SANDY SPRINGS, Georgia—The slogan for the Republican ticket in Georgia’s run-off elections, inescapable in TV ads and billboards and campaign buses around the state, is succinct: “Win Georgia, Save America.”
But to many people backing that ticket, the candidates on it—the ones doing the actual saving—aren’t all that important. Some voters don’t even especially like them.
“I feel alright about them,” said Jeremy Hillyard of Sens. David Perdue (R-GA) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), after casting a ballot for them at an early voting location in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs on Wednesday evening.
“Each side has its flaws,” Hillyard told The Daily Beast. “I’m voting more for gridlock than anything else.”
A fair chunk of electoral politics is based on fear rather than inspiration. That’s certainly been true in the age of Donald Trump, where campaigns have often been defined on foreboding attacks about the opposition. In that vein, Georgia’s run-off elections are no different.
Die-hard conservatives showing up to support Perdue and Loeffler have suggested that the candidates themselves are beside the point. At a recent rally outside Atlanta organized by the conservative group FreedomWorks, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), the head of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus, cautioned that he didn’t mean the senators any disrespect before saying of them: “They are merely tools.”
“We need them,” said Biggs, “to preserve this country.”
To both sides, the stakes of Georgia’s run-off elections are so monumental as to make any of the candidates involved look small by comparison. Perdue himself has acknowledged this on the campaign trail.
“It’s bigger than Kelly, it’s bigger than me, it’s even bigger than President Trump,” the senator said at a Wednesday campaign stop. “It’s bigger than all of us.”
Democrats say the same kinds of things. Like Republicans, they are most focused on winning control of the U.S. Senate in the Jan. 5 runoffs and giving President-elect Joe Biden a shot at passing his policy agenda.
But Democrats have been more prone to say their candidates inspire them, and have emphasized the importance of candidates being not only a means to attaining the majority but people who understand, and represent, the party’s constituencies. Raphael Warnock, running against Loeffler, is the Black preacher at Atlanta’s storied Ebenezer Baptist Church. Jon Ossoff, running against Perdue, is 33 years old, and has made a point of targeting the youth vote. Democrats will need record turnout from both Black voters and young voters to capture both of Georgia’s Senate seats.
Republicans may be as fired up about the Democratic candidates—just for different reasons. In interviews at early voting sites on Wednesday, more than a dozen GOP voters evinced little personal affinity for Loeffler and Perdue, but they could barely contain their aversion to Ossoff and Warnock. A win for Loeffler and Perdue may ultimately rest not on how much Georgians like them, but how much they dislike the other guys.
“I honestly don’t care for the ones on the other side, and what they stand for,” said Alan Vincent, who was exiting a polling location in Douglasville, 20 miles west of downtown Atlanta. “Perdue seems to be a stand-up guy. I don’t know about Kelly. I just know that I don’t want Warnock and the other guy in there—I just don’t want them in there.”
Those views may be a product of the Republican strategy to go scorched-earth on the two challengers. Outside GOP super PACs have dumped over $120 million in attack ads on Ossoff and Warnock, portraying them as far-left foot soldiers who would usher in a dark era of socialism, in which progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) would call the shots. The most commonly quoted Democrat in these attacks isn’t either of the candidates—but Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who was filmed saying that if Democrats “take Georgia,” then “we change America!”
The onslaught has clearly broken through to conservative voters, with many raising the claims advanced by the ads in explaining why they don’t like Warnock and Ossoff.
Karen Gearhart, a 22-year-old student at the University of West Georgia in deep-red Carroll County, said she showed up to vote early on Wednesday in hopes of keeping Warnock and Ossoff out of the Senate. She cited Republicans’ claims that they are anti-police, though the Democrats have pushed back on that notion.
“People like Jon Ossoff and Warnock, I don’t like them because of how they treat the police,” said Gearhart.
Warnock, who entered the runoff largely untouched after Loeffler battled it out with Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) for a slot in the race, has received the brunt of the GOP’s most intense attacks. Campaign ads running constantly on Georgia’s radio and TV airwaves refer to him as a “radical,” and Loeffler referred to him as “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” no fewer than a dozen times during their Dec. 6 debate. Democrats have called these attacks racist, and cast them as part of a GOP strategy to generate fear among the party base over a Black candidate.
GOP voters largely had more to say about Warnock than Ossoff. “Warnock is more of a radical. Ossoff, I can’t tell,” said Richard Sardykowski of Sandy Springs. “I don’t know if I believe him. Warnock scares me, Ossoff doesn’t scare me.”
But the Democrats’ case against Loeffler and Perdue has also broken through, even among those who voted for the incumbents. Democrats’ main line of attack has centered on the senators’ financial dealings: both have come under scrutiny for conspicuously-timed stock trades at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, which saved both of them millions of dollars.
That narrative has stuck more closely to Loeffler, who, unlike Perdue, has not yet won an election in Georgia. She was appointed to the Senate in January after a career in business and as the owner of Atlanta’s women’s basketball team.
Many voters knew little of this background, but a few did know about her stock trading—and held out the possibility it was, at the very least, sketchy, even if they voted for her.
Luke Carlson, a 23-year-old from Carroll County, voted early for Loeffler because of his anti-abortion views. He said he hadn’t heard much about the senator—except for her stock trades. “I’ve only heard a lot of the sketchy stuff, when she dumped all her stocks,” said Carlson. “If it did happen, it’s kind of shitty.”
Vincent, the voter from Douglasville, also expressed some trepidation about Loeffler. “I’ve heard some things about Kelly that I’d say I wouldn’t agree with,” he said. “Some of the ads, they talk about Kelly and how she was doing with money—I don’t know.”
After eight weeks of non-stop campaigning, the deluge of TV ads, the calls and texts from organizers and postcards from out-of-state strangers, the prevailing emotion among many voters was exhaustion. For many, the existential framing of the race didn’t match up with their own feelings. And others aren’t looking to “save America,” just provide a check on Biden.
To Jeffrey Dankewich, a resident of Carroll County, all four politicians in the race were, well, just that. “I’ve read up, of course” on the candidates, Dankewich told The Daily Beast as he exited a polling location. “As with any of ‘em—none are great.”