Loeffler, Perdue run hard-line pitch in swing state Georgia

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U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.,talks to supporters during a campaign event Friday, Dec. 31, 2020 at McCray's Tavern in Marietta, Ga. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

ATLANTA – The merchandise featured in Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s online campaign store includes T-shirts and bumper stickers bearing Donald Trump’s name and the message: “Still my president.”

The Georgia Republican is running television ads ahead of Tuesday’s Senate runoff elections that lambastes her opponent, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, as “dangerous” and “radical."

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Loeffler’s colleague, Sen. David Perdue, meanwhile, is warning Georgians that Democrats will enact a “socialist agenda" if his challenger, Jon Ossoff, wins on Tuesday.

In the final days of campaigns that will decide control of the U.S. Senate, the Republican incumbents are appealing to the most conservative part of the electorate. Their steady embrace of the hard-right, Trump wing of the GOP — even repeatedly refusing to acknowledge Trump's defeat — and their caricatures of the Democratic challengers may seem like a risky approach in a state that narrowly voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president in November after years of steady Democratic gains.

Yet the strategy reflects prevailing GOP wisdom in the Trump era: Republicans’ clearest path to victory, even in swing states, is to drive up support among a GOP base motivated by allegiance to the president and fear of Democrats. Still, the approach comes at the expense of a once-broader Republican coalition that included more urban and suburban moderates and GOP-leaning independents who have rejected the Republican brand under Trump.

“The president resonates with a lot of people, and so do the buzzwords, so you hear ‘Trump’ and ‘socialism’ a lot,” said Michael McNeely, a former vice chair of the Georgia Republican Party. “I wish we lived in a society where people talked about ideas, but that’s just not where we are.”

Trump may have complicated Perdue's and Loeffler's gamble even more with how he's handled his defeat to Biden.

The president has spread unfounded assertions of voter fraud and blasted Georgia Republican officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp, who have defended the elections process. When Trump allies, including Perdue and Loeffler, backed up the claims, some Republicans expressed concern it could discourage some Trump loyalists from voting in the runoff. Now, other Republicans are worried that GOP candidates have instead turned off the more moderate voters repelled by Trump.

“No Republican is really happy with the situation we find ourselves in,” said Chip Lake, a longtime GOP consultant and top adviser to Loeffler’s vanquished rival, Rep. Doug Collins. “But sometimes when you play poker, you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and for us that starts with the president.”

Trump will visit Georgia for a final rally with Loeffler on Monday evening, hours before polls open. It is unclear whether Perdue will attend. The senator said Thursday he was quarantining after being exposed to an aide who tested positive for coronavirus.

Democrats are fine with the GOP senators' decision to run as Trump Republicans and use exaggerated attacks. Opposition to the president has been a unifying force among their core supporters, and Democrats believe Republicans' overall tenor falls flat with voters in the middle.

“We talk about something like expanding Medicaid. We talk about expanding Pell Grants” for low-income college students, Ossoff said at a recent stop in Marietta, north of Atlanta. “David Perdue denounces those things as socialism?”

Ossoff noted Perdue’s claims that a Democratic-run Senate would abolish private insurance; Ossoff and Warnock, in fact, back Biden’s proposal to add a federal insurance plan to private insurance exchanges, not abolish private insurance. “I just want people to have the choice,” Ossoff said.

November returns demonstrate the GOP snare. Biden beat Trump by about 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast in Georgia, making him the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992. Biden’s record vote total for a Democrat in the state was fueled by racially and ethnically diversifying metro areas but also shifts in key Atlanta suburbs where white voters have historically leaned Republican.

Yet Perdue landed within a few thousand votes of Trump’s total and led Ossoff by about 88,000 votes. Republican turnout also surged in small towns and rural areas, while Georgia Democrats had a disappointing general election down-ballot, failing to make expected gains in legislative races.

“We’ve won this race once already,” Perdue says at some of his runoff campaign stops, echoing his advisers’ belief that their top priority is maintaining enthusiasm from Trump's base. They add that they can corral the narrow slice of swing voters with arguments that warn against handing Democrats control of the House, Senate and White House.

Lake and McNeely, however, predicted that hard-right attacks and Trump-centric appeals won't deliver votes beyond the base, particularly amid a crush of advertising in a runoff campaign whose total expense could top $500 million.

“We reached the point of diminishing returns a long time ago,” Lake said.

They also bemoaned Trump's continued grievances about his defeat even after his own attorney general said there was no evidence the election was marred by fraud and courts across the country rejected challenges to the outcome.

“If, for some reason, the Republican candidates lose,” Lake said, “it’s going to be hard to write a post-mortem on this runoff and not look directly at all the chaos that has been created on voter fraud.”

Early voting ended Thursday with just more than 3 million Georgians casting absentee or in-person ballots. That trails the final early vote count of 3.65 million ahead of the general election. But the early vote already has set a statewide Georgia runoff turnout record.

Jen Jordan, a Democratic state senator who in 2017 won a suburban Atlanta district long held by Republicans, acknowledges her party, too, has moved to base strategy. But Jordan argued that Democrats still root their pitch more in policy ideas, especially on health care access and public education, that she said has wide appeal. She said Perdue and Loeffler undermined their “socialism” warnings by splitting from most congressional Republicans to support the president’s call for $2,000 pandemic aid payments to individual Americans.

“I’ve never heard the word socialism so much in my life, and then they’re both like, yeah, let’s give everybody $2,000 checks,” Jordan said.

McNeely, the former state GOP leader, lamented that even if Perdue and Loeffler win, their campaigns move Georgia further away from a more centrist tradition. He cited Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, whose retirement opened the way for Kemp to appoint Loeffler.

Unlike many Southern Republicans of his generation, Isakson was never a Democrat. But he rose through the Georgia General Assembly in an era when Democrats dominated the state. In Washington, Isakson was a reliable Republican vote but shunned partisan jousting and intently avoided talking about Trump whenever possible.

“Sen. Isakson learned to see things from a different perspective,” McNeely said, adding that Republican politicians should “think beyond campaigns and what the president is thinking” and that more voters should decide that “it doesn’t make you a bad guy or gal because you compromise.”

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