Georgia’s Ossoff-Perdue race for Senate presents a striking contrast

In his bid for re-election, Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, faces Democrat Jon Ossoff.
In his bid for re-election, Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, faces Democrat Jon Ossoff.

One is a veteran former corporate chieftain with a direct line to the White House. The other is a younger investigative journalist who says his opponent is the embodiment of all that is wrong with Washington.

Republican David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff present dramatically different visions of government as they square off for Perdue’s U.S. Senate seat, one of two up for grabs in Georgia this November as Democrats try to retake control of the chamber

Fresh off his primary victory, Ossoff aims to unite Democrats behind a message that it’s time to purge the federal government of President Donald Trump and his Republican allies — “a wannabe tyrant and his cowardly enablers” — and pass a new civil rights measure to address systemic racial inequalities.

“What Trump is doing to America is wrong. And we all recognize it’s wrong,” Ossoff said in an interview. “Our responsibility is to build a republic that lives up to our national ideals, to solve our public health crisis, to invest in infrastructure and clean energy, and to defend and strengthen civil rights and voting rights.”

Perdue presents himself as a steady conservative voice, leveraging his close ties to Trump and his decades of experience at the top of the corporate ladder to make the case that he’s a voice of stability and law and order at a tumultuous moment in American politics.

“We need leadership. It’s like the big turnarounds I was a part of during my business career — it’s when leaders come to the fore,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I’m still the outsider in the belly of the beast after six years. There are a lot of career politicians here, and my role has been trying to be a stabilizing influence,” he added. “My role up here is to be the adult in the room, and I’m fulfilling that.”

Perdue, 70, heads toward November with built-in advantages: the power of incumbency, a legislative record praised by conservatives, more than $9 million in campaign cash, full-throated support of a president popular with Republicans and a state political apparatus allied behind him.

The unified GOP support is a contrast from Georgia’s other U.S. Senate race, a November special election that pits newly appointed financial executive Kelly Loeffler against U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a fellow Republican, and 19 others.

Ossoff aims to leverage other dynamics. The 33-year-old’s nationally watched congressional race in 2017 afforded him soaring name recognition, and this week’s primary victory triggered calls for unity. Stacey Abrams, who stayed neutral in the race, told the AJC that she’s “incredibly excited” about his bid.

He’s also proved he can keep pace with Perdue’s fundraising machine by shattering financial records to raise roughly $30 million three years ago. Internal polls by GOP groups show a tight race between the two, unnerving Republicans wary of losing a statewide seat for the first time in more than a decade.

Perdue acknowledges the challenge, repeatedly saying narrow Republican victories in the 2018 midterms, as well as the party’s struggles in down-ticket races across the suburbs, should be a “wake-up call.”

“My role is going to be to expose this radical agenda that Democrats are trying to perpetrate. It didn’t get done in ’18, and I’m going to do that in ’20,” Perdue said.

“Do you want bigger government, more regulation, more taxes? Or do you want to go to less regulation, a competitive tax code and more energy investment? We’re off to a good start, but I believe there’s much to be done,” he said. “The contrast in this race is going to be very clear.”

‘Plague and recession’

Ossoff’s political narrative is replete with plot twists.

Three years ago, he seemed poised to pull off an epic upset. As the Republicans in the cluttered special election for a U.S. House district stretching across Atlanta’s northern suburbs brutalized each other, he was largely unscathed until the closing days of the race.

That changed when a furious Republican counterattack joined by Trump kept him just under the majority-vote mark, triggering a bruising runoff against Karen Handel that he eventually lost.

His out-of-nowhere campaign in 2017 shaped a more conventional bid against Perdue this year. Ossoff entered the Senate primary as the perceived front-runner, and he quickly eclipsed his top rivals in both fundraising metrics and poll results.

Rather than stick to the middle ground, he embraced a more liberal campaign philosophy for his Senate run.

He pledges to support new civil rights legislation that, among other elements, would ban private prisons, and “eradicate” racism and classism in the court system. And he promises to legalize marijuana, guarantee health insurance for all Americans and expand tuition-free higher education programs.

Pressed on whether he would endorse a push to “defund police” to reduce financing for law enforcement, a movement that has gained steam amid nationwide protests demanding racial justice, Ossoff said he backs “reforming and demilitarizing policing in America.”

“We have pervasive racism and classism in the criminal justice system that victimizes African Americans and people without wealth and connections,” he said. “And we have a huge problem with police brutality, and our police forces are heavily militarized.”

The 2017 race also bred a more confrontational approach. Instead of sidestepping attacks on Trump as he did three years ago, Ossoff leveled broadsides against Republicans and promised he'd turn his skills as the owner of an investigative journalism firm toward a corrupt Washington.

His campaign aides said they’ve dug deeper into Perdue’s background than Democratic operatives did during the Republican’s 2014 campaign, and they plan to highlight his business dealings in Asia, outsourcing practices when he was a corporate CEO and his personal finances.

“David Perdue has nothing to run on but failure and corruption. And we will relentlessly expose him,” Ossoff said, invoking the coronavirus and the economic fallout that’s followed. “What’s he going to run on? Plague and recession?”

‘Rubber stamp’

Perdue, too, has adapted lessons from past elections to this race.

During his first run for office, the jean-jacketed newcomer framed Democrat Michelle Nunn as a "rubber stamp" for President Barack Obama.

After Ossoff cemented the nomination Wednesday, Perdue’s campaign declared him a “rubber stamp” for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, connecting him with national Democrats who are deeply unpopular with the GOP base.

In the interview Thursday, he sought to define the race in stark terms, labeling Ossoff and his supporters as arbiters of a “socialist agenda” who aims to destabilize a U.S. economy that, until the coronavirus pandemic, was experiencing soaring growth.

“This whole race is about whether voters want to move to a socialist agenda or whether they believe in the economic opportunity for everyone, limited government and a strong workforce,” he said.

One of the biggest unknowns in the contest is the whether Trump’s name on the ballot will be a speed bump or a sail for Perdue.

Recent Georgia polls show a tight race between Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, though Trump’s approval ratings in national surveys have steadily declined.

And Ossoff, who traded barbs with Trump on Twitter on Thursday, intends to tie his opponent directly to the president every chance he gets.

“What David Perdue needs to answer for is his lack of integrity, his utter lack of any record to run on and his disastrous support of President Donald Trump,” Ossoff said.

The senator, who first endorsed Trump at a Georgia GOP convention in 2016, said he welcomes the linkage.

“When you’ve never accomplished anything yourself, all you’re going to talk about is the merits of the other guy,” Perdue said of Ossoff’s critique. “President Trump loves this country. I hope my opponent continues to go on that vein. People see how Trump’s policies benefit them.”