Georgia’s Democratic U.S. Senate hopefuls make virus response top issue

Democrats Jon Ossoff, Teresa Tomlinson, center, and Sarah Riggs Amico are competing in the June 9 primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican David Perdue.
Democrats Jon Ossoff, Teresa Tomlinson, center, and Sarah Riggs Amico are competing in the June 9 primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican David Perdue.

The Democratic race to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue has transformed into a measure of how Republicans are handling the coronavirus crisis, with each of the top three contenders trying to outdo each other to sharply criticize the government’s response.

The Democrats have fast become comfortable wrapping Gov. Brian Kemp, President Donald Trump and Perdue together as they batter the Republican-led response to a pandemic that's killed more than 1,000 Georgians and upended the state's economy.

Five weeks before the June 9 contest, Sarah Riggs Amico, Jon Ossoff and Teresa Tomlinson are increasing their criticism as Georgians wrestle over Kemp’s decision to lift the severe restrictions that shuttered businesses and kept residents at home.

They've accused Perdue and his Republican allies of mixed messaging amid the crisis, urged the first-term senator to reject Kemp's decision to reopen businesses such as barbershops and bowling alleys, and cast the federal response as reckless and incompetent.

And each has used the pandemic as a springboard to address broader campaign arguments that echo the state party’s leftward lean, such as calls to expand health insurance, combat climate change and reduce income inequality.

"It's laying bare the deep systemic corruption and the inequitable power structure that's concentrated so much of the wealth at the very top and so much of the suffering of working-class people," said Ossoff, an investigative journalist and former 6th Congressional District candidate. "We have to break the link between health and wealth."

The three are racing for attention from millions of voters grappling with a pandemic that’s reshaped every sector of American life. And their race is overshadowed by Georgia’s other U.S. Senate contest, which pits newly appointed Republican Kelly Loeffler against 20 challengers in a November special election.

Their opening TV ads telegraph their strategy. Ossoff took to the airwaves first with an ad that focused on his physician wife's role fighting the disease before pivoting to an attack against insurance companies that "have bought off Congress."

ELECTION QUALIFYING || March 4, 2020, Atlanta: Jon Ossoff speaks media and supporters after he qualified to run in the Senate race against Sen. David Perdue. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)
ELECTION QUALIFYING || March 4, 2020, Atlanta: Jon Ossoff speaks media and supporters after he qualified to run in the Senate race against Sen. David Perdue. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

This week, Tomlinson unveiled her first ad, castigating Perdue as a do-nothing Republican during a generation-defining pandemic. The 30-second spot includes this line: "While we fight an invisible enemy, David Perdue is an invisible senator."

Perdue is a formidable opponent. The former Fortune 500 chief executive has amassed more than $9 million in his campaign account.

A close Trump ally, Perdue is so popular with Georgia Republicans that he didn’t draw even a token primary challenger, and political forecasters give him an early edge in the race, though even he has warned that Georgia is “in play” in November. His allies portray him as a bulwark of stability at an unpredictable moment.

“As our senior U.S. senator, David Perdue is doing a tremendous job leading our country through these turbulent times, and we need his steady hand to keep our families safe and to get Georgians back to work,” said Stewart Bragg, the executive director of the Georgia GOP.

A mail-in surge

Indeed, the Democrats are running in a particularly volatile environment.

There’s no clear consensus pick among party leaders, though Ossoff and Tomlinson have divvied up the largest share of endorsements. And prominent outside groups, such as the political arm of Senate Democrats, have not taken sides in the race.

There’s no telling, either, what the electorate might look like in a race that’s already been postponed three weeks because of the pandemic.

Georgia election officials sent absentee ballot request forms to the state's 6.9 million active voters to encourage mail-in voting. An analysis by data guru Ryan Anderson showed about 1 million have applied to vote by mail, 43% of whom are Democrats. At this point in the 2016 race, that number was less than 30,000.

Ossoff has led scarce public polling of the contest, thanks to the high name recognition he gained in metro Atlanta in 2017 as a candidate in the $60 million special election for the 6th District. He was narrowly defeated by Republican Karen Handel in a runoff for the suburban U.S. House seat, which was in GOP hands for a generation.

200302-ATLANTA-Teresa Tomlinson, former mayor of Columbus, speaks to the media before qualifying to run for the U.S. Senate Monday morning March 2, 2020 at the Georgia State Capitol. BenGray.com / Special
200302-ATLANTA-Teresa Tomlinson, former mayor of Columbus, speaks to the media before qualifying to run for the U.S. Senate Monday morning March 2, 2020 at the Georgia State Capitol. BenGray.com / Special

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Amico, too, enjoys a high profile after crisscrossing the state with Stacey Abrams in 2018 when she was the party's nominee for lieutenant governor. Amico entered this contest shortly after her car-hauling company filed for bankruptcy, an agonizing step that she said clinched her decision to run for the Senate.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released in March provided a snapshot of the race, pegging Ossoff with about one-third of the vote, and Amico and Tomlinson trailing with each getting about 15%. A plurality of likely Democratic voters — roughly 40% — were undecided.

Ossoff's fundraising prowess — he collected $32 million in his 2017 contest — has served him well in this race. He has raised more than $3.4 million — the most in the Democratic field — and has about half that on hand. Amico and Tomlinson each reported about a half-million dollars in their accounts in early April.

As the primary nears, Tomlinson has pushed to more aggressively promote her background as the former two-term mayor of Columbus to contrast her record with Ossoff, who has emphasized his work running an investigative journalism outfit that exposed corruption overseas.

At a recent meet-and-greet with Atlanta Democrats held online, Tomlinson said there's "no runway, there's no learning curve" as she questioned the 33-year-old Ossoff's level of experience. She repeated that criticism Tuesday at a virtual debate, casting him as a "documentary filmmaker and an unsuccessful congressional candidate."

Rather than swinging back, Ossoff applauded her record in private legal practice and pivoted to an attack on Perdue, who he accused of perpetuating a “corrupt” status quo.

“I expose corruption for a living,” he said, “and David Perdue sells access for campaign cash.”

Amico, too, has faced increasing fire from Tomlinson. At the same debate, she pointedly asked whether President Barack Obama knew she had donated to Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign when he endorsed her previous bid in 2018.

Sticking to a similar strategy as Ossoff, Amico responded that she was proud to win the president’s support and that she’s long acknowledged she’s not “a lifelong partisan Democrat” even as she adheres to the party’s values.

‘Politicizing the crisis?’

Each of the Democrats is also pressing to link Perdue with Loeffler, who is trying to tamp down an uproar over her stock transactions during the pandemic. At another recent virtual forum, the trio repeatedly mentioned Perdue and Loeffler in the same breath as they accused both of profiting from the disease.

Sarah Riggs Amico, last year’s Democratic nominee to be Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor, spoke during a rally for gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018. A North American truck hauling company where Amico serves as executive chairperson has filed for bankruptcy court protection. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Sarah Riggs Amico, last year’s Democratic nominee to be Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor, spoke during a rally for gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018. A North American truck hauling company where Amico serves as executive chairperson has filed for bankruptcy court protection. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Loeffler has attracted most of the national attention for trades dating from Jan. 24, the day she and other senators attended a private briefing on the illness. She said financial advisers made those decisions without her input, and she announced she'll no longer invest in individual stocks.

Perdue's opponents have highlighted a spate of trading from the month of March and purchases of stock from DuPont and other firms that are involved in the coronavirus response. Echoing her rivals, Amico accused Perdue of "blatantly profiting off of a pandemic."

Aggressively seeking to counter, Perdue spokeswoman Casey Black said the Republican has complied with federal law and Senate ethics requirements, and that an outside adviser managed his personal finances. Perdue, she added, is not involved in day-to-day decisions.

Heath Garrett, a veteran Republican strategist, said Democrats are playing to their base by excoriating Republicans over the response. But he contended that independent voters — an all-important bloc for the November race — “don’t like politicizing the crisis or playing the blame game — at least not yet.”

“The Democrats are going to try to make the Senate race a referendum on President Trump and his response as their current line of attack,” Garrett said. “Independent voters who will determine the election will assess the response when we get to the fall.”

Voters will have other candidates to weigh on the ballot, too, including Maya Dillard Smith, a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia who unleashed some of the most cutting questions during Tuesday’s debate.

Dillard Smith also pointedly noted she's the only black woman on the ticket in a race that will hinge on African American turnout. Her rivals need no reminding of that fact, particularly with record-setting Democratic turnout from Abrams' narrow defeat in 2018 fresh in their memory.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, flanked by supporters, speaks to the media after qualifying to run for a second term on March 2. BenGray.com/Special
U.S. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, flanked by supporters, speaks to the media after qualifying to run for a second term on March 2. BenGray.com/Special

Amico has aggressively sought support from black faith leaders and union groups, while Ossoff has the vocal backing of two of his mentors: U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson and John Lewis.

And Tomlinson has steadily assembled a lengthy list of black supporters, including Joe Beasley and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. Last week, Martin Luther King III added his name to her endorsers.

At a February event, a few dozen African American women crowded into Paschal’s, a restaurant famous for its role in the civil rights movement, for a fundraiser that also served as a plea to black voters to rally behind Tomlinson.

Her voice rising, Henrietta Antonin recounted to the audience about the time she first met Tomlinson.

“She was a white woman in my house with 15 black women,” she said. “I didn’t know her — I didn’t know anything about her. But she magnifies you. Before you know it, she magnifies you. Once she spoke — the broad is bad. All of those women in the room were mesmerized.”

LEADING DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATES IN U.S. SENATE PRIMARY

Sarah Riggs Amico

Amico was the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018.

She stepped down in January as the executive chairwoman of her family’s trucking firm, Jack Cooper Ventures, a Kennesaw-based car hauling business.

In federal campaign disclosure forms, she has reported her net worth at between $1.6 million and $3 million.

John Ossoff

Ossoff is best known for his second-place finish in 2017’s special election in the 6th Congressional District. The $60 million contest was the most expensive race ever for a U.S. House seat.

He is documentary filmmaker who has uncovered corruption overseas.

In federal campaign disclosure forms, Ossoff has reported a net worth between $2.3 million and $8.6 million.

Teresa Tomlinson

Tomlinson is a lawyer and served two terms as mayor of Columbus.

In federal campaign disclosure forms, Tomlinson has reported that her net worth is between $2 million and $4.7 million. She and her husband, also a lawyer, own a half-dozen rental homes valued at up to $1.2 million.

CANDIDATE DEBATES

Candidates for the U.S. Senate, various U.S. House seats and the Public Service Commission will participate in a series of debates Sunday and Monday hosted by the Atlanta Press Club as part of its Loudermilk-Young Series.

All candidates who qualified with the secretary of state to have their names listed on the ballot were invited to participate. The debates will be videotaped in partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting and livestreamed on the club’s Facebook page and GPB.org.

Most of the debates will also air live on GPB-TV. Videos will remain online for on-demand viewing afterward.

The schedule:

Sunday

  • 7th Congressional District (Livestream and Air)

Republicans, 9:30 a.m.

Democrats, 11 a.m.

  • 9th Congressional District (Livestream and Air)

Democrats, 12:30 p.m.

Republicans, 1:30 p.m.

  • U.S. Senate Perdue seat (Livestream and Air)

Democrats, 5:30 p.m.

  • Public Service Commission, District 4 (Livestream only)

Democrats, 10 a.m.

Monday

  • 13th Congressional District (Livestream only)

Republicans, 11 a.m.

Democrats, 11:45 a.m.

  • 6th Congressional District

Republicans, 1:30 p.m. Livestream, Airing at 7 p.m.

  • 14th Congressional District

Republicans, 3 p.m. Livestream, Airing at 8 p.m.