumping more emergency relief into businesses and households struggling to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic has also played a central role in the Senate runoffs, as each side accuses the other’s party of blocking legislation in a divided Congress.
Focusing their campaigns on health-care issues, Ossoff and Warnock have taken up the unpassed relief package as a rallying cry for Democratic voters to give Georgia’s current senators the boot for backing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has led months of failed negotiations in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“We can’t afford paralysis in the midst of a crisis like this,” Ossoff said at a recent rally in Atlanta. “We can’t leave the future of our country in the hands of Mitch McConnell.”
Republican leaders have blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for holding up the relief deal after lawmakers passed a $2.2 trillion emergency package in late March. McConnell has pushed in recent weeks to bridge the gap with Pelosi and pass a nearly $1 trillion relief deal that would leave Georgia’s Republican senators less exposed to attacks for the runoffs, according to news reports.
Shortly after voting early in Atlanta, Loeffler said lawmakers were “at the doorstep of the deal” and she was prepared to fly up to Washington to vote on a bill.
“Georgians are counting on us to deliver relief and we’re going to make sure we get that done,” Loeffler said. “What’s at stake here is serving Georgians and making sure they have what they need and stop playing politics.”
With battle lines firmly drawn in the race, the fallout from President Donald Trump’s loss in the Nov. 3 election has thrown a wrench into Republicans’ strategies for energizing enough voters to outmatch last month’s huge Democratic turnout that handed Biden a win in Georgia by 11,779 votes.
While Republican leaders including McConnell have acknowledged Biden’s victory, Perdue and Loeffler still have refused to admit Trump lost as the president continues lobbing fraud claims that state election officials have disputed and courts have shot down.
“There’ll be a time for that if that becomes true,” Loeffler said when asked if Biden won. “But the president has a right to every legal recourse and we’re letting that play out right now.”
Perdue’s and Loeffler’s refusal to acknowledge Biden’s win comes as the president has driven a wedge into Georgia Republicans by attacking many of the state’s top party leaders including Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
The assault on Georgia’s elections has raised fears among Republican leaders that many voters loyal to Trump may skip the runoffs out of disillusionment in the state’s election system and scuttle the party’s chances to keep grip on the Senate.
“I cannot think of a single scenario where continuing to fan the flames of disinformation around election fraud helps us on our January 5th runoff,” Duncan, who was among the first GOP leaders in Georgia to call the election for Biden, said recently on CNN.
Democrats have seized on the rift as fuel to keep scorching Perdue and Loeffler as out of touch with average Georgians, particularly after the Republican senators backed a Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn Georgia’s election results that the U.S. Supreme Court tossed Dec. 11.
Biden, who recently visited Atlanta to rally for Ossoff and Warnock, likened the move to a betrayal of Georgians and urged his supporters to replace the incumbent senators with two newcomers who would back his administration’s agenda.
“I think Georgia’s going to shock the nation with the number of people who vote on January 5th,” Biden said. “Am I right, Georgia? Am I right?”