A race for the base is fast underway in Georgia Senate runoffs

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a rally Wednesday at Cobb County GOP headquarters in Marietta to unite Georgia conservatives behind U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler ahead of the Jan. 5 runoffs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio speaks during a rally Wednesday at Cobb County GOP headquarters in Marietta to unite Georgia conservatives behind U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler ahead of the Jan. 5 runoffs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The race for Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs is starting exactly how the presidential contest ended, with an intense and relentless push to motivate each party’s core supporters rather than preach to the undecided.

U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue aim to rally conservatives and appease President Donald Trump by taking the stunning step of calling for a fellow Republican elections official to resign and echoing claims without any evidence that fraud marred the vote.

Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock have leaned into the nationalization of the race by amplifying President-elect Joe Biden’s emphasis on expanding health care access and stemming the spread of a deepening coronavirus pandemic.

“This is going to be 100% start to finish a base turnout election," said Titus Bond, a veteran Republican pollster whose survey of the contests showed razor-thin races. "It’s going to be intensified. It’s going to be ideology from beginning to end. It’s all about getting the base motivated to vote again.”

The stakes are enormous for both parties. The twin Jan. 5 runoffs are set to determine control of the U.S. Senate and, effectively, whether Biden can pursue his legislative agenda. Keeping supporters energized for the next eight weeks means stoking supporters with base-pleasing vows.

That strategy came into even more vivid display Wednesday as Loeffler rallied in suburban Cobb County with former presidential candidate Marco Rubio. The word “socialist” — a frequent attack line of Georgia Republicans — was uttered about a dozen times.

“To be fair, not all Democrats are socialists. But all the socialists are Democrats," Rubio said, drawing a burst of applause from hundreds of mostly unmasked supporters who crammed into the Cobb GOP headquarters.

“This is literally the showdown of all showdowns,” he added. “This is Georgia’s decision to make. But it’s America that will live with the consequences.”

Democrats are making their own play. Ossoff, who kicked off a statewide tour Tuesday, rallied supporters with promises of more effective government in a post-Trump Washington — echoing the same message that helped put Biden on the cusp of capturing Georgia’s 16 electoral votes.

“Change has come to Georgia. Change is coming to America. And retirement is coming to David Perdue,” Ossoff said at a drive-in rally in Atlanta, adding: “It all comes down to Georgia.”

‘Change America’

The opening moves underscored another factor in the dual runoffs: Ossoff and Warnock will largely rise and fall together, as will Loeffler and Perdue. Though each has wildly different strengths and weaknesses, the Democrats and Republicans might as well come as a packaged deal.

Loeffler telegraphed that reality when she borrowed Perdue’s favorite line at the rally, saying that a vote for Republicans is a vote to ensure “the road to socialism does not run through Georgia."

Much of the early maneuvering has taken place far from the campaign trail. Perdue’s campaign snapped up $10 million worth of ads through January, according to media strategist Rick Dent, while the Democrats have already aired three separate TV ads since last week.

Every utterance about the race is being amplified. Senate Republicans are trying to make sure Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s remarks about the runoffs comes back to haunt Democrats, with an ad Wednesday that highlights his eight-word boast: “Now we take Georgia, then we change America.”

And Rubio’s visit is just the first of many from top politicians. Vice President Mike Pence is set to campaign for the two Republicans on Nov. 20, and North Carolina U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis predicted “a lot of us are going to be going to Georgia next week.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are angling for stops by former President Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Biden hasn’t ruled out a return visit, and his transition team is reportedly developing contingency plans for a less ambitious agenda pending the outcome of the Georgia cliffhangers.

‘Relax?'

State Republicans might be most antsy about the possibility of alienating Trump, who has refused to concede the election and, without producing any evidence, has accused Democrats of fraud. The GOP needs to keep his loyal base motivated in January, and a stray tweet from the president could undermine those efforts.

Appeasing Trump has become a priority for state Republicans, who largely have refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory. Loeffler and Perdue this week went a step further by demanding, without citing any evidence of widespread voting irregularities, the resignation of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican who oversees state elections.

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Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announces the start of a hand recount of ballots cast in the Nov. 3 presidential election during a briefing Wednesday outside the Georgia Capitol. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announces the start of a hand recount of ballots cast in the Nov. 3 presidential election during a briefing Wednesday outside the Georgia Capitol. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announces the start of a hand recount of ballots cast in the Nov. 3 presidential election during a briefing Wednesday outside the Georgia Capitol. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

At a Wednesday news conference, Raffensperger responded to the mounting pressure by announcing a recount of the 5 million votes in the presidential election, saying it will help restore confidence in the election system.

National Republicans, too, are framing their post-election messages with Georgia’s race in mind — at once trying to rally the base without spurning Trump. Rubio epitomized that tightrope walk after the rally, when he didn’t repeat Trump’s allegations of a fraudulent election but called for patience as elections officials tally final votes in closely contested states.

“Everyone needs to relax,” Rubio said, adding: “The process should be allowed to work and, in the end, we’re going to have a determination that I want every American to have full confidence in.”

Some Georgia Republicans privately worry that besmirching the integrity of the vote could backfire by influencing loyal Trump supporters to ignore the Senate runoffs. Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist, said that’s a plausible likelihood that could come back to bite Loeffler and Perdue.

“Apparently they are worried that any sign of disloyalty to the president could bring down his wrath and dampen Republican enthusiasm,” Abramowitz said. “But are even Republican voters going to believe that the Republican secretary of state is trying to help Democrats win the presidential election?”

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