ATLANTA — Georgia Democrats want Joe Biden’s campaign and donors to do everything they can to help win a pair of Senate races that could shape the success of his presidency.
But there’s one thing they’re not clamoring for: the president-elect himself.
Though Biden is leading in Georgia by 14,149 votes, Democrats would rather he stay in his proverbial basement by tending to his transition and portraying himself as an above-the-fray government-fixer. Instead, they say, send any Obama to help motivate the base in the two Jan. 5 Senate runoffs.
The Democrats’ posture is a far cry from Georgia Republicans’ view of help from Washington. They’re desperate for assistance from President Donald Trump and his rallies, which even Democrats acknowledge are turnout-drivers, unlike Biden’s events.
Even Biden downplayed whether he would show.
“We’re going to do whatever we can,” Biden told reporters Tuesday. He has dispatched his campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, to keep an eye on the Georgia recount.
Trump hasn’t confirmed an appearance but his advisers told POLITICO they expect him to come.
Biden never tried to match the spectacle of Trump’s rallies for two reasons: he couldn’t draw the same type of crowds and, during a pandemic, it isn’t safe. And though the race is heading to a recount, it looks like he’ll prevail in Georgia without having held big public events.
But even a small-scale visit from former President Barack Obama or former first lady Michelle Obama could generate the level of media attention it takes to move the needle, Democrats say. An Obama adviser said the former president is willing to help if asked; the former president made an appearance in the state for both candidates on the eve of last week’s election.
“More important to us is whether Barack or Michelle comes. We don’t necessarily need Joe to come; he needs to get that White House in order,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter, one of the independent groups that helped drive high African American turnout in the state.
Organizers like Albright and advisers to the Senate candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, are clear that they would welcome Biden to the state along with his history-making vice president-elect, California Sen. Kamala Harris.
But in the era of the coronavirus, they say it will be much trickier to have big campaign events, canvass neighborhoods and register more voters before the Dec. 7 deadline.
The double-header election pits Ossoff and Warnock against Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively. This is the first time a state has had a pair of runoff Senate elections occur at the same time; on top of that, the outcome in these two races will determine control of the chamber. A Democratic sweep would lead to a 50-50 Senate where ties are broken by Harris, who as vice president also acts as president of the Senate.
An adviser to Ossoff agreed that Biden is more useful to Democrats showing he can govern after the upheaval of Trump’s term — and instilling voter confidence in Democratic governance — than spending his time in Georgia the next two months.
“The best thing Biden can do is run a good transition,” the adviser said. “Don’t get into a fight with [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell. Lead by example. Restore faith in the presidency. The worst thing to happen is if it gets partisan in D.C. again.”
Ossoff became the first of the four candidates to launch the runoff with a drive-in kickoff rally here Tuesday night. Dozens of attendees were spaced out in an asphalt parking lot while many more stayed in the hundred-plus cars lined up in the lot, cheering and honking in the light rain. Nearly every Democratic speaker who hyped the crowd before Ossoff referenced the Dec. 7 voter registration deadline and early voting, hammering home the organizational effort winning will require.
“We need President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to be able to lead, to be able to govern,” Ossoff said during his remarks, adding that Democrats in the state “have all the momentum, we have all the energy.”
The Senate campaigns have communicated with Biden’s advisers, but so far the conversations have been cursory, said two sources familiar with the discussions. One Biden adviser said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has come under fire from some donors and consultants after falling short of expectations that Democrats would flip the Senate.
“There is significant concern, this unbelievable feeling against the DSCC about how much money was spent in these Senate races only to not win,” said a Biden adviser. The person added that it’s unclear how they are “going to be able to get the kind of funding they need to because nobody’s having a lot of confidence in the party committees and their ability to use money well right now.”
The DSCC and the campaigns said they’re encouraged by early enthusiasm for the runoffs, particularly given Ossoff and Warnock’s success with small-dollar donors. DSCC advisers worked closely with both campaigns in the general election, and have already begun helping to coordinate between the two campaigns, the state party and the collective of turnout and volunteer organizations on the ground here.
In a memo Monday, the committee announced a multimillion dollar investment focused on organizing on the ground and virtually, including with phone banks and text messaging. Though Democrats failed to flip the Senate last, their wins in Arizona and Colorado, both of which Biden carried, gave them optimism about Georgia.
“We’re going to build on the success President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris had in Georgia,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a committee spokesperson.
Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said voters were turned off by Democrats’ embrace of “socialist ideas. And the more national surrogates Warnock and Ossoff bring to the state, the more obvious it is who they’re beholden to.”
Biden ran ahead of Ossoff by about 100,000 votes, while Perdue narrowly outran Trump, according to current tallies. Warnock received the most votes in the special election, but only topped Loeffler by 7 percentage points with 20 candidates getting votes. Historically, Democrats have lost special elections to Republicans, but both sides say the state is changing in ways that help Democrats, with Biden’s narrow win showing that Georgia can be won.
Also, Republicans appear far more divided than Democrats.
To show their solidarity for Trump, Loeffler and Perdue issued a joint statement Monday that called on the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to resign over his management of the election. Raffensperger, who has pushed back against Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud, urged the senators to focus on their runoffs.
Some Republicans also worry that all the talk of fraud could hurt base turnout.
“Trump is gonna cost the GOP the Senate. His supporters are internalizing that the election in Georgia was stolen so why bother even trying,” Erick Erickson, a prominent Republican from the state, fretted on Twitter.
Trump’s campaign has dispatched more than 90 staffers to the state to help with the recount and dozens more operatives from the Republican National Committee hit the ground this week to help Loeffler and Perdue.
While Trump hasn’t yet committed to visiting the state, Vice President Mike Pence announced he’ll be campaigning there, as will Florida’s two senators, including once-and-future presidential hopeful Marco Rubio.
“It’s the wild, wild west here,” said Chip Lake, a veteran Republican strategist who worked in the just-ended primary campaign for Rep. Doug Collins against Loeffler, an appointed incumbent.
“A lot, if not all, of the Republicans that want to kick the tires on running four years from now are going to treat Georgia the way Iowa usually gets treated,” Lake said. “But no one can produce the excitement that Trump can.”
Democrats are also showing in force. Donors are opening their wallets and volunteers and paid staffers are on their way.
Democrats on the ground are pleased with the high interest they’ve received from those offering help, but also stress that an out-of-state campaign won’t cut it. They want Georgia operatives and organizations front and center.
“I’m always a little bit leery of having too many people flood the streets from out of state knocking doors. We certainly appreciate the help and we love that people are excited about our state,” said Sarah Riggs Amico, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018 alongside Stacey Abrams. She added that Biden and Harris “are tremendous assets in this state. Not only because their message meets the moment, but because they just became the first ticket since Bill Clinton in 1992 to win this state. We know they’re assets, and we also understand the stakes.”
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