How did we get here?
Georgia was already scheduled to have one Senate race in 2020. But in late August 2019, a political earthquake rattled Georgia politics. Longtime Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson announced his resignation due to health complications, leaving Gov. Brian Kemp to appoint his successor in the Senate. Behind the scenes, several prominent Republicans jockeyed for the coveted appointment. Gov. Kemp encouraged potential appointees to express their interest in the job by completing an online application.
Kemp was at odds with the White House on how to handle this Senate vacancy. President Donald Trump lobbied Kemp to appoint Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and one of the President’s most vocal defenders in Congress during the impeachment proceedings. But Kemp preferred wealthy businesswoman Kelly Loeffler, a financial executive who owns part of Atlanta’s WNBA team. Kemp and Loeffler flew to Washington in November to discuss the appointment with the President, but the meeting reportedly ended before it could begin.
In the end, Kemp decided to appoint Loeffler over the objections of the President and Tea Party groups who feared that she was too moderate. Reportedly, Kemp’s logic behind appointing her was to help slow the bleeding of suburban women in the Republican Party. Loeffler introduced herself to Georgia voters as a “lifelong conservative” who is “pro-second amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.” In an attempt to scare off potential GOP rivals, she vowed to pump $20 million of her own money into her campaign.
The Special Election
Isakson’s resignation triggered a special election to fill out the remainder of his term, which is set to expire in January 2023. Unlike your traditional elections, special elections in Georgia use a jungle primary system similar to that of Louisiana’s. All of the candidates run on the same ballot and it advances to a runoff between the top two vote-getters if no one earns more than 50% of the vote. Nearly two dozen candidates filed to run in this unprecedented special election. But for the sake of time, I am only going to highlight five of the candidates.
Kelly Loeffler’s massive fortune was seen as an asset when she was appointed, but it may be proving to be a liability. In March, she and her husband Jerry Spreecher, who owns the New York Stock Exchange, reportedly sold millions in personal stock after Loeffler attended a briefing at the White House on the threat of COVID-19. Though the Justice Department has cleared Loeffler of any wrongdoing, the scandal has damaged her standing with Georgia voters who may not know who she is.
A recent poll from Civiqs found her with a 59% unfavorable rating. Those aren’t great numbers for a new Senator. Mitch McConnell and his allies have vowed to treat Loeffler like an incumbent who is running for re-election, and several of Loeffler’s colleagues in the Senate Republican conference have endorsed her campaign. She also received endorsements from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Loeffler has the money to help build up name recognition, but it remains to be seen if Georgia voters are willing to look pass this stock trading scandal. We will find out in November.
Republican Doug Collins announced his candidacy shortly after Loeffler was sworn in. A four-term congressman and a former Naval Chaplin, Collins gained national attention during the impeachment proceedings, when he rose to prominence as one of the President’s loudest defenders. President Trump made it clear to Gov. Kemp that he wanted Collins to be appointed to the seat, but Kemp appointed Loeffler over his objections.
Collins is a huge threat to Loeffler because he represents a large swath of the voters that she will need in order to win. Like Loeffler, he has also picked up some notable endorsements of late. Most recently, he was endorsed by former Rep. Karen Handel. He also has endorsements from several recognizable figures in conservative politics, such as Mike Huckabee and Devin Nunes. Collins enters the race with the most name recognition, so it’s not difficult to see him finishing first in the primary. But will his conservative style of politics play well with suburban voters in Metro Atlanta?
Rev. Raphael Warnock has been the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church since 2005. This is the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. and his father preached many years ago. Warnock hinted at challenging Sen. Isakson in 2016, but eventually declined.
Democrats don’t usually run religious leaders, so Warnock is a particularly unique candidate. He entered the race with the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and civil rights icon John Lewis. But like the two Republican frontrunners, Warnock has some liabilities of his own. He and his estranged wife were recently involved in a dispute, in which his wife accused him of running over her foot. He has also decided to continue his role as pastor during the campaign, which may lead to scrutiny from the IRS. Warnock has fundraised well but has yet to make any TV ad buys. He will have a hard time building up name recognition outside of Atlanta, and Democrats always struggle in Georgia’s runoffs. But he has a unique profile as a religious leader that could play well with rural white voters.
Warnock’s biggest obstacle in the jungle primary is the fact that he has not completely cleared the Democratic field. Candidates like Matt Lieberman, the son of former Senator Joe Lieberman, could siphon votes away from him and pave the way for an all-Republican runoff in January 2021.
Lieberman, an entrepreneur, was the first Democrat to announce his candidacy for the special election. While his father was known for his independent streak, he seems prepared to run a pretty liberal campaign. He supported the impeachment of President Donald Trump. He also says that he supports abortion rights and that he would push for a “public option” healthcare system. But he faces a long list of challenges. He says that his father could play a huge role in his campaign, which might not sit well with those in the progressive wing of the party. Lieberman will also struggle to build up name recognition in a field headlined by better-known candidates. He may face long odds of making a runoff, but his presence on the ballot could play a role in who makes the runoff.
Another Democrat on the ballot who could hinder Warnock’s chances of making the runoff is former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver. A former state senator, President Obama nominated him to serve as a U.S. Attorney in southern Georgia in 2009. The former Army artillery officer became south Georgia’s first African-American U.S. attorney. Though he has a solid résumé, he has struggled to catch fire with voters. Per his recent FEC filing, he has just over $40,000 in the bank. He also hasn’t earned any significant endorsements. But he recently called for national Democrats to abandon Warnock’s campaign after the dispute with his estranged wife came to light. He may be struggling to gain traction, but like Lieberman, his presence on the ballot could determine who makes the runoff.
What about the Regular Election?
Georgia’s Class II Senate seat was scheduled to be on the ballot in 2020. It is held by Republican Sen. David Perdue. This election will be held using a traditional primary system. Democrats are in the middle of a three-way primary that will be decided this week. Here is a look at all of the candidates in this race.
Republican Sen. David Perdue is seeking a second (and what he says will be his final) term in the Senate. The cousin of Agriculture Secretary and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, he was elected to the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections. He defeated Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. Since Trump was elected, Perdue has tried to brand himself as one of his closest allies in the Senate. He has a lot of advantages heading into November. For starters, he has a massive cash advantage over his Democratic opponents. Recent FEC filings show that he has over $9 million in the bank. He will also have the backing of the President and his allies. Georgia is a rapidly changing state. It remains to be seen if Perdue’s close ties to a polarizing President will be helpful or prove fatal in the affluent Metro Atlanta suburbs.
Perhaps the most recognizable Democrat running in this race is documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff. You may remember the national attention he gained when he ran for Georgia’s 6th congressional district in a 2017 special election. He raised over $30 million for what would be the most expensive House race in U.S. history, but came up short against Republican Karen Handel (who subsequently lost re-election to Democrat Lucy McBath in 2018).
Ossoff entered the Senate race with a huge endorsement: civil rights legend John Lewis, whom he has known since he was in high school. Republicans are anticipating Ossoff to be the nominee, and they will likely recycle some of the same attacks that they used against him in 2017. He was criticized for his lack of experience, his out-of-state donations and for reports that he “inflated” his résumé as a national security staffer to Rep. Hank Johnson. Polls indicate that he is within striking distance of winning the primary outright this week. He will have the money and the name recognition to put this race on the radar. But expect Republicans to again criticize him for his lack of experience.
Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson was the first major Democrat to announce her candidacy for the seat. She announced after Stacey Abrams ended months of speculation that she would challenge Perdue. Tomlinson is the only Democrat in this race who has ever held elected office. She was elected Mayor of Columbus in a 2010 runoff with 68% of the vote. Tomlinson also simultaneously served as the city’s public safety director. She has been endorsed by former Gov. Roy Barnes, former Sen. Max Cleland, former UN Amb. Andrew Young and Martin Luther King, III, according to her campaign website.
Though she has touted her elected experience and her endorsements, she has struggled in fundraising and in polls. A recent poll from WSB-TV found Tomlinson at 14%, while Ossoff is at 42%. She also lags Ossoff in fundraising, having less than $240k on hand while Ossoff has $950k. If she wins the nomination, she will definitely bring experience to the table. She has also argued that she will be able to energize rural voters since she is not from the Atlanta area. But she would have to pick up the pace in raising money. Georgia is not a cheap state, and Perdue has $9 million awaiting the winner of the Democratic primary.
Sarah Riggs Amico
The third Democratic candidate in the race against David Perdue is businesswoman Sarah Riggs Amico. She was the 2018 Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor. She narrowly lost that race to State Rep. Geoff Duncan.
Amico is the executive chairperson of Jack Cooper Ventures, one of the largest car-hauling companies in North America. Shortly before a entering the race for Senate, it was announced that the company would be seeking bankruptcy protection due to declining revenue. She said in her announcement that the bankruptcy was part of the reason she was running. “The reality is what I’ve gone through with that business this year has profoundly shaped how I see the stakes in the election, and the urgency that I feel to fix some of these issues,” Amico said in an interview with the AJC.
In her campaign, she has repeatedly emphasized her religious faith and her campaign with Stacey Abrams. She is also making voting rights a huge issue in her campaign. If she wins the nomination, Republicans are definitely going to use her company’s bankruptcy as a line of attack. But she will use her Christian faith as a way to court religious voters, who make up a huge portion of the state’s rural voters. Her wealth will also have the ability to self-fund her campaign.
Expect both parties to invest heavily in both of these races. It is very rare for both of a state’s Senate seats to be on the ballot in the same year. Democrats plan to seize on Georgia’s changing political landscape. Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking to prove that the 2018 elections were a fluke. Georgia could very well decide the presidency and control of the U.S. Senate. Georgia is going to be an exciting state to watch over the next five months.