In Georgia, a Senate GOP firewall is under attack by resurgent Democrats

US senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock meets campaign volunteers at the Get Out The Early Vote with Jon Ossoff, Rev. Raphael Warnock, Carolyn Bourdeaux, and the Biden Campaign at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on Saturday, October 24, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

US senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock meets campaign volunteers at the Get Out The Early Vote with Jon Ossoff, Rev. Raphael Warnock, Carolyn Bourdeaux, and the Biden Campaign at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth, Georgia, on Saturday, October 24, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

ATHENS — In a fight to keep control of the U.S. Senate, national Republicans viewed Georgia’s twin contests as part of a last-ditch firewall. With a week until Election Day, resurgent Democrats are chipping away at that foundation.

The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows Jon Ossoff deadlocked with Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who was once heavily favored to win a second term. And Democrat Raphael Warnock, a pastor and first-time candidate, is the clear front-runner in the chaotic special election for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat.

The two Democrats are leveraging President Donald Trump’s struggling poll numbers, and Warnock is taking advantage of the bitter internal rift between Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, her most formidable Republican opponent in the 21-candidate race. The poll pegged Collins at 21% and Loeffler at 20% — with roughly 15% of Republican voters undecided in that race.

Ossoff and Warnock are buoyed by a late push from Joe Biden’s campaign, which is pivoting to Georgia in the homestretch. The former vice president will make two stops in Georgia on Tuesday, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, spent much of Friday campaigning in Atlanta, including sharing the stage with the two candidates at an evening rally.

And in the final days of the race the two Democrats are emphasizing positions on gun control, combating the pandemic, health care expansion and tax policy that their Republican adversaries have relentlessly tried to cast as part of a "radical socialist agenda.”

Ossoff pushed back against that message with an urgent one of his own in front of a crowd of about 100 young voters Thursday in downtown Athens.

Speaking from the bed of a white pickup truck across the street from the University of Georgia’s famous Arch, Ossoff called the election “a matter of life and death” as he tied Perdue to the Trump administration’s erratic pandemic response and portrayed a vote for the Republican as a vote against abortion rights, equal rights and civil rights.

“We cannot take four more years of Donald Trump,” he told a crowd of about 150 people, mostly students. “We deserve better than this, y’all.”

Perdue’s campaign, meanwhile, leaned into the senator’s connection with Trump. At a stop in Duluth, former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders drew a line between the president and Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive.

“They’re both running their own races, but there are similarities between both of them being outsiders going into Washington,” she said in an interview. “If we want the continued status quo of corrupt Washington, there’s a candidate for that in both of those races. If we want someone who will be the change agent to shake up Washington, there’s a candidate for that.”

The special election contest for Loeffler’s seat was long destined to land in a January runoff, which is required by law if no candidate gets a majority of the vote. But the AJC poll is the latest to suggest that Perdue’s race is so close that it, too, could wind up in overtime.

The tightness of recent surveys, including an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, raise the possibility that Georgia's race between Democrat Jon Ossoff, left, and Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue could require a second round of voting on Jan. 5. (Photos: Steve Schaefer / Special to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That would bring even more attention to Georgia, which has attained battleground status after nearly a quarter-century as safe Republican territory in White House contests. More than $190 million in TV advertising has already been spent on both Senate races, according to media analyst Rick Dent, including roughly $140 million in the Perdue contest.

“If control of the Senate is at stake, they might spend $1 billion in Georgia by January," said Fran Millar, a former Republican state senator, only half joking.

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Two very different trends are playing out in the Loeffler race.

At the urging of party leaders, the AJC poll shows that Democrats have rallied behind Warnock’s campaign and shifted away from two other lesser-known contenders. Educator Matt Lieberman and former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver both have plummeted to the single digits while Warnock’s support has climbed to 34%.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, the two leading Republicans in Georgia's special election for Loeffler's seat, continue to target each other during their campaigning, allowing Democratic front-runner Raphael Warnock to go largely unscathed. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

Credit: Wire

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Credit: Wire

While top Democrats waged an extraordinary campaign to boost Warnock in the free-for-all race, Republicans have divided into warring camps between Loeffler and Collins at the urging of Trump. He’s declined to pick a favorite and has welcomed the infighting as a way to boost overall turnout.

“Well, I sort of like it. You know why? They’re going to be in there fighting, fighting, fighting," he said at a recent campaign stop in Atlanta. “Don’t anybody get out. And everybody’s going to come with them. And the only thing I know for sure, they’re all going to vote for me.”

That’s also meant Warnock has largely escaped intense criticism from the two Republicans as they focus on battering each other over issues catering to an intensely conservative crowd. In the past few weeks, they’ve traded blows over links to China, criticized one another for coziness with Stacey Abrams and jockeyed over who is the fiercest Trump ally.

The Senate Democrats have focused much of their attention on densely populated metro Atlanta, where they’re trying to drive up turnout. Over the weekend, Ossoff and Warnock shared the same stage — well, it was a flag-draped pickup truck — in Lawrenceville to rally Democrats to turn once-conservative Gwinnett County a deeper shade of blue.

“It’s certainly one of the more diverse counties in our state,” Warnock said. “It represents the new and emerging America, and I think it will have a signal role in flipping the state blue.”

On Monday, Ossoff reminded people to vote for him and Warnock. “The chance to flip two Senate seats in Georgia is not an opportunity," he said. “It’s an obligation.”

The two top Republicans in the special election, meanwhile, remain at war with one another. At stops across South Georgia, Collins mocked Loeffler for pumping an additional $3 million of her own cash into the contest.

“This is how desperate it’s getting,” the four-term congressman said in Cordele. “She thinks that money can buy this thing. She put in $3 million more money yesterday, and we heard there’s another $3 million coming.”

He added: "The last time I checked, Georgia’s not for sale. And it’s never going to be for sale.”

Loeffler swiped back in a social media post that illustrated the tension in the race. She said she can’t defend herself in person because she’s in Washington to vote on U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett — whom she called a “real conservative.”

“Because the very LAST thing America needs is more fake conservatives like you and John Roberts in positions of power,” she said. “But don’t worry, I’ll be back in GA soon to beat you & Warnock.”

AJC poll

The poll was conducted Oct. 14-23 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. It questioned 1,145 likely voters and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

If the election for the U.S. Senate were being held today, for whom would you vote?

Democrat John Ossoff – 46%

Republican David Perdue – 45%

Libertarian Shane Hazel – 4%

Undecided / refused to answer – 5%

If the special election for the U.S. Senate were being held today, for whom would you vote?

Democrat Raphael Warnock – 34%

Republican Doug Collins – 21%

Republican Kelly Loeffler – 20%

Democrat Matt Lieberman – 4%

Libertarian Brian Slowinski – 3%

Democrat Ed Tarver – 1%

One of the other candidates – 2%

Undecided / refused to answer – 14%

On some questions, totals may not add up to 100% because of rounding.

Poll information: The survey was administered by the School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center at the University of Georgia. The AJC-SPIA Poll was conducted Oct. 14-23, 2020, and included a total of 1,145 likely general election voters in Georgia. The calculated margin of error for the total sample is +/-4 points at the 95% confidence level.