Analysis: Why Georgia’s twin Senate races are up for grabs

Long before U.S. Sen. David Perdue prepared to face the voters, he reminded conservative crowds that 2020 would not be the same sort of predictable affair that Republicans had encountered in previous statewide races.

On the heels of Brian Kemp’s narrow victory in 2018′s race for governor, the first-term lawmaker told a crowd that they should rightly still feel shell-shocked by Democrats' near miss. Later, he was recorded bluntly reminding activists that the “state of Georgia is in play.”

Much to the angst of Republicans, the latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll proves his concerns correct. The race has him running even with Democrat Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist and former congressional candidate who has revived the fundraising juggernaut he built during his 2017 run.

It’s no outlier: A series of recent polls show Ossoff and Perdue in a neck-and-neck race. Though the AJC’s poll was largely conducted before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death triggered a battle over a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, the race for Perdue’s seat has remained consistently close in the final stretch.

A deeper dive into the numbers reveals why: Both candidates have consolidated support of their core constituencies, but there’s a sharp split among independents, a voting bloc that has traditionally leaned Republican in Georgia.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

This year, the divide has deepened. About 31% of independents support Ossoff, 31% back Perdue and 23% favor Libertarian Shane Hazel. An additional 15% are undecided.

Perdue, too, is facing the same challenges that have forced President Donald Trump to play defense in Georgia, where he’s scheduled to visit Friday. Ossoff is polling at 29% support among white Georgia voters — well above the 21% mark that exit polls show Hillary Clinton hit in the state four years ago.

As for Ossoff, the poll shows he has ground to make up among Black voters, the cornerstone of the state Democratic Party. Though a broad majority of Black voters support his campaign — 78% — he’ll seek to push those numbers above 90% by November.

A rocky race

Georgia’s other U.S. Senate race is far messier.

A free-for-all special election with 21 candidates, the campaign has long been viewed as two distinct contests ahead of a near-certain runoff: The first is a feud within the Republican Party between U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins. The second is a question of whether Democrat Raphael Warnock will land the spot in the January showdown.

Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, had struggled for months to distance himself from the other Democrats in the race, leading to concerns that his lagging numbers could allow both Collins and Loeffler to squeeze ahead and shut the party out of a runoff.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The AJC poll was the latest to show that’s a diminishing threat. At 20%, Warnock is roughly doubling Matt Lieberman, his closest Democratic competitor. Former prosecutor Ed Tarver trails with 5%.

The pastor’s numbers are likely to grow: He’s built a formidable financial advantage over his rivals, and he enjoys institutional support from national Democrats, Stacey Abrams and every other prominent party official who’s taken a side.

Another reason for Warnock’s confidence: The AJC poll shows the largest trove of supporters for both Lieberman and Tarver are Black voters, a constituency at the heart of Warnock’s appeal.

The pastor’s now polling at 39% among Black voters, but Democratic strategists say he can nearly double that figure with the help of an intense ad campaign that targets African Americans through mail, digital and radio ads. Overall, one-fifth of Democrats have yet to decide, giving Warnock room to grow.

After Ginsburg’s death, Warnock’s backers have intensified their calls for Lieberman and Tarver to drop out. Because the race is a special election, the victor would be seated as soon as November rather than January. An outright win by Warnock would undercut GOP margins in the Senate over a potential vote on the court vacancy.

It’s also a highly unlikely scenario. Lieberman and Tarver have flatly refused to drop out - Lieberman insisted he was no “spoiler” in a Twitter thread - and political analysts say Warnock has a slim chance of winning without a runoff even if they do.

For one, their names will still be on mail-in ballots sent to Georgians, along with 18 other candidates who still crowd the race. Beyond that, no Democrat has won a statewide contest in Georgia in a dozen years; Abrams, who came among the closest, topped out in the 2018 race for governor with 48.8%.

‘Stay tuned’

On the Republican side, the brutal infighting between Collins and Loeffler has yet to crown a true front-runner, although recent polls show the incumbent inching ahead.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

A wealthy former financial executive, Loeffler is well on her way of meeting her promise of spending at least $20 million to boost her campaign, and outside groups have devoted millions more to seeing her elected. She’s got resources to mix warm-and-fuzzy ads with an attention-grabbing “Attila the Hun” spot.

The poll shows she’s making inroads with fellow Republicans, who gave her a 47-40 edge over Collins. She also leads among those who consider themselves conservative, while the two are splitting moderates and independents.

Both campaigns greeted the poll in the usual way: battering each other.

Loeffler’s campaign boasted that she’s “ahead, our campaign has the momentum and we’re working toward a big win.” An aide to Collins knocked the senator for not gaining further ground despite vastly outspending his campaign.

“Embarrassing,” said the aide, Dan McLagan. “Stay tuned, we are just getting started.”