But months out, the national interest in the two races has yet to match the scale of the opportunity, and Democrats are hoping that eye-raising revelations about the two GOP incumbents’ personal finances will boost their chances — and national perceptions.
Both Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have faced questions about their decisions to sell millions of dollars in stocks before the risks of the coronavirus pandemic had become widely known. Both senators have denied wrongdoing, saying the trades were made by third-party advisers, but the perception that the senators acted for their own private benefit has fueled Democratic attacks — and the party’s ambitions.
“We’re going to make political history in Georgia, and I hope they want to be a part of that, because it’s going to happen,” Teresa Tomlinson, who is running for the Democratic nomination to face Perdue, said about Democratic strategists and donors. “It’s going to happen this year, and it’s going to happen in November.”
Raphael Warnock, a prominent Atlanta pastor who is seeking the Loeffler seat, said the Senate races together offer a “transformational opportunity” for the state and the country. “The path to victory and change in our country runs right through Georgia,” he said in an interview. “There’s no question that Georgia is in play.”
However, key indicators have not reflected that optimism. So far, no major party-affiliated campaign committee or super PAC has placed ad reservations in Georgia for the fall, even as a competitive presidential race in the state threatens to drive up advertising prices.
Meanwhile, Democratic candidates in the two races have posted relatively modest fundraising totals, with Abrams’s well-publicized decision to skip a Senate run fueling perceptions in Washington and among donors nationally that the two races may be long shots. Instead, money has flowed more readily into Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and even Iowa and Kentucky — states where many Democrats see a more likely path to the majority.
Independent forecasters have come to similar conclusions. The Cook Political Report, for instance, rates Perdue’s seat as “likely Republican” and rates Loeffler’s seat as “leans Republican” — a more competitive rating reflecting her status as an appointee who has to weather an intraparty challenge from Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.).
“If you were in Las Vegas and someone gave you a thousand dollars and said, you’ve got to bet it on the Georgia contests, you’d probably bet on the Republicans,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a University of Georgia professor and scholar of Georgia politics.
Adding to the challenges for Democrats are the completely different formats and schedules for the two races. Perdue’s race is being conducted with a normal partisan primary — albeit one that has been delayed from March 24 to June 9 due to the pandemic — that will culminate in the Nov. 3 general election.
The other seat, however, is a special election that is being conducted as a “jungle” primary pitting all comers against each other regardless of party. Initial voting will take place Nov. 3, with a Jan. 5 runoff to follow if no candidate secures an outright majority — as is likely in a race with 20 declared candidates.
Still, Bullock and others said Democrats clearly have a significant opportunity — particularly in the race for the seat Loeffler holds. A wealthy business executive with no history in electoral politics, Loeffler was tapped by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in December to succeed 15-year GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned due to poor health. She instantly became the wealthiest member of Congress, with roughly $500 million.
Even before the stock-sale revelations, Loeffler faced a fierce challenge from Collins — a conservative former Army chaplain who won plaudits from President Trump and many of his allies for helping to lead the GOP defense against Trump’s impeachment as the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
Her challenge has only been compounded after news that she and her husband liquidated nearly $2 million in stock holdings after she attended a Jan. 24 coronavirus briefing for senators. Loeffler later produced documents showing that the sales were accompanied by bullish options trades that could ultimately offset the significant financial losses she avoided.
But the political damage has been immediate, with both Collins and his conservative allies as well as the entire Democratic field attacking her as an out-of-touch profiteer.
“She hasn’t been in the Senate that long, and right now, that’s what she’s most known for,” Warnock said. “I think it raises larger questions about trust: Can we trust you with this power? . . . People are busy sheltering in and here they have a senator who is busy sheltering her investments.”
Loeffler has spent recent weeks using her social media accounts and other platforms to highlight her efforts to combat the pandemic and blunt its economic impacts.
Spokesman Stephen Lawson said in a statement that Georgians “are turning away from career politicians and toward proven conservative leaders like Kelly Loeffler who have put politics aside to focus on delivering relief to families and businesses impacted most by covid-19.”
Loeffler maintains the backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Leadership Fund, the main GOP super PAC focused on Senate races. But neither group has active spending plans in Georgia. On Wednesday, a major pro-Trump super PAC announced it was backing Collins over Loeffler.
An adviser to the Great America PAC said electing Collins will be a “major focus” for the group, with its spending expected to reach “well into the millions by November.”
“With Senator Loeffler’s support already collapsing following her stock sales scandal, we are confident Collins will buck the establishment and win the seat,” said Brent Lowder, senior strategist for the group.
Loeffler, however, has the personal wealth to fight back. Some in Republican circles have compared her to another wealthy Republican senator — Rick Scott of Florida — who used upward of $150 million of his own riches to twice win gubernatorial races and then a Senate seat despite tough attacks from both parties on his record as a business executive.
According to federal campaign finance reports filed this week, Loeffler lent $10 million to her campaign since December, giving her a $6.1 million war chest, compared with the $2.2 million Collins has amassed. Warnock, the best-financed Democrat in the special election, has $1.2 million banked.
Democrats, meanwhile, believe not only that a messy intraparty dispute will redound to their benefit in a runoff, but that the more conservative Collins could be a more vulnerable opponent.
They, however, have their own internal dynamics to confront. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has rallied behind Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church — a post once held by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — as have Abrams and other pillars of Georgia’s Democratic establishment.
But other credible candidates — such as Matt Lieberman, the son of former senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Ed Tarver, a former U.S. attorney and state legislator — have given no sign of stepping aside, though neither showed much fundraising muscle in the last quarter: Lieberman has about $308,000 in his campaign account, while Tarver has about $41,000.
Perdue’s stock sales, meanwhile, have not generated the same level of scrutiny. He both bought and sold stocks in the months before the scale of the coronavirus epidemic expanded and he did not attend the briefing that Loeffler’s critics have cited as a possible source of inside information.
But his Democratic rivals have still seized on the millionaire former CEO’s financial dealings. Tomlinson, the former mayor of Columbus, connected his stock trades to stories about his business career that dogged his 2014 candidacy.
“He really has, his entire professional life, skated on some pretty thin ethical ice,” she said. “And I think it plays into a narrative that makes sense to Georgians.”
Perdue spokeswoman Casey Black said the stock-trading allegations “will have no impact on David Perdue’s race because the facts show he has done nothing wrong, period.” Black said the assets of Perdue and his wife are managed by independent advisers, “and recent market turmoil has caused their portfolio to experience losses like most Americans.”
Besides Tomlinson, two other Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Sarah Riggs Amico, are also running for the right to face Perdue in November. Ossoff narrowly lost a 2017 House special election, one that still made him a household name among Atlanta-area voters, while Amico, a business executive, won the 2018 Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor but lost in the general election.
Ossoff on Wednesday announced he had $1.8 million cash to spend ahead of the primary, while Tomlinson and Amico reported having about $436,000 and $280,000, respectively. Perdue, meanwhile, has more than $9 million to spend with no primary to weather.
While candidates in both races have time before November to pad their fundraising, the sums Georgia Democrats have so far raised have paled in comparison to what Senate candidates in other states — even much smaller ones — have raised.
In North Carolina, nominee Cal Cunningham has more than $3 million to spend after a competitive primary, while in Iowa, Democratic frontrunner Theresa Greenfield has $3.8 million banked. Former astronaut Mark Kelly has nearly $20 million to spend in the Arizona race.
NRSC spokesman Jesse Hunt said that Republicans are not overly concerned about either Georgia race, citing what Republicans say is a weak field of candidates as well as a national Democratic message that he suggested would be too liberal for a moderate state.
“If the Democrat candidates’ personal baggage doesn’t ruin their candidacies, their socialist agenda surely will,” he said, though Trump and Republicans have backed trillions of dollars in bailout money.
But J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, said in an interview last month that while Georgia does not appear among the group’s initial ad reservations, he was confident the state would remain in grasp for Democrats as the campaigns develop.
“We think Georgia’s good territory,” he said.