Georgia Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue took divergent approaches to President Donald Trump during their 2020 campaigns, with Loeffler touting her “100 percent pro-Trump” voting record and Perdue — who has been one of the president’s closest allies in the Senate — barely mentioning his name.
But with both Republicans facing runoffs that could decide control of the Senate, they sounded the same notes on the biggest test of Trump loyalty currently facing members of the GOP.
With Trump asserting, without evidence, that ballots were cast illegally in the Nov. 3 election and refusing to concede, neither Perdue nor Loeffler has said whether they accept that Democrat Joe Biden is the president-elect.
Instead, as it became increasingly clear that the Peach State would award its 16 electoral votes to Biden, they issued a joint statement Monday decrying unspecified “failures” in the management of Georgia elections that they said had become “an embarrassment to the state.” The joint statement called for the resignation of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who like Gov. Brian Kemp is a fellow Republican.
The statement, which did not mention Trump or provide evidence of problems at the polls, came as both Perdue and Loeffler have made appeals elsewhere that appeared to accept the inevitability of a Biden presidency.
They’ve portrayed themselves to potential donors and supporters as the “last line of defense” against Democrats in Congress, which would only be true if Biden was in the White House. With Democrats already projected to hold at least 48 Senate seats next year, losses by Perdue and Loeffler in the Jan. 5 runoff would give them 50 and make Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tiebreaking vote in the Senate. Races in Alaska and North Carolina are also uncalled, but GOP incumbents there are leading.
“The stakes in this election could not be higher: a vote for Jon Ossoff is a vote to hand power to Chuck Schumer and the radical Democrats in Washington,” Perdue campaign manager Ben Fry said in a statement Sunday, referencing Perdue’s Democratic challenger and the Senate minority leader.
“The road to the U.S. Senate majority runs through Georgia,” Loeffler tweeted Monday.
The statements provide an early indication of how Perdue and Loeffler, whose January elections will be the first in the aftermath of Trump’s defeat, will handle the question of Trump loyalty that has consumed GOP campaigns for the last four years.
Strong Trump support
While Biden was on the cusp of claiming victory in Georgia on Monday, he was leading by less than 1 point, and Raffensperger has already said there would be a recount. The results indicate that Trump retained a strong base in the Peach State and give Perdue and Loeffler little incentive to join the minority of Republicans in Washington who have raised concerns about Trump’s defiance of postelection norms.
With the final vote tally not yet complete, Perdue was ahead of Ossoff by almost 90,000 votes Monday evening, but he was more than two-tenths of a percentage point under the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Libertarian Shane Hazel had 2 percent of the vote.
Loeffler’s race was long expected to go to a runoff. She finished second to Democrat Raphael Warnock in the crowded all-party special election for the final two years of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. As of Monday evening, Warnock led Loeffler, 33 percent to 26 percent. Kemp appointed Loeffler to the seat after Isakson stepped down due to health reasons.
Republicans traditionally enjoy an advantage in Georgia runoffs, when Democratic turnout has historically been low.
If that trend holds, Perdue and Loeffler would not need to appeal to moderates or convert Democrats to win, said Charles S. Bullock III, a University of Georgia political science professor who co-authored a book about runoff elections.
“If either of the Republican Senate candidates were to chart a course at great variance with that of Trump, they would risk turning off some of those Trump supporters,” he said. “Their strategy may well be, don’t alienate any of our Republican supporters. Assuming turnout is same as in the past, the Republican wins.”
But massive Demographic changes and voter mobilization in recent years have created a tidal wave of support for Democrats that has upended assumptions about elections in the once reliably red state. With tens of millions of dollars of outside spending expected to flow into the state, political strategists from both sides told CQ Roll Call last week it was not clear which party would have the advantage in January’s runoff.
Divergent early approaches
Loeffler enters the race with an extra incentive to maintain a laser focus on the hard-line conservative voters she courted throughout her campaign, Bullock said.
She spent the most of the last year in a bitter feud with Republican Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally who was considered her toughest competition out of the 20 candidates in the special election. Highlights of her campaign included ads asserting she was “more conservative than Attila the Hun” and her straight-faced assertion that she was “not familiar” with the Access Hollywood tape that almost derailed Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
But Loeffler would be in a good position to overtake Warnock in January if she can convince the almost 1 million people who voted for Collins to support her.
So it’s no surprise that Loeffler has already assembled a series of attacks on Warnock, a senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr’s former church in Atlanta, dubbing him the “most radical and dangerous candidate in America.”
Perdue, who was among Trump’s strongest early supporters in the Senate, did not have a primary and spent his campaign fending off Ossoff’s attacks that he was aligned with corrupt officials in Washington.
He kept the president at a distance until a few days before the election, when he appeared at a Trump campaign rally and mockingly mispronounced Harris’ name.
Perdue currently leads with 2.5 million votes to Ossoff’s 2.4 million, but Hazel, the Libertarian candidate, has so far earned an additional 115,000 votes, some of which could be up for grabs in January.