President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to visit Georgia next week to campaign for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock is a sharp reminder of a seismic shift in the state’s Democratic politics. Not long ago, state Democrats ran screaming from national figures. Now, they’re embracing them.
Of course, it makes sense for the Senate candidates to tie themselves to Biden, who became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state since 1992. And the Jan. 5 runoffs will determine control of the U.S. Senate — and the fate of Biden’s legislative agenda.
But the Georgia Democrats’ embrace of national stars goes far beyond the former vice president, who defeated President Donald Trump in the state by about 12,000 votes. They’ve held fundraisers with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren — liberal leaders whom Republicans eagerly frame as too extreme for Georgia.
And Ossoff and Warnock welcomed the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist and former presidential candidate who is one of the dominant personalities on the party’s left flank.
With the Senate on the line, Democrats say the candidates simply can’t afford to alienate any potential supporter on the ideological spectrum — even if it means risking new broadsides from Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
“Politics have nationalized to such a point that it’s impossible to run away from national figures — and I’m enthusiastic they’re leaning into it,” said Howard Franklin, a veteran Democratic strategist.
“That’s partly because I’ve watched as we’ve run away from national figures — and it didn’t work,” he added. “But it’s also because there’s a growing acceptance for the Democratic policies at the state level.”
It’s a notable shift in Georgia, where Republicans have long campaigned with national leaders — including a string of 2024 presidential hopefuls who visited in November ahead of the runoff — while Democrats have more often shunned them.
When President Barack Obama visited Atlanta weeks before the 2014 midterm election, for instance, it was considered shrewd political strategy for Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. Senate to steer clear of an appearance with him on the tarmac.
Just as Loeffler and Perdue are linking themselves to polarizing national figures, including Trump and U.S. Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Democratic candidates are no longer as skittish about being tied to their party’s leaders.
“It’s a sea change,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican operative who helped drive then-Gov. Nathan Deal’s reelection message in 2014 claiming that his opponent, Jason Carter, would bring radical out-of-state values to the Gold Dome.
“It’s telling that the Democrats are not distancing themselves from Bernie Sanders — and even touting his endorsement,” Robinson said. “That would never have happened in 2014. And if it did, the race would have been over.”
Biden’s campaign event in Atlanta — the location and timing have yet to be disclosed — coincides with the first week of early voting in the twin contests. It also comes a day after presidential electors in Georgia and other states formally cast their votes to make Biden the next president.
Ossoff and Warnock are trying to re-create the formula that helped Biden narrowly capture Georgia. They’re betting that Biden’s return — he stumped in Georgia a week before the election — will reenergize the base.
Republicans are reading from the same playbook. A half-dozen high-profile Republicans have already campaigned in Georgia, and Vice President Mike Pence arrived Thursday in Augusta — his third visit to Georgia this month.
Trump drew thousands Saturday night to Valdosta, where he urged his loyal supporters to vote for the GOP candidates even as he aired his unfounded grievances about a “rigged” election and blasted state officials for refusing his calls to overturn the election results.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
On Thursday, Trump continued his war with Republican leaders who defied his demands to undo Biden’s victory, saying that Gov. Brian Kemp is “finished as governor” and essentially endorsed a primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.
Earlier this week, Trump pressured state Attorney General Chris Carr not to urge his Republican counterparts to oppose a long-shot Texas lawsuit seeking to toss out Georgia’s election results that Carr’s office had called “wrong.”
In a statement, meanwhile, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien urged Republicans not to get distracted by the president’s ongoing legal battle to block certification of the vote in Georgia.
“Joe Biden’s trip to Georgia next week proves that Democrats are taking the Senate runoff elections seriously,’ he said, “and so should Republicans.”
‘Welcomed and appreciated’
As notable as the overall strategic shift is, it’s even more dramatic for Ossoff.
Three years ago, when he was running to flip a Republican-controlled suburban Atlanta U.S. House district, the Democrat relentlessly sought to sidestep questions about Pelosi and other liberal members of his party for fear of turning off moderate voters.
That was a different race — and a different political environment. Since then, Stacey Abrams has shown Democrats can gain ground by assertively tying themselves to the party’s liberal wing and its national leaders. And Biden showed there’s a path to victory for Democrats who had been shut out in every statewide contest since 2008.
Last week, when Ossoff was asked at the tail end of a CNN interview about Sanders’ endorsement, the Senate candidate’s answer was unequivocal: “I welcome his support,” Ossoff said, adding that the Vermont senator’s work is “welcome, is necessary, is appreciated.”
Within minutes of Ossoff’s CNN appearance, Perdue’s campaign sent out a press release slamming him for “casually praising radical socialists and their dangerous agendas” in TV interviews.
And Savannah Viar of the Republican National Committee urged Ossoff to appear on more Sunday shows “so you can tell Georgians even more about your shameless support for self-described socialists.”
Democrats point out those attacks were incoming long before Sanders endorsed Ossoff, and they’d likely continue whether he accepted his endorsement or not. That’s what happened to Ossoff in 2017, when he was branded a Pelosi “yes man” even when he sought to distance himself from the California Democrat.
The Georgia Democrats and Sanders differ on key policy debates — notably, the Georgians oppose the Green New Deal climate change plan and the Medicare for All health care proposal that Sanders has championed.
But Ossoff said he would proudly work with Sanders on other issues, including efforts to back a $15 minimum wage, invest in clean energy and “look out for ordinary working people for a change instead of people who have bought access and power in Washington.”