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Both Georgia Senate seats are on the ballot this fall, but the regularly scheduled race where Republican Sen. David Perdue is seeking a second term has been overshadowed by the special election in the state, with appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler's rocky political start putting herself and the seat in danger.
The conventional wisdom has been that it's the Loeffler seat that is more vulnerable, and thus more appealing to Democrats as a possible pick-up to attain (or even add to) a Senate majority. Given the weaknesses that Loeffler has shown as a candidate and questions about her and her husband's stock transactions, she is facing pressure from both her right (from Rep. Doug Collins) and from several on the left (the DSCC has backed Rev. Raphael Warnock). The added uncertainty of a jungle primary on Election Day that isn't likely to be decided until the runoff on January 5, 2021 is why we have this race in the Lean Republican column.
There is increasing evidence, including a GOP survey out this week from a respected pollster, that shows growing trouble for Perdue as well — a byproduct of the Peach State becoming more competitive in the presidential race. Georgia is a state to watch at nearly every level in 2020.
A May 4-7 poll from Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies (conducted for a group supporting Gov. Brian Kemp, who appointed Loeffler to her post) found that Perdue was leading Democrat Jon Ossoff by only two points, 43%-41%, with Libertarian Shane Hazel getting 7% and 8% undecided. The same GOP poll also found a statistical tie in the presidential race, with Trump at 46% and Biden at 47%.
Those tightening numbers are in line with another survey from Republican firm Cygnal, conducted April 25-27 for the Georgia House GOP caucus, which gave Perdue a six-point lead over Ossoff, 45%-39%. Both Democrats and Republicans privately believe this is a single-digit race, though Perdue still maintains the advantage.
The changing political landscape of Georgia is a reality Perdue himself has been vocal about. "Here's the reality: The state of Georgia is in play," Perdue told a "Women for Trump" event late last month, according to audio obtained by CNN. "The Democrats have made it that way."
Republicans are clearly cognizant of the gains that Stacey Abrams made in her 2018 campaign for governor, coming within 1.4 percentage points of beating Kemp. The former state House minority leader (and vocal VP hopeful) has kept a robust political operation in the state, and that's one thing many Republicans in the state fear will be used to motivate Democratic and independent voters who've soured on Trump and the GOP again, along with turning out and registering African-American voters. Abrams passed on running for the seat, despite several entreaties.
Perdue was first elected in the red wave year of 2014, when Republicans last flipped the Senate. A former CEO and management consultant for companies like Reebok, Sara Lee and Dollar General, he put millions of his own money into winning a crowded GOP primary of several Georgia lawmakers who had long been waiting for an open Senate seat. But it was Perdue who emerged the victor and went on to beat Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, 53%-45%. He's maintained a conservative record in Washington and has become a close ally and friend of President Trump's who often has his ear — something that can help turn out rural voters in the state for him. Democrats also plan to use his relationship with Trump to energize suburban voters, especially white women.
A poll last spring put Perdue's favorability at 47%, but it showed predictable struggles in the fast-growing and diversifying Atlanta metro area. Morning Consult's quarterly senatorial ratings at the end of 2019 gave him a similar 49% approval, with just 26% disapproval — but a quarter undecided and not knowing enough to offer an opinion. That's the metric Democrats hope they can persuade, and they argue that Perdue hasn't done enough in his six years to become well-enough known in the state.
All of these head-to-head general election polls only tested Ossoff, who is seen as the frontrunner ahead of the June 9 primary (already delayed due to the COVID19 pandemic). There will be six other Democrats also on the primary ballot, but the other two leading candidates are former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and 2018 lieutenant governor nominee Sarah Riggs Amico.
Ossoff gained a national profile when he ran in a 2017 special election for Georgia's 6th congressional district, which set the record for the most expensive House race of all time with nearly $49 million spent, with Ossoff himself spending and raising about $30 million of that. Nonetheless, the former journalist and media production company owner fell short to former Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel; Handel was then defeated in November 2018 by Democrat Lucy McBath. Handel is back for a rematch in 2020.
That special election, which received outsized attention as one of the first in the Trump era, elevated Ossoff's name ID in the state, and especially in the Atlanta metro area due to the northern suburban district he ran in. But, it also drove up his negatives and gave Republicans what they believe is plenty of fodder to use against him. Ossoff amassed a grassroots following and subsequently large donor database and list, but it's unclear how much that was behind him or as a vehicle to send a message to Trump only a few months into his term. At times Ossoff also came off as robotic on the trail (as the Washington Post's Dave Weigel and Travis Highfield put it, he was "preternaturally on-message." Many Republicans relish and are practically salivating, at the chance to take on, and hopefully take down, Ossoff again.
Still, Ossoff appears to be the favorite to win the nomination, with the biggest question being whether or not he can net 50 percent to avoid an August 11 runoff. There's been scant polling, but a March 4-14 survey by the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs found Ossoff at 29%, Tomlinson at 15% and Amico at 14%, with a 37% plurality of voters still undecided.
Ossoff has the biggest war chest and has raised the most money, and Tomlinson and Amico have struggled to gain traction or raise the kind of sums necessary to compete statewide. It's Tomlinson who probably provides the bigger challenge, and if another candidate does make a runoff, it's likely her.
In the first quarter of this year, Ossoff raised $1.04 million, just behind Perdue's $1.65 million. Tomlinson and Amico were far behind with about $617,000 and $163,000, respectively. Ossoff hasn't been able to raise the massive sums he did during his House race, when he was truly the only game in town, and that is likely due to this not yet being one of the most competitive Senate races. So while Ossoff had about $1.83 million in the bank at the end of March, Perdue has banked over $9 million.
Ossoff's financial advantage allowed him to go up first on TV the week of April 21, with an ad highlighting frontline workers during the pandemic, including his wife Alisha, who's a doctor. Other subsequent ads featured a rousing endorsement from civil rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a prized get that could help him with black voters. Tomlinson, soon after, highlighted her support from other African-American leaders, including Martin Luther King III, Ambassador Andrew Young, and baseball great Hank Aaron. Overall, Ossoff has reserved over $1 million in ads through the primary, while Tomlinson has booked just over $508,000, so far. Amico's anemic bank account has left her only able to spend on digital ads.
So while there's a lot unsettled on the Democratic side still — and Ossoff has plenty of flaws for Republicans to exploit — we can't ignore the changes in Georgia and tightening dynamics that even Republicans admit are happening. Some of those may be heightened because of the pandemic — and Kemp has gotten pushback and low ratings for his handling of the crisis in the state, and all that is not helping Republicans either. And even some of Loeffler's stock issues could trickle down to hurt Perdue, whose own stock trades have come under scrutiny. He recently joined Loeffler in saying he would no longer trade individual stocks. GOP fortunes may rebound in the state certainly, but this is where things stand now, and if there are rising winds for Democrats across the board, even candidates who may not have been a party's first pick can still get swept in. And given the presence of a Libertarian candidate, if Perdue doesn't crack 50 percent, he'd be forced into a runoff too -- which would coincide with the special election, and both could take on an outsized impact, depending on where the larger battle for Senate control stands after Election Day.
My colleague Amy Walter also dives into Peach State presidential politics this week, explaining why, while it's becoming more competitive, it's not yet in the Toss Up category: "Winning Georgia is like trying to lose those last 5-10 pounds. On paper, it doesn't seem all that hard. But, once you spend two weeks desperately looking down at a scale that doesn't budge, you realize it's going to take a ton of effort to lose each and every pound."
The same may be said for this Senate race — Perdue still holds the advantage, but it is now a more competitive picture, and Georgia as a whole is a better opportunity than the other contests we have in Likely Republican, including Kentucky, Texas and South Carolina. So we are moving this contest from Likely to Lean Republican, meaning both of the Peach State's Senate seats are very much in play this year, though Republicans still retain the advantage.