georgia senate runoffs

Do Democrats Have Reason to Be Optimistic in Georgia?

David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on the stump. Photo: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

All eyes are on Georgia. After Joe Biden eked out a win in the once deep-red state (which many Republicans there refuse to believe), Democrats are hoping to replicate his success in two Senate races on January 5 that will shape the balance of power in the upper chamber, and likely the contours of Biden’s presidency. I spoke with national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about how the races are shaping up.

Ben: You’ve spent a lot of time recently reporting on the ground in Georgia. Many observers believe that the two Republican incumbents, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, were favored in these crucial races, in part because Democratic turnout in the state tends to drop for non-presidential elections. But the whole situation is not really analogous to any special election before, given the extremely high stakes, nonstop media attention and ads, and the wild card that is President Trump — who is  simultaneously telling Republicans to vote and not to trust the electoral system at all. How are the Democratic candidates  — Jon Ossoff, who is facing Perdue, and Raphael Warnock, who is facing Loeffler — feeling about their standing?

Gabriel: It’s so hard to tell much about the actual state of play in this race, even on the ground. The conventional wisdom has indeed been that while the races are likely to be extremely close, it would be unwise to bet against Perdue or Loeffler, largely because Republicans have traditionally done better in Georgia’s runoffs. Now, though, a few weeks into this, who knows? These races are likely all about turning out each side’s base (surprise, surprise) — there are really no swing voters. But the Democrats have some reason for cautious optimism: mainly the complete mess that is the GOP’s messaging conundrum. Trump still says the race was rigged and that he won it (nationally, and in Georgia), which deprives Perdue and Loeffler of the ability to either say “Vote for us, we’re the final bulwark against Joe Biden’s socialism” or “Vote for us, you can trust the system.” On the other hand, of course, there’s the reality that their main motivator, Donald Trump, is no longer on the ballot.

Ben: Our colleague Ed Kilgore offered his take on this question this week, but I’ve been curious: Is it actually realistic to think that Trump’s attacks on the system, and on the state’s governor and secretary of State (for having the temerity to admit that Joe Biden won there), will actually have an effect on Republican turnout? To me, it seems like Democratic wishful thinking. I would think that most Republicans don’t want to see a Democratic Senate enough that they’d turn up anyway.

Gabriel: Yes, possibly! Again, it’s really hard to gauge right now, especially since it’s unclear whether the polling is trustworthy. That said, multiple Republican events have been interrupted in recent weeks by voters asking some variation of, “Well, why aren’t you standing up for Trump?” It’s clearly only a small group of people who feel this way, but in races that are likely to be this close, dissatisfaction on the margins could prove more important than it usually does. That, at least, is the theory. It’s a theory that relies on the notion that a lot of the people Perdue and Loeffler consider their “base” are Trump fans first, and partisan Republicans second.

Ben: Right. All those new voters he coaxed out of the woodwork. But it may go the other way, too: New Democratic voters who loathe Trump aren’t as likely to come out for a weirdly timed special election.

Gabriel: Right, that has undoubtedly been a big part of Democrats’ recent success there. The other part, though, is often white suburban voters, for example, outside of Atlanta, who have soured on Republicans. Perdue has tried to present himself as the kind of Republican they would or could vote for in the past, and Loeffler sort of has that profile. But they have both gone to great lengths to associate themselves with Trump and his party.

Ben: The Times had a big report on David Perdue’s voluminous and often well-timed stock trading, which has drawn attention in the past. (There has been no evidence that he did anything illegal.) Do you think this issue will have much significance in a close race?

Gabriel: Well, Ossoff has been talking about it constantly, and it’s in a lot of his ads. It’s important to note that the Democratic argument isn’t just that Perdue has been trading with, uh, remarkably good timing; it’s that he’s profited to the tune of millions while the country has been suffering from the virus and its fallout, and without sufficient relief coming from Washington. It’s very difficult to tell how salient the matter is to voters, though, because allllll the ads and allllll the coverage often feel like they’re drowning every issue out. That said, we have to remember how tight the margins are likely to be here. Every attack could matter, on both sides. I will say, though, that even as this steady drip-drip has continued, the conventional wisdom is still that Perdue is a slightly stronger candidate than Loeffler. But he is appearing in public less, even skipping an upcoming debate against Ossoff and leaving an empty podium onstage.

Ben: Why is he thought to be stronger?

Gabriel: In part just because he’s better known: He’s been elected in the state, and he has served it for a while. Loeffler was appointed late last year and only made it to the runoff after a very, very contentious race against a fellow hard-core conservative, Doug Collins. A number of right-wing pundits, activists, etc., are also skeptical of Loeffler’s attempts to be extra-Trumpy, especially given her history as, for example, a big Mitt Romney donor. (This is something Collins went after her for.)

Ben: What about all the attacks on Raphael Warnock, the pastor who is running against Loeffler? She has made a serious effort to paint him (often misleadingly) as a Jeremiah Wright–loving radical, which seems like a playbook that might work in Georgia. Is this thought to be a major vulnerability for him?

Gabriel: All the ads running against Warnock try to paint him as a radical, and the thinking there is that it will activate conservative voters and largely rural white ones. It’s totally unsurprising. But Warnock is also pretty well known — he is the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. And a lot of the attacks are derived from footage of him at the pulpit, which is obviously politically risky at best. Also, Jeremiah Wright? What is this, 2007?

Ben: Is there any factor beyond Trump that you think could change the race much down the stretch?

Gabriel: I’d be curious to see what happens if some sort of COVID relief bill does miraculously get passed: So much of the Democratic argument is that the senators aren’t helping Georgians in need. Mitch McConnell surely sees that.

Do Democrats Have Reason to Be Optimistic in Georgia?