Democrats need to win both of Georgia’s Senate seats in the upcoming runoff elections in order to tip the balance inside the Capitol. But so far, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is only playing in one.
The Democratic candidates, Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, are each campaigning hard to defeat Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the pair of elections, set for Jan. 5, 2021. After President-elect Joe Biden won the White House and Democrats simultaneously fell short in several Senate races, national attention quickly refocused to the runoffs as the party’s last hope for obtaining complete political control. If they win both races, Democrats will take de facto control of the Senate.
The unusual circumstances of this historic contest have compelled Ossoff and Warnock, as well as their GOP adversaries, to effectively campaign on a joint ticket, sharing everything from stages at rallies to real estate on yard signs. The two Democratic candidates also share the public backing of many top figures in the party.
Except for Sanders.
In interviews, sources familiar with Sanders’ thinking on endorsement and fundraising calculations contend that his involvement in Warnock’s bid over Ossoff’s boils down to ideology and personal story, name recognition, and a desire to help only when asked—and only when he’d be helpful.
“Rev. Warnock fits more of Bernie’s profile candidate he’d support: a lifelong fighter for racial justice,” Ben Tulchin, who was Sanders’ pollster in his 2016 and 2020 campaigns, told The Daily Beast. “I think that’s Bernie’s calculation. He tends to be a little bit more selective.”
Warnock, the reverend whose faith and activist background has been a feature of his roughly 10 month-long campaign, is considered by many on the left to fit the mold of a civil rights-oriented progressive. As the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church—the setting where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously held that same title—Warnock’s established commitment to racial equality and social justice has inspired Sanders’ allies and supporters, and the independent senator himself, to back his bid.
While Warnock has been visible as a community and religious leader for years, his campaign to oust Loeffler is his first attempt at elected office. Ossoff, meanwhile, gained much prominence from running in a closely watched, extremely expensive, special election in the House in 2017. That race, while unsuccessful, endowed him with the fundraising network he’s putting to work against Perdue this year. But it also left him with a more moderate image that’s considered less exciting to some in the Sanders-aligned wing of the party than Warnock, though the two have virtually identical policy platforms in this election.
Tulchin, who has been involved in many conversations regarding Sanders’ past down-ballot engagement, pointed to Ossoff’s fundraising prowess from his first bid as something of a head start.
“Ossoff’s got a great fundraising foundation,” Tulchin said, whereas “Rev. Warnock doesn’t have the same kind of infrastructure” built-in, arguing that he could potentially benefit more from a Sanders boost.
Miryam Lipper, a spokesperson for Ossoff, said that the campaign has been “overwhelmed by the offers of support from across the board, including from Senator Sanders.” She added that “we’re working to roll them out when it makes sense for the campaign.”
If recent Sandersworld precedent is any indication, finding the right timing on both ends can indeed be tricky. In the 2017 Virginia governor race, for example, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s campaign ultimately did not ask for Sanders’ help to beat Republican nominee Ed Gillespie in the general election, and Sanders did not offer it. During the midterms the following year, Sanders also stayed away from certain red-district House races, including recently re-elected Rep. Conor Lamb, a centrist in Pennsylvania, who instead enjoyed surrogate support from Biden at the time.
And while Biden may have narrowly carried Georgia, Ossoff or Warnock are hardly the clear frontrunners. Republicans often have done better over the years in the state’s past runoff elections, and the GOP is spending tens of millions of dollars into the effort to retain the Senate.
Other Democrats would rather see Sanders keep a low profile.
Most national surrogates’ upside in Georgia is limited or non-existent, said one Democratic aide—“unless your name is Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama, or Stacey Abrams.” That aide also speculated that a potential Sanders role could simply make it easier for Perdue and Loeffler to lodge the “socialist” labels that they’ve already been forcing on their opponents.
But these particular runoffs—some of the highest-stakes in recent memory—have nonetheless become magnets for top Democrats who want to make Biden’s White House agenda possible by securing a Democratic Senate majority. And Democrats watching the race closely say that there’s no reason to believe that Sanders has emphatically ruled out helping Ossoff, or that Ossoff has in any way decided against accepting any assistance from the senator, as the candidate’s campaign stated.
“They’re gonna call him a socialist no matter what he does,” said Howard Franklin, a Georgia-based Democratic strategist, of Ossoff. “Take the money and the grassroots support.”
The Warnock campaign did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Sanders also did not respond.
Virtually all of the major presidential primary candidates have made some kind of fundraising plea on behalf of the Georgia Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Andrew Yang has literally relocated to the state to campaign for them.
Sanders offered his endorsement of Warnock in early October by touching on some of the same themes that guided his own presidential campaigns. “He’s building a grassroots movement to uplift and represent all Georgians,” Sanders wrote about Warnock last month on Twitter.
He has since devoted a page on his campaign website highlighting the reverend’s biography and linking to his “emergency runoff fund.” On Friday afternoon, Sanders sent a text message to his supporter list asking them to “split a $27 contribution” between Warnock and Sanders’ ongoing campaign fund.
“We would consider him a serious agent for social change,” said a former Sanders adviser and friend about Warnock. “He would make a huge difference in the Senate with his background.” Ossoff, the source contrasted, has a “very different profile.”
Statewide polling indicates that both runoffs are competitive. A FOX 5 Atlanta survey from Tuesday places Ossoff and Perdue each at 49 percent, while Warnock comes in just 1 percentage point ahead of Loeffler, 49 percent to 48 percent, among 800 registered likely Georgia voters.
In the general election earlier this month, Warnock won in an oversaturated jungle primary, ultimately earning 33 percent to Loeffler’s 26 percent. But factoring in Rep. Doug Collins’ (R-GA) showing at 20 percent, the two GOP candidates got more combined votes in the primary than Democrats. Perdue, meanwhile, edged Ossoff by less than 2 percentage points and narrowly came under the 50 percent threshold needed to escape the runoff.
There’s a belief among Democrats in Washington and in Georgia that, ultimately, Warnock and Ossoff will raise roughly the same amount of money. Their allies have set up committees to split donations jointly, with shares going to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to support both candidates.
“They’re definitely running separate finance operations,” said Franklin. “Considering their fundraising success during the general election, I can’t imagine either campaign struggling to raise the money needed to be competitive.”
Many Democrats interpret the involvement of a money-raising powerhouse like Sanders as a reflection that Warnock currently has more catch-up work to do than Ossoff. One Democrat working on Senate races quipped that Ossoff has spent the last four years of his life fundraising. After raising a huge sum for his House race, he set a quarterly fundraising record in Georgia when he announced an approximately $21 million haul during the third quarter of 2020.
“Never overcomplicate it with Bernie,” a former Sanders aide said about the decision to back one Democrat over the other. “Where he feels like he can make an impact and actually help somebody where they don’t already have access to big donors and a ton of money he’s going to feel a responsibility to help them out and use his list,” the source said.
“Part of that too, though, is being honest with the people on his list and his supporters directing them to campaigns that he believes agree with his politics and the policies that he’s fighting for,” the source continued. “I think Warnock is clearly running a little more of a progressive campaign than Ossoff.”
The idea that Warnock is a bit more progressive than his contemporary was shared in Sanders’ circles. Assessing the strategy, another Democratic aide also suggested that individuals on the senator’s fundraising list—which is comprised of thousands of people who typically give in small-dollar increments—may be more energized to give their personal resources to candidates who fit Sanders’ style of politics.
But functionally, Ossoff and Warnock are running on similar policy platforms. They do not differ significantly on issues in ways that might place one of them meaningfully to the left or right of the other. Both have put health care at the heart of their pitches, but neither endorses Medicare for All on their websites, and instead advocate for expanding the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, much as Biden did in his campaign. Neither Democrat embraced the “Green New Deal” climate change plan, either; Ossoff has explicitly said he opposes it, even as Perdue insists he supports it.
When Ossoff first burst onto the political scene years ago, Sanders’ reaction was somewhat lukewarm. When asked by the Wall Street Journal in April 2017 if he considered Ossoff to be “progressive,” Sanders simply responded with, “I don’t know.” After receiving criticism from some within the party back then, Sanders later said that it was “imperative” that Ossoff win. “I applaud the energy and grassroots activism in Jon’s campaign,” Sanders wrote at the time. “His victory would be an important step forward in fighting back against Trump’s reactionary agenda.”
In September 2019, Ossoff launched his Senate bid seemingly with an eye toward the party’s progressive base. One of the first interviews he gave as a candidate was to the left-wing outlet The Intercept, in which he framed his first bid in terms Sanders might have used himself: the right wing and their allies in the fossil fuel and private prison industries, said Ossoff, “made my destruction their singular objective.”
But this time around, Democrats say, Ossoff and Warnock’s fortunes are intertwined—and few expect one to significantly out or underperform the other either in dollars raised or votes earned, no matter the involvement of forces like Sanders.
“People aren’t going to split their ballot,” the Sanders friend said. “In the rest of the world, there’s not going to be any distinction.”