Ossoff races to quick start on the Senate runoff campaign trail

‘Change has come to Georgia’

SAVANNAH – At the heart of a scenic railroad museum, Senate candidate Jon Ossoff tried to steam up coastal Georgia Democrats with a vision of a Joe Biden administration unfettered by congressional gridlock.

“Maybe you felt these last few days what I have in my heart for the first time in a while, y’all. It’s hope,” Ossoff told a cheering crowd late Thursday, as misty rain fell on the outskirts of downtown Savannah. “Change has come to Georgia.”

The imagery – borrowing from former President Barack Obama’s favorite slogan – came as no accident from a Democrat racing to re-energize supporters ahead of dual Jan. 5 runoffs that will almost assuredly decide control of the U.S. Senate.

No candidate has so far taken a more aggressive approach to the nine-week runoff than Ossoff, who embarked Tuesday on a four-day, seven-city tour of Georgia featuring introductions from prominent local figures, head-pounding music from Bruce and Big Boi, and lengthy selfie lines to cap each stop.

His opponent, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, has not held a public event since the day before the election, when supporters packed into the same airport hangar where he celebrated the end of his first run for U.S. Senate six years ago. He debuts on the runoff trail Friday for a stop with U.S. Rick Scott.

In the other runoff, both candidates have held scattered events. Democrat Raphael Warnock has focused on media interviews and staged his first runoff press conference Thursday. His rival, U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, held a large-scale rally with fellow Republican Marco Rubio this week and will join Perdue on Friday for the GOP event.

The stakes, as each of the candidates are happy to remind, are enormously high. Democrats can gain control of the U.S. Senate by flipping both Georgia seats, assuring that Biden can pursue a more ambitious legislative agenda than if Republicans maintained their edge in the chamber.

Loeffler and Perdue – who only campaigned together in the general election cycle while attending Trump rallies – are now tied at the hip. Perdue’s wife Bonnie served as his spokeswoman at the Rubio rally, and both are set to welcome Scott to town.

U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and Marco Rubio stump in Cobb County.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

The two Democrats have more history together, particularly in the final weeks before the Nov. 3 election when they staged several joint rallies. Though they’re not on the trail together yet, their behind-the-scenes efforts are in tandem.

Ossoff campaign manager Ellen Foster said the campaign has engaged tens of thousands of volunteers to promote both Democrats. They’ve logged more than 70,000 phone calls to Georgians since the election about how they can reapply for absentee ballots, register to vote and spread the word.

The Ossoff campaign has “exponentially” expanded its staff, signed up nearly 22,000 volunteers and hired a new team to register voters before a Dec. 7 deadline, with a goal of engaging the estimated 23,000 teens who became eligible to vote after Nov. 3 but before the runoff.

‘We need these’

The Savannah rally offered a glimpse of how the campaign is trying to try to recapture the same energy that helped bring Biden to the cusp of winning Georgia’s 16 electoral votes – which would make him the first Democratic White House hopeful to carry the state since 1992.

Volunteers tallied contacts of the Savannah Democrats who filed into the Georgia State Railroad Museum, where a slideshow of images of Ossoff on the campaign trail played on a large screen.

About a half-dozen speakers preceded him, each with more or less the same message: Yes, Georgia Democrats have fallen short in every statewide election since 2006. But Biden’s apparent victory in the state showed it can be done.

Savannah Alderman Kurtis Purtee pointed to a small group of Republicans waving pro-Trump flags in the distance.

“Look outside those gates and see what we have: Nothing but hate and fear – fear because we’ve turned Georgia blue,” he said.

Never known for understatement, state Rep. Al Williams called the races the most important Senate contests since Abraham Lincoln competed against Stephen Douglas in 1858.

And Savannah Mayor Van Johnson delighted in drawing a sharp contrast between this election and Trump’s victory four years ago. Back then, he said glumly, the networks called Georgia while voters were still in line. This cycle, Biden has a 14,000-vote lead and a recount isn’t likely to change the outcome.

“We’re not going to be taken for granted anymore. Healthcare is on our ballot. Civility is on our ballot. Progress is on our ballot,” Johnson said. “It ain’t over yet. We have to finish what we started.”

Ossoff, too, focused his pitch on a message of political transformation in a Biden era: A proactive response to the pandemic and its economic fallout, more investment in clean energy, expanded healthcare access, financial support for rural hospitals and improved infrastructure.

“We’re feeling hope right now because we’re waking up and realizing the nightmare is over,” he said. “And now it’s up to us. That’s why these races matter so much.”

While Republicans present a GOP-controlled Senate as a check on Biden, Ossoff told reporters he had a starkly different vision of divided government in Washington.

“In order for us to fight this pandemic and invest in the economic recovery, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are going to need to be able to govern,” he said.

“And unless we win these Senate races, there will be at least four years of partisan gridlock in Washington,” he said. “Senator Perdue does not want the Biden administration to succeed. We need to get things done. And in order to get things done, we need these Senate races.”