Plagued by scandals and wedded to Trump, Loeffler and Perdue face a fight for their political lives
Barring the sort of disputed outcome that’s become all too common in American politics these days, Tuesday will bring to a close the drawn-out, historically expensive, bitterly contested, and enormously consequential races for Georgia’s two seats in the U.S. Senate.
More than 3 million Georgians are believed to have already cast their ballots in early voting, a development that would appear to bode well for Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock. Their opponents, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, are Republican incumbents in a Deep South state that, until recently, had long hewed deeply red on the electoral map. Should the Democrats win both races, it would swing control of the Senate to the party by the narrowest of margins, giving President-elect Joe Biden a unified Congress capable of pushing through his agenda over the next two years.
That’s why the eyes of the political establishment—not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign spending—have been firmly trained on Georgia since November’s general election, when it became clear that both Senate races would be decided by a January runoff that would determine America’s near-term political reality. Demographic shifts and voter mobilization efforts have helped transform a state that was once a Republican stronghold into a “purple” battleground, as evidenced by Biden becoming the first Democrat since 1992 to carry Georgia in a presidential election. In Ossoff and Warnock, Democrats believe they now have a real shot at winning seats long entrenched on the red side of the aisle.
“These are obviously two very close races, but Democrats have some inherent advantages in [Georgia],” according to Bradley Beychok, the president of Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. “We just carried it in the presidential election and have made significant investments in terms of infrastructure that are paying off with early votes and absentee ballot requests.”
Standing in their way are Perdue and Loeffler, two former business executives whose varying paths have delivered them to the corridors of power on Capitol Hill. Perdue, the senior senator of the two, won election to Congress in 2014 after a career spent helping American companies outsource their operations abroad—one that culminated in a stint as chief executive of a Fortune 500 company in Dollar General. Loeffler was appointed to her seat 12 months ago by Georgia’s Republican governor to succeed the retiring Johnny Isakson; her route took her through Wall Street, where she would end up at financial exchange operator (and New York Stock Exchange parent company) Intercontinental Exchange and eventually marry the company’s founder and CEO, Jeffrey Sprecher. With an estimated net worth of $500 million, she is believed to be the wealthiest member of Congress.
Yet both senators now find themselves in a fight for their political lives in the closing stages of races that are running far closer than anyone could have expected a year ago. The polls, as flawed as they’ve proven, indicate that both Ossoff and Warnock have a realistic shot at defeating Perdue and Loeffler in the runoff, while betting odds—which are emerged as an increasingly popular means of predicting political outcomes—have also flipped in the Democrats’ favor recently.
Should both Republicans lose, it will be viewed as a damning indictment of a political strategy that has seen the GOP establishment bend, time and again, to President Trump’s will in an attempt to appeal to a Republican base for whom Trump remains exceptionally popular. Perdue and Loeffler have been eager participants in this dynamic, aligning themselves with the President’s tone, rhetoric, and agenda even after a presidential election in which he lost their state.
The result has been two messy, contentious political contests that have played out along the fault lines of American political discourse. Loeffler has been exceptionally willing to play the part of culture warrior, repeatedly attacking Warnock—who is pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached—as a “radical socialist,” and taking an outspoken stance against the Black Lives Matter movement that made her persona non grata among players on the WNBA team she owns. Likewise, Perdue has enlisted in Trump’s vociferous, baseless attempts to dispute and discredit the election in which he lost—joining Loeffler in calling for the resignation of Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, for his oversight of the election.
Yet for all their attacks, both incumbents have themselves proved vulnerable to criticisms of their own dealings and conduct. The campaign has brought an onslaught of negative stories about Loeffler’s and Perdue’s personal financial dealings—namely, their stock trading activities—and whether they improperly benefited from their public positions. Loeffler was one of several senators scrutinized for stock trades made after receiving private Senate briefings at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, while her position on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, has also drawn attention given her ties to Intercontinental Exchange. And Perdue has reportedly made thousands of stock transactions during his time in Congress, including some that raise conflict of interest concerns.
Both Loeffler and Perdue were reportedly probed by federal investigators for their stock trades last year, though those investigations are believed to have been dropped with no charges forthcoming. Still, there is no shortage of other financial dealings involving the two that have raised eyebrows during the campaign—whether it’s the $1.8 million sale of Perdue’s Washington, D.C., home to a financial industry lobbyist, or Loeffler’s considerable financial ties to Intercontinental Exchange as a sitting U.S. senator.
Representatives for Loeffler and Perdue did not respond to requests for comment, while the Department of Justice declined to comment.
Democrats have taken the opportunity to hammer Perdue and Loeffler on the bad optics around their personal finances at a time when many Americans are struggling economically, spending millions to air negative attack ads across the state. And both Ossoff and Warnock have gone on the offensive against their opponents—with Ossoff memorably branding Perdue a “crook” in one of their debates this fall, which prompted Perdue to opt out of their remaining debates.
For some observers, Loeffler and Perdue exemplify the state of the Republican Party in the Trump era: an uneasy coalition of wealthy, corporate-class elites who have aligned themselves with a populist brand of politics appealing to the white working classes, in the interest of preserving their influence in D.C.’s corridors of power.
“It’s a strange coalition of billionaires and people with enormous amounts of wealth with an ideology designed to provoke angry, lower-income white Americans,” says Richard Painter, a government ethics critic who served as chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration.
But in a year of disease and economic despair for many Georgians, in a state with constantly evolving demographics that trend away from Trump’s appeal, that coalition shows signs of cracking as far as the Senate runoffs are concerned. If the Democrats can take advantage, they could well find themselves with a Mitch McConnell–proof majority in Congress—and complete control of the federal government—through at least 2022.
“I think the reason people are skeptical of these [Republican] candidates is that they know they have profited from this pandemic, have potentially broken the law, and are out of touch,” according to Beychok. “Elections are about choices, and this one is clear.”