When Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) theatrically mocked Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ first name at a rally in front of President Donald Trump and a fired-up crowd last week, it reminded a national audience that there is, in fact, another heated U.S. Senate contest in the battleground state of Georgia.
And that race might be just as intense as the Shakespearean blood feud unfolding between Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA)—and, at the very least, just as pivotal to the larger battle over control of the U.S. Senate next year.
The contest between Perdue, a first-term Republican, and Jon Ossoff, a Democrat who in 2017 ran and lost in the first blockbuster special election of the Trump era, has flown under the radar. But the events of this year have dramatically raised the stakes of the race—in particular, a shifting national and state-level political terrain that has put real gains in Georgia squarely within reach for Democrats, and a COVID crisis that has sparked ethical scrutiny on Perdue.
In February, the Cook Political Report rated the race as a “likely” win for Perdue. Now, it is considered a toss-up, with recent public polls showing Perdue and Ossoff neck-and-neck and the Democrat outraising the GOP incumbent by $8 million. Ossoff’s campaign says they have raised over $2 million alone since Perdue’s crack about Harris, a taunt they’ve sought to fashion into an anti-Perdue slogan.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has long recognized the risk in this race: His Senate Leadership Fund has so far spent over $32 million on ads attacking Ossoff—accounting for one in every five dollars spent to date, nationwide, by the leading Senate GOP super PAC.
These trendlines have Ossoff’s campaign predicting he could clear 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 3, which would give him an outright win and scuttle a run-off election under Georgia’s election rules.
An internal poll from Ossoff’s camp, conducted by Garin Hart Yang Research Group on Oct. 11-14 and shared with The Daily Beast, found that in a head-to-head race, Ossoff met the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff, with Perdue at 45 percent. When the poll factored in Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel, Ossoff maintained a five-point lead over Perdue but pulled 48 percent, which is not enough to avoid a runoff.
“Senator Perdue and Donald Trump are maxed out with their support in the state,” Ossoff’s campaign manager, Ellen Foster, wrote in a Wednesday campaign memo. “We fully expect that if the next two weeks go like the last two weeks did then we will see Jon with an outright win next month.”
That internal picture is much rosier than where public polls have shown Ossoff—typically tied with Perdue or closely trailing him, in any case well below 50 percent support. A New York Times survey released on Tuesday found the two tied at 43 percent. But privately, Republicans believe Perdue is in real danger, either on Nov. 3 or in a January runoff, if the environment for Democrats continues to improve, and Trump doesn’t salvage his own numbers. Recent polls have found Democratic nominee Joe Biden tied or leading Trump in Georgia.
“It says it all that he’s close,” said a GOP strategist, speaking on anonymity to discuss the race candidly. The strategist chalked up the tightness of the race to the tough environment for the GOP and a rapidly changing Georgia—and suggested a different candidate than Ossoff might have already put Perdue away.
But it’s fitting that control of the Senate could rest on a race in which the political arcs of the Trump era are so clearly visible. The contest pits a case study of the GOP’s full-on embrace of Trump with the first great hope of the liberal #Resistance, and each party has been aggressive in casting their opponent as a villainous, cardboard-cutout stand-in for their party’s worst elements.
Perdue, who arrived in Washington in 2014 as a wealthy businessman in the tea party mold, has become one of Trump’s most loyal foot soldiers in the Senate, backing him enthusiastically and rallying to his defense even when his fellow Senate Republicans have not. Last year, Perdue said it was “outrageous” to claim it was racist for Trump to say that four Democratic congresswomen of color should be “sent back” to where they came from. The senator’s blatant dog whistle in mocking Harris’ name last week, to Democrats, only cemented that attachment further. Perdue’s campaign insisted that he only mispronounced the name of a Senate colleague he’s served with for nearly four years.
For Democrats, Perdue has also been a useful foil to run against the swampy excesses of Trump’s Washington. The senator reported purchasing stock in a company producing personal protective equipment on the day of a private senators’ briefing on the coronavirus in January. Perdue has denied trading on that knowledge and has attacked Ossoff as a liar for alleging he is corrupt. But in a September ad on that subject, Perdue seemed to confirm that his investment activity had come under investigation from the Department of Justice and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, each of which Perdue claimed had cleared him of any wrongdoing.
The Daily Beast reported in September that Perdue, from 2017 to 2019, reported buying and selling stock in a financial technology company around opportune events that affected the company’s value. The senator’s office said that an independent adviser handles his portfolio and that he had nothing to do with the trades.
Perdue’s supporters downplay the notion that any of these developments will seriously impede his path to a second term. “As far as energizing his base and building loyalty, his partnership with Trump is a net positive for him here,” said Brian Robinson, a Georgia Republican operative. “He has been so ardent, and true to that, that he doesn’t have to go tell everybody that he’s a Trump guy.”
Robinson added that Perdue may benefit even among Georgia voters who can’t stomach Trump but prefer conservatives down the ballot. “There are Republicans who are queasy about Trump who say, please God, let us keep the Senate,” he said. “They’re not wavering on that at all. That does accrue to Perdue’s benefit.”
Democrats feel differently, and see Perdue’s missteps as opening up real avenues to victory. “In this environment, I don’t think he gets a pass,” said Howard Franklin, a Democratic strategist in Georgia, who said that the stock trading issue and the Harris comments have “real potential to cast a longer shadow than the political figure Perdue spent a few years burnishing before Trump became the president. He’s in perilous waters.”
The mere mention of the 33-year old Ossoff, meanwhile, seems to raise Republicans’ blood pressure. A documentary film producer and former congressional aide with no experience in elected office, Ossoff’s central claim to fame is that he came within three points of winning a deep-red U.S. House seat outside Atlanta in June 2017. During that bid, he became a cause celebre for fired-up liberals, raising a remarkable $23 million in what was considered the first big test of anti-Trump sentiment following the 2016 election.
To Republicans, Ossoff is the archetypal avatar of the online Resistance—a superficially appealing suit who raises millions in contributions and polls strongly thanks to the “D” next to his name and little else. So far, he has run a middle-of-the-road liberal campaign focused on issues like health care, attacking Perdue, and linking the incumbent to Trump. Perdue, meanwhile, has worked overtime to tie Ossoff to the far left of his party, hardly ever mentioning his opponent without the words “radical socialist.”
Georgia Democrats say that the GOP runs the risk of underestimating the candidate they love to hate. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he outperforms expectations,” said Franklin, who advised a rival of Ossoff’s in the Democratic Senate primary. “I think he’s going to surprise people. To me, a big surprise would be winning the race outright. Another surprise would be being the top vote-getter and going to a runoff,” he added. “Either are possible.”
Franklin noted that when Ossoff jumped into the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in 2017—a historically conservative suburban seat that Trump won in 2016—few thought Democrats had a chance. While he lost, his performance proved a harbinger for future Democratic gains in the suburbs, and in 2018, a Democrat, Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA), unseated the Republican who had defeated Ossoff. “If you’re looking at Ossoff longitudinally, he has consistently outperformed expectations,” said Franklin.