Health care vs. 'radical leftists': Parties re-running 2020 playbooks in Georgia runoffs

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COLUMBUS, Ga. — Republicans want to save Georgians from socialism. Democrats want to save their health care and flip the Senate.

The dueling messages last week defined the kickoff of the two runoff elections in Georgia that will decide control of the Senate in January. Win both races, and Democrats have a 50-50 Senate with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking ties. Lose both, and Democrats are relegated once again to the minority, with a Republican Senate standing in the way of President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda.

The eight-week sprint to the Jan. 5 runoffs comes amid the backdrop of rapidly rising Covid-19 infections, along with the start of Biden’s transition — even as Republicans defend President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine and fight the results of the election. Both sides agree on one thing: Georgia is about to determine the shape of American politics for at least the next two years. But they diverge sharply on how that prospect motivates voters.

“We need to win these two Senate elections to make sure we can look out for people’s health, to make sure we can empower public health experts to control this virus and invest in economic recovery,” Democrat Jon Ossoff told reporters after a drive-in rally here.

Ossoff, who is challenging GOP Sen. David Perdue, and Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is running in a special election against appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler, both focused on protecting health care in their first events last week, a continuation of Democrats’ general-election message. In his stump speech at the drive-in rally, Ossoff called for investing in rural hospitals, expanding Medicaid and preserving pre-existing conditions protections. The event was in a massive parking lot by the local Civic Center, with attendees sitting in cars or distanced on the pavement.

On Friday, in a packed sports bar and grill in an upscale strip mall in the Trump-heavy, exurban Forsyth County, the Republicans defined the races very differently.

Perdue hit on a litany of policies he said were at stake if Democrats took the Senate, from defunding the police to the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, though he did not name Ossoff. Perdue and Loeffler’s arguments — which mirrored those of downballot Republicans who narrowed Democrats’ House majority and brought the GOP to the brink of keeping the Senate — leaned heavily on being a firewall against Democrats rather than promoting a GOP agenda.

“Stand with us to make sure that we can go back to Washington and stand up against AOC, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and all those radical leftists,” Perdue said to cheers from a crowd of more than 100 people, packed closely together — many of them without masks, which were offered but not required upon entry.

Perdue only briefly touched on the presidential election, saying he was disappointed — but adding “we don’t know how it’s going to turn out yet” and that they needed all Republicans to vote in the runoff regardless. Loeffler didn’t mention the presidential race in her remarks, though networks called the state for Biden minutes before the two senators spoke. Neither Perdue nor Loeffler took questions from reporters following the event.

Biden’s victory in Georgia complicates Republicans’ messaging. While they argue, without evidence, that the election results don’t foreclose a second Trump term — control of the Senate would only be at stake in Georgia if Biden and Harris are inaugurated as president and vice president, since Republicans have already won 50 Senate seats.

Loeffler’s message this week was the same: “We’re fighting for American opportunity, not socialism,” she said as she kicked off the race Wednesday with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at the GOP headquarters in suburban Cobb County. Once an Atlanta-area GOP stronghold, Cobb County has swung left: Mitt Romney carried the county by more than 12 points eight years ago, but Biden won it by 14 points this month.

Loeffler ticked off the Green New Deal, “socialized medicine,” high taxes and regulations as the key initiatives a Republican Senate would be able to block. The first two national surrogates were Rubio and fellow Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the state where the GOP’s anti-socialism message was perhaps most effective this year.

“Not all Democrats are socialists, but all the socialists are Democrats,” Rubio said, addressing more than a hundred GOP supporters, most but not all wearing face masks.

The day after the event with Rubio, Loeffler launched her first TV ads of the special-election runoff, which hit Warnock for past comments defending controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright and for his work at a church that once hosted Fidel Castro. (Warnock was a youth pastor and has said he had nothing to do with that program). It was an effort to begin defining Warnock, who ran millions of dollars in positive ads ahead of the November vote with no GOP attacks against him. He was also first on air with positive ads to start the runoff, one of which warned about the looming attacks.

Warnock, the pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has tried to shrug off the attacks. In a press conference last week in the parking lot outside an Atlanta IBEW union headquarters, Warnock dismissed the GOP ads as “division and distraction.” His campaign also launched his first attack ad on Loeffler, focusing on her stock trades made during the pandemic. (She was cleared of wrongdoing by the Justice Department and the Senate ethics committee).


“It must be really hard to explain why you’re for getting rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic,” Warnock said. “It must be really hard to explain how it is you’ve done a great job profiting off of the pandemic and increasing your wealth portfolio, but you have not managed to provide any Covid-19 relief to the people of Georgia in months.”

Loeffler and Warnock are running for the final two years left in the term of former Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned last year. The Perdue-Ossoff race is for a full, six-year term — but the two races are blending into one campaign. Loeffler and Perdue campaigned together for the first time last week, since she faced an intraparty challenge from Rep. Doug Collins. Collins endorsed Loeffler after finishing third in the special election earlier this month and is now working with the Trump campaign on the presidential recount.

Warnock and Ossoff, who campaigned together during the general election, are holding their first joint runoff event Sunday. But voters already see them as a ticket.

AJ Freeman, who lives in Atlanta and recently retired from Delta Air Lines, attended Ossoff’s first drive-in rally last Tuesday. But his car had an anti-Loeffler, “QAnon Kelly” sign in the windshield.

“We have to take the bull by the horns, and we have to dissuade these people on the right that think we’re all a bunch of demonic satanistic worshipers, and that we’re actually here for the people,” Freeman said. “We want to see great health care.”

Freeman said he attended the Ossoff event because he realized, after Biden’s victory, the election is "not over yet." That’s Ossoff’s challenge, too. While he’s hit the outgoing president — he called the past four years marked by “incompetence and deceit and the constant lying and fear-mongering” — Ossoff is also focused on the danger to Biden’s presidency a Republican Senate would present.

“Mitch McConnell as majority leader guarantees perpetual gridlock and obstruction,” he said in an interview. “That’s what he does, and that’s what he’ll do. And he does it purely for partisan reasons.”

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