For the last two decades, Georgia Republicans have cornered the market in U.S. Senate races.
In five of the six Peach State Senate elections since the turn of the century, the GOP candidate has won comfortably with margins of victory ranging from nearly 53% of the vote to more than 58%. The other contest also went to the Republicans, although it took a runoff to decide the winner.
But 2020 is different. With about three weeks remaining until Election Day, polls show incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff within the margin of error.
A sure sign the outcome is in doubt is how much the candidates and the national super PACs backing them are spending to bomb the airwaves, to the dismay of political ad-weary TV viewers. Total TV/radio ad spending in the race, including future bookings, is now more than $83.4 million, political advertising broker Medium Buying reported last month.
“Money is being poured into Georgia because it could go either way,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
What’s turned a close race in Georgia into a critical contest nationally is that Democrats need to gain only three or four seats to control the Senate, depending on which party wins the vice presidency. The vice president presides over the Senate and can break tie votes.
“Both parties are really interested in what happens here,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University.
Like President Donald Trump, Perdue, 70, came to Washington after a career in business. Perdue was elected to the Senate in 2014 after 40 years in the corporate world, including stints as CEO of Reebok and Dollar General.
He has spent his first term in the Senate as one of Trump’s closest allies, supporting the president’s tax cut legislation in 2017, Trump’s get-tough trade policy with China, and, more recently, the president’s much-criticized handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
“Early on, he shut down travel from infected areas and quarantined people coming back into the country,” Perdue said. “He started a task force to work on PPE (personal protective equipment) and testing.”
After the pandemic shut down the nation’s economy, Perdue supported a congressional package of $2.9 trillion in relief to unemployed Americans and struggling businesses including the $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program.
“That was a tough vote for me. I’m a fiscal hawk,” he said. “[But] we saved 1½ million jobs in Georgia.”
Ossoff, 33, is making his first run at statewide office after losing a special election for a congressional seat in Atlanta’s northern suburb three years ago. His views on Trump’s handling of COVID-19 strike a sharp contrast with those of his opponent.
“The Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been a total failure,” Ossoff said. “They lied about the scope of it to the public, sidelined public health experts and allowed the virus to spread.”
While Ossoff and Perdue agree that Congress needs to pass another economic stimulus package, Ossoff faulted Perdue and his Senate Republican colleagues for not taking up a $3 trillion relief bill U.S. House Democrats passed in May.
“The Senate went on a monthlong vacation, during which emergency loans expired,” Ossoff said.
Perdue said the Democrats’ plan is too expensive. He favors a $660 billion Republican alternative.
“This targeted approach is to get companies open again, people back to school and beat the virus,” he said.
Another issue dividing Perdue and Ossoff – and Republicans and Democrats in general – is how to respond to the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of white police officers, incidents in Georgia and elsewhere that have prompted massive street protests.
“We urgently need criminal justice reform and reform of policing,” Ossoff said. “We need to pass a new Civil Rights Act to establish and secure equal justice under the law for every America.”
Republicans have jumped on the “defund the police” slogan some elements of the Black Lives Matter movement have espoused, arguing Democrats don’t support law enforcement.
Perdue, however, has shown support for some of the more moderate goals of policing reform, including community policing.
“Our police forces need to reflect the communities they serve,” he said.
At the same time, Perdue said Americans are worried when they see peaceful protests turn into violence and looting.
“People are concerned that we support our police and that they serve the community in a fair and even way,” he said. “We have to make sure we maintain law and order.”
Ossoff is an investigative journalist by trade whose business delves into political corruption, organized crime and abuse of power. That plays into his campaign’s emphasis on the need to clean up corruption in Washington, starting with Perdue.
Ossoff is accusing Perdue of misleading voters with an ad in which the Republican endorses health insurance coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions while voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the protection for pre-existing conditions it provides. The nonprofit PolitiFact, which fact checks political advertising, rated the Perdue ad “false.”
“Senator David Perdue voted to allow health insurance companies to deny coverage to Georgians with cancer, diabetes, high-blood pressure and other pre-existing conditions, then ran ads lying about his voting record and was caught doing it,” Ossoff said.
Perdue said there’s a difference between opposing the Affordable Care Act and covering people with pre-existing conditions.
“I did vote against the Affordable Care Act a number of times,” he said. “But I also voted to protect pre-existing conditions a number of times. … This is a total misrepresentation by the Democratic side.”
Going on offense, Perdue is accusing Ossoff of conducting a campaign right out of the national Democratic playbook.
“He is supporting the Democrats’ radical agenda of defunding the police, abolishing ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and a government takeover of health care,” Perdue said. “We’re trying to reopen our economy and get schools reopened.”
Swint said the outcome of the Perdue-Ossoff contest will go a long way toward deciding whether Georgia Democrats continue building on the momentum of the 2018 elections. Two years ago, Democrat Lucy McBath won a suburban Atlanta congressional seat the GOP had held for decades, while former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams lost the gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp by a narrow margin.
On the other hand, a Perdue reelection victory could key a Republican rebound in Georgia from 2018, Swint said.
Georgia also will play a large role in which party controls the Senate next year. Besides the Perdue-Ossoff race, a second Georgia Senate seat will be up for grabs Nov. 3, with 21 candidates on the ballot in what is essentially a special election to replace retired GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson.
Like the closely contested presidential contest, it might take weeks to decide the two Georgia Senate elections. It’s practically a given that the special election will forced into an early January runoff between the top two vote-getters, given the number of candidates.
Bullock said if Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel can siphon off at least 3% of the vote in the Perdue-Ossoff race, it could deny an outright majority to Perdue or Ossoff on Election Day. That would require a second Senate runoff.
“We may not know which party controls the Senate until January,” Bullock said.
On the issues
In their own words, here is how David Perdue and Jon Ossoff stand on some key issues:
On President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic:
PERDUE: “Early on, he shut down travel from infected areas and quarantined people coming back into the country. He started a task force to work on PPE and testing.”
OSSOFF: “The Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been a total failure. They lied about the scope of it to the public, sidelined public health experts and allowed the virus to spread.”
On the congressional response to the pandemic’s economic impact:
PERDUE: “We did what we had to do to try and maintain the relationship between the employer and employee.”
OSSOFF: “Too little, too slow”
On the need for policing reform following the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of white police officers:
PERDUE: “We have to make sure we maintain law and order.”
OSSOFF: “We need to end racial profiling and police brutality.”
On health insurance:
PERDUE: “Every consumer of health insurance should be afforded the same benefits.”
OSSOFF: “We should strengthen and build upon the Affordable Care Act. Folks should be able to buy into a public option if they want to.”
PERDUE: “We have to secure our borders and at the same time have a balanced immigration system that allows us to import the right workers to grow our economy.”
OSSOFF: “ We need to secure our borders, put American workers first and live up to our values as Americans committed to human rights. … We need border security, not cruelty.”