The Jolt: The pandemic takes center stage in Georgia’s two Senate runoffs

The coronavirus pandemic, and Washington’s response to it, has become a defining issue in Georgia’s two U.S. Senate runoffs.

Leaders in Congress are suddenly on the cusp of securing a $900 million stimulus deal that could deliver a new round of direct payments to millions of Americans, as well as additional jobless benefits, rental aid and federally-backed loans for struggling businesses.

One of the reasons the logjam has evaporated: The New York Times reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has told GOP colleagues that continued control of the chamber might depend on delivering the stimulus package:

In a call on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. McConnell said that Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are both facing January runoffs that will determine which party controls the Senate, were “getting hammered" for Congress's failure to deliver more pandemic aid to struggling Americans — particularly the direct payments — and that enacting the measure could help them.

The Kentucky Republican also emphasized that the package could be signed by President Trump, who has pushed for another round of stimulus checks, and would help those devastated by the pandemic.

President-elect Joe Biden is likewise drawing a straight line between Georgia’s runoffs and COVID-19.

This morning, the Democratic campaigns of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff released a one-minute TV spot featuring Biden, who said the twin contests could determine the fate of his plans to contain the coronavirus pandemic and juice the economy. Says Biden:

“Let me be clear. I need Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the U.S. Senate to get this done. There are folks in Congress threatening to do everything in their power to block our efforts."

The president-elect also put in a quick plug for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been sidelined during the pandemic by the Trump administration.

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Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, as it goes on a holiday break, this morning takes an extensive look at Georgia’s two runoffs. Having two Senate races in the same state and in the same cycle isn’t as unusual as you might think. But the analysis by J. Miles Coleman and Niles Francis contains two points worth noting:

-- Odds are that the two contests will have an all-or-nothing result: “The last time a double-barreled situation resulted in a split senatorial delegation was back in 1966.”

-- “Even as Biden was narrowly winning Georgia in November, Perdue and the combined Republican vote outpaced Ossoff and the combined Democratic vote in both Senate races. If the Republicans hold both Senate seats, this dynamic from the first round of voting may have been prophetic.”

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Conspiracy theorists, including Atlanta attorney Lin Wood, first began suggesting there was something suspicious about this month’s death of Harrison Deal, a young campaign staffer for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler -- and a friend of Gov. Brian Kemp’s family. Deal died in an automobile accident on I-16 in Chatham County, on his way to an event featuring Vice President Mike Pence.

Now, the GBI has been forced to send out this pair of Twitter messages:

A GBI agent passed away this week and there are online rumors that it was somehow connected to the election. This baseless claim is irresponsible & reckless…

It is hurtful to the agent's family and co-workers. Please be mindful of the things you write, repeat, or share - especially when there is absolutely no truth in them.

Get a grip on yourselves, people.

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Libertarian state party chair Ryan Graham sends word that Shane Hazel, whose third-party U.S. Senate candidacy sent Republican incumbent David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff into a nine-week runoff, will run for governor as a Libertarian in 2022.

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Two voting rights groups have filed lawsuits against four Georgia counties for failing to offer sufficient early voting for the Jan. 5 runoff election, according to our AJC colleagues David Wickert and Mark Niesse:

The New Georgia Project and Democracy Docket say Bibb, Clarke, Houston and Paulding counties are not offering early voting on a Saturday during three weeks of early voting, which they say is required by state law. Bibb also will not offer early voting on Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, a third group with the expansive name of the Young Black Lawyers’ Organizing Coalition is demanding that Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to address what it calls “vague and imprecise Information on state and county election webpages.” The YBLOC wants Raffensperger to:

-- Direct all counties to clearly state the beginning and end calendar dates of their early voting period for the Jan. 5 runoff elections on their election webpages.

-- Where early voting days conflict with holidays, instruct all counties to provide clear notice on their election webpages of any holiday-related early voting closures, amended hours, and makeup dates and times.

-- Ensure that all state and county election webpages clearly list the specific deadline by which absentee ballots must be received by election officials.

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The great Jamie Dupree sends this note from D.C.: “U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has missed every day of votes since the elections, except he was here on Dec. 3. Guess he’s checking out early.”

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Vice President Mike Pence is in Georgia today to campaign for the two Republican candidates for U.S. Senate. Donald Trump Jr. will be in Ocilla on Friday for the same purpose.

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New podcast alert: “Gaining Ground: The New Georgia,” documents Georgia’s flip to blue during this year’s presidential election and attempts to explain the politics behind it. It launches within the framework of Georgia’s dueling Senate runoffs.

The first episode is out today. The podcast is a joint venture with Crooked Media of “Pod Save America” fame and Tenderfoot TV, the network behind “Atlanta Monster” and “Up and Vanished.”

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The U.S. House is scheduled to vote today on a proposal to make various sites in Plains, Ga., all tied to former President Jimmy Carter, part of a national park.

The measure still doesn’t have a clear path in the Senate, and time is running out, so it is unclear that the effort to upgrade these locations from “historic sites” to the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park has a chance of actually becoming law.

Even so, U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, the bill’s sponsor, is celebrating today’s floor vote.

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