ATLANTA—For months, Jon Ossoff has focused his campaign for U.S. Senate in Georgia on the Democratic Party’s standard slate of 2020 issues, like health care, climate change, and the COVID-19 response.
But as the runoff campaign to decide control of the Senate heats up, Ossoff is increasingly leaning on another issue: his Republican opponent’s stock portfolio.
So far, Ossoff and fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock have been essentially running as a team in Georgia's two runoffs. But their opponents are different, and Ossoff is beginning to ratchet up his efforts to blow a hole through the polished reputation of his rival, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), with new developments about Perdue’s personal financial moves in Washington.
Which is why on the Monday after Thanksgiving, Ossoff stood outside of a union hall in downtown Atlanta, berating his opponent in the wake of a series of reports that indicated Perdue had used his office to increase his already substantial wealth.
Ossoff’s campaign convened the cameras to discuss the most recent report, in the New York Times, which confirmed that Perdue had been under investigation from the Department of Justice for stock transactions timed around private briefings for senators around the spread of the coronavirus in January. Before that, The Daily Beast reported Perdue had acquired stock in a U.S. Navy contractor as he assumed control of a Senate committee overseeing the Navy, then sold off shares at profit as he helped the contractor’s business.
The Times also found that Perdue’s insistent explanation for past instances of his questionably timed stock trades—that he has no control over his portfolio—was wrong: in January, the senator called his stockbroker and directed him to sell off $1 million in shares of a financial company whose share value later plummeted.
“What’s come out in the last week is that Sen. Perdue has been lying to the public, and to you, members of the press, for the last year about his financial misconduct,” said Ossoff, adding that Perdue needs to “come out of hiding” and answer questions about this activity and his explanations for it.
But Ossoff also took pains to connect these developments to a broader argument—one that many Democrats believe is the only argument that matters if this story is to resonate with Georgia voters.
While Perdue has been “looking after himself,” as Ossoff put it, he’s been part of a Senate GOP majority that has passed COVID relief measures that, to Democrats, fall far short of what is needed to address the widespread economic pain in the country. Asked by a reporter about the stakes of his race on Monday, Ossoff said, “this is about, for example, the direct economic relief that Sen. Perdue has been obstructing while looking after his own stock portfolio.”
Ossoff and his allies had already spent plenty of time—and money—in the general election campaign talking about Perdue’s COVID-era trades. But with the Jan. 5 runoff nearing, the continued emergence of stock-trading news represents one of the few fresh developments in the race since the Nov 3 election.
For Ossoff, who finished less than 2 percentage points behind Perdue in the November general election and forced a runoff, it’s an opportunity to make the home stretch of the campaign even more of a referendum on the incumbent Republican, by merging his personal conduct and his political choices.
“It’s a two-fer,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.
Democrats often run “uneven campaigns,” argued Lake, focused more on issue-based attacks, while the GOP utilizes character-based attacks. “The Georgia race was shaping up that way as well,” she said. ‘Now, you have something that links the issues and the personal. We’ll see the emotional energy we often lack, that the Republicans achieve.”
Veteran Democratic strategists believe the revelations are damaging enough on their own, whether they are tied to the issue of the coronavirus response or not.
“This is what really pisses people off about politics and politicians, and rich people in general,” said John Anzalone, who was President-elect Joe Biden’s chief pollster in the 2020 presidential race. “It’s a bad dynamic for Perdue—beginning, middle, and end of story.”
Perdue, meanwhile, has found it necessary to put money behind a rebuttal strategy—a clear sign to Democrats that voters are responding to the new information. A new television ad released by his campaign on Tuesday is devoted to countering Democrats’ attacks on his trading activity; the closing image of the spot claims Perdue was “totally exonerated,” adding below it, “no wrongdoing.”
The development comes as Warnock, the Democrat challenging Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) in the other Senate runoff, has resisted an increasingly nationalized campaign. Perdue and Loeffler have run their races almost solely on the platform of stopping Democrats from claiming the Senate majority, which they would if both GOP incumbents lose in the Jan. 5 election—and have welcomed visits from Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, Vice President Mike Pence, and, this Saturday, President Donald Trump. Another new ad this week from Perdue goes so far as to say that his win in Georgia would “save America.”
Without doubt, the Democratic candidates have not shied away from the national stakes, embracing the message that their victories would pave the way for a Democratic Senate, working with Biden and a Democratic House, to expand health care, pass climate change legislation, and achieve other goals.
But Ossoff has moved quickly to call in the national cavalry. On Tuesday, his campaign rolled out an ad narrated by Barack Obama: “If we vote like our lives depend on it,” said the former president, “because they do, we will elect Jon Ossoff to the United States Senate.” And in the past week, Ossoff has run TV ads charging that Perdue wants to obstruct Biden’s agenda, clearly linking himself to the president-elect, who became the first Democrat to win Georgia’s electoral votes since 1992.
Meanwhile, in a clear contrast to Ossoff, Warnock was asked in a Monday press conference if he would welcome Biden, or Obama, in the state for a campaign visit. Both had already visited before Nov. 3,
“It’s a free country,” responded Warnock, adding he was happy Georgia is “on everyone’s mind.” “Pundits can have whatever conversation they want… we’ll continue to center the needs of ordinary Georgians,” he said.
Regardless, both Democrats need to convince Georgia voters that their opponents are worth firing. Like Perdue, Loeffler has faced heat for her investment activity: in March, The Daily Beast reported that she dumped significant amounts of stock after closed-door briefings on the coronavirus; she too claims that she was totally cleared by law enforcement.
In a situation where Democrats need to win both races to take the Senate majority, those similar storylines amplify each other, party operatives say, and the incumbents’ similar profiles—both are among the wealthiest members of the Senate—make a concerted attack that much easier.
Warnock has taken plenty of chances to highlight Loeffler’s stock trading scandal in the runoff campaign, even if there hasn’t been much new information about it. His Monday press conference focused on the lack of COVID-19 relief out of Congress, and the candidate noted Loeffler “dumped millions of dollars of her own stock when she heard about the pandemic.”
But there are key points of divergence between the two Democrats. Ossoff and Warnock’s races are “pretty different, structurally,” said Lake. “The news about Loeffler is older, so voters may have processed it... And Warnock has a particular brand. They’re different races, and appropriately, they’re running different campaigns.”
Of the four candidates, said Charles Bullock, a longtime chair of the University of Georgia’s political science program, Warnock is “spending the most effort in telling his story about his background, where he’s come from.”
Plenty of Democrats recognize that Ossoff, a 33-year old former documentary film producer and congressional aide who previously ran and lost in a high-profile U.S. House race in Georgia, doesn’t quite have the biography to match his fellow candidate, a product of Savannah public housing who now preaches from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s former pulpit in Atlanta. Few candidates do.
But Ossoff’s allies describe him as a savvy player of the news who has seized opportunities to capitalize on his opponent’s stumbles—something that is perhaps a challenger’s most important task. Pallavi Purkayastha, a Democratic strategist and a Georgia representative to the Democratic National Committee, recalled the October campaign stop when Perdue theatrically mispronounced Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) first name in front of a cheering crowd.
“When Perdue mocked Kamala’s name, and was grossly xenophobic about it, Ossoff did a full press conference, brought in different elected officials with non-Anglo names,” said Purkayastha, who was a volunteer for Ossoff’s 2017 House campaign. “He’s finding a way not to be just, like, ‘hey did you hear?’ but connect it to people.”
That trend has continued with the steady drip of news reports concerning Perdue’s stock activity, both around the pandemic and well before it. The DOJ’s finding of evidence that Perdue personally directed a major stock sell-off in January puts past instances of his questionably timed trading in a fresh light.
In 2018 and 2019, for example, Perdue acquired up to $300,000 in shares of BWX Technologies, a firm that makes parts for U.S. submarines, as he took control of a Senate panel with jurisdiction over the Navy. He then sold off those shares at a profit as he worked to direct funding for a brand-new submarine that uses BWX parts, The Daily Beast reported. And in 2017, Perdue purchased a stake in a prepaid debit card company weeks after pushing to weaken federal rules on the sector, The Daily Beast reported, and spent the next year selling and rebuying shares in the company around events affecting its value.
In response to all stories about his stock activity, Perdue’s office insisted that the senator’s portfolio is managed by an outside adviser who the senator does not advise or direct to carry out specific trades. Perdue has yet to offer an explanation, and with the senator slated to skip a Sunday debate, it’s possible he may get to avoid offering one.
Instead, Loeffler and Perdue have spent heavily on ads insisting they have been cleared by authorities around their stock trading. Both have also pushed back hard on the Democrats’ arguments that they have been complicit in the stonewalling of pandemic relief on Capitol Hill. The GOP-led Senate passed a $500 billion relief package, described as a “targeted” aid package that focuses on extending a lifeline to small businesses. The package lacked additional stimulus checks and other measures, such as state and local government funding, that Democrats believe are essential.
On Tuesday, the first of the month, Warnock tweeted, “rent is due today, and [Loeffler] is still stalling critical relief for Georgia families.”
“Spare us the gaslighting,” Loeffler responded, saying that the Democratic-led House—which has passed several, trillion-dollar COVID bills of its own—was meeting this week to pass legislation to legalize marijuana.
Some Democrats, however, simply don’t believe at this point that the stock trading news, and whatever connections to the pandemic, will do much to shift the current of a highly nationalized race with several complicating factors.
“I don’t think it’s going to make any difference, to be honest,” said Jackie Bettadapur, chair of the Democratic Party in suburban Cobb County, a former bastion of GOP votes that has since tilted to Democrats. The issue of stock activity, she said, is so far outside normal voters’ bubbles—and many “just assume” that lawmakers are corrupt and getting rich off their offices.
“If Ossoff, basically, can gin up some enthusiasm… it’s all going to play on that side to turn out the Democratic vote,” said Bettadapur. “It’s not going to change the minds of Republicans.”