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'We are the firewall': Loeffler and Perdue form GOP unity ticket in Georgia Senate races

Democrats are trying to make the move backfire by painting the two wealthy Republicans as attempting to profit off Covid-19.
Image: Kelly Loeffler, David Perdue
Republican Senate candidates Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue wait to speak at a campaign rally on Nov. 13, 2020, in Cumming, Ga.Brynn Anderson / AP

CUMMING, Ga. — Republican senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are appearing in videos together, releasing statements together and, on Friday, they held a joint rally in this city outside Atlanta.

After running different styles of campaigns, Perdue and Loeffler are heading into the January 5 runoffs with a new tactic to try to keep the Senate in GOP hands: joining forces and presenting themselves to Georgia voters as a unity ticket.

The senators are walking a fine line with their message, careful not to contradict President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat. But the subtext is clear: Joe Biden will be president and advance a progressive agenda — but only if Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win the two Georgia Senate seats that would give their party control of the Senate.

“We have a battle on our hands right now, folks. It’s going to be a long one. We are the firewall. Not just for the Senate, but the future of our country,” Loeffler told a packed crowd at the Black Diamond Grill, appearing with Perdue and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. “We will be your voice in Washington if you’re our voice on January 5.”

The unified front by the two senators is an attempt to stir up the Republican base after Trump's shocking defeat in this historically conservative state. It carries some risks, particularly for Perdue, who has worked harder than Loeffler to appeal to swing voters.

Perdue said he expects the election to be about base turnout.

“What we have to do is not persuade people. What we have to do is get the vote out,” he said.

Loeffler, who took office in January after being appointed to fill a vacancy, faced a “jungle primary” with candidates of all parties on the same ballot. She was primarily focused on defeating Republican challenger Rep. Doug Collins, and did so by hugging Trump tightly and labeling herself “more conservative than Attila the Hun.”

The strategy paid off last week and Loeffler advanced to the runoff. But now she needs to expand her appeal beyond the 26 percent of voters who supported her the first time. Her Democratic opponent Warnock took the largest share of general election voters with 33 percent.

It may be too late for her to execute a pivot now. Instead, Loeffler's strategy for victory is to disqualify Warnock and paint him as out of the mainstream. “He has supported Marxist ideas. He has embraced communists,” she told a mask-optional crowd indoors here on a sunny day, drawing boos.

Warnock responded Thursday, telling reporters that Loeffler “sits down for interviews with known white supremacists, and she gleefully accepts the endorsement of a candidate who traffics in the QAnon conspiracy that is rife with hatred and bigotry.”

Image: Georgia GOP Senate Candidates David Perdue And Kelly Loeffler Hold Campaign Rally
Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., speaks to supporters during a Save Our Majority campaign rally with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Nov. 11, 2020, in Marietta, Ga.Jessica McGowan / Getty Images

Perdue didn’t have to worry about a Republican challenger. The first-term incumbent coasted to renomination unopposed and focused on the general election, striking a more sober tone about getting the coronavirus under control and bringing life back to normal.

But the unity ticket also creates opportunities for Democrats. Perdue and Loeffler are both multi-millionaires and rank among the wealthiest senators. Both faced scrutiny for stock trades during the pandemic, which their campaigns say were handled by independent financial advisers.

“They’ve already been lumped together as the pandemic profiteers. It just kind of reinforces that negative story in terms of taking advantage of their position to enrich themselves,” said Jennifer Jordan, a Democratic state senator who represents Atlanta. “These über-rich people that don’t even want to be around normal Georgians and will do whatever they can to make an extra buck.”

Jordan said Loeffler, who is less well-known and more controversial, will drag down Perdue by undermining the more moderate message he campaigned on.

“When you characterize yourself as Attila the Hun you are not trying to moderate,” said Jordan. “Their messaging has been inconsistent. If I’m the Perdue campaign I’d be kind of careful. That’s what people know about her. She doesn’t have a record.”

But Republicans say the runoffs have changed the equation.

“It’s a new world in the sense the stakes have been raised — the Senate majority is on the line. Even if you might have been running a different style of campaign during the previous months, this battle resonates with voters,” said Jesse Hunt, the communications director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Who do you want to run the Senate?”

To some Republicans in the Atlanta area, who are aghast at the state trending blue and fear the prospect of all-Democratic government, it's an appealing message.

Beth Pfannkuche, a caregiver in Loganville, Georgia, said it's a “good idea” for them to run together.

“Perdue has been in office a lot longer than she has,” she said. “I don’t know Kelly all that good.”

By contrast, Ossoff and Warnock come from different backgrounds as a Jewish millennial and a prominent Baptist preacher. Each comes from a different segment of the population that is helping drive Democratic victors — young voters and Black Americans. Both are running on protecting health care access and defeating the coronavirus pandemic.

The two currently have no joint events scheduled but Ossoff said he expects them to campaign together during the runoff.

Warnock's campaign said Loeffler's link to Perdue is immaterial.

“It doesn't matter who Senator Loeffler campaigns with,” said Warnock spokesman Terrence Clark. “She's trying to paper over her record of attacking protections for pre-existing conditions coverage and profiting off of the pandemic, and now she's been caught lying in her ads.”