In ‘Jungle Primary’ Race For Loeffler’s Seat, 2 Very Different Party Dynamics

Disagreements were aired in two debates sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club. 
Disagreements were aired in two debates sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club. 
Credit Brynn Anderson / Associated Press file

In the race for the seat held by Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, 21 candidates from all parties will compete on one special election ballot, a so-called “jungle primary” without party primaries.

Though the ballot is the same, the Democratic and Republican sides of the race look very different. The Republican side quickly turned into a bruising intra-party fight between Loeffler and Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.  

The Democratic side has been quieter, and there’s a worry the three candidates who’ve raised enough money to register at the federal level could dilute the vote and jeopardize a Democratic spot in an all-but-certain January runoff. But some operatives say the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the chosen candidate of many in the Democratic power structure, is about to pull ahead.

‘Pro-Second Amendment, Pro-Trump, Pro-military And Pro-wall’

Loeffler set the groundwork immediately for a campaign geared toward the state’s conservative base.

“So here’s what folks are going to find out about me,” she said in December. “I’m a lifelong conservative, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump, pro-military and pro-wall.”

Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman who pledged to spend $20 million of her own money on the race, ramped up her campaign quickly. Her television ads have been out for months, many that question Collins’ conservative bona fides and his experience as a criminal defense lawyer.

Collins, who has raised less than a fourth of the funds Loeffler has gathered, has tried to paint her as out of touch, and he, too, has questioned her conservatism.

“So for all of you out there wondering about this race, there’s really two things going on,” he said in a video posted on Twitter. “One a true conservative fighting for the Senate, fighting for Georgia, that’s me. And then there’s Sen. Loeffler trying to run from her record she doesn’t want y’all to know about.”

Both candidates have aligned themselves tightly with President Donald Trump, and each has accused the other of being an ally of Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

‘It Takes Coal To Run A Train, It Takes Gold To Run A Campaign’

Stefan Turkheimer, a Washington-based Democratic strategist from Georgia, said this backdrop — Republicans targeting their most conservative voters — is an advantage for Democrats. Plus, he said, the presidential race is looking competitive in Georgia.

“That leaves a whole swath of people available to us. All those things are extremely good,” he said. “And then we ended up with three people in the race. Which is less than ideal.”

Turkheimer said there’s a worry the three candidates who have raised enough money to register with the federal government and have been polled — Warnock, Matt Lieberman and former state Sen. Ed Tarver — could prevent one from making it into a runoff.

Warnock has outraised all of his opponents, but, based on polling so far, has not yet consolidated the field.

The pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta has been endorsed by Democratic leaders including Abrams and a slew of sitting Democratic senators including U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Warnock said he’s not worried about missing a runoff or winning the seat.

“I think when people take a look at my race and look at my story, we will prevail,” he said.

He said the transition from the pulpit to politics is a natural one: “These public policy questions for me have moral implications.”

“Ordinary people are looking for leadership that is based in empathy, common sense, intelligence and a willingness to bring people together in order to solve big problems so that all of us can somehow keep the promises that we made to our children,” he said.

Lieberman, a lawyer, former school principal and son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, entered the race first and has come in close to and above Warnock in the polls that have been conducted.

“I’m running as a fed-up citizen of Georgia, for the fed-up citizens of Georgia. I’m not running for the bosses in Washington or Atlanta of either party frankly,” he said.

Lieberman said he’s not bothered by the endorsements that have piled onto Warnock.

He is betting he will win by appealing to the state’s “more unaffiliated voters,” he said. “On Election Day, disenchanted Republicans and independents will find me there.”

But Lieberman has only been able to raise about a third of the funds that Warnock has, which is relevant, said Richard McDaniel, a Democratic political strategist and the former state director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

“You know, I was taught very early in my career it takes coal to run a train. It takes gold to run a campaign,” he said.

A Warnock supporter, McDaniel is confident the pastor is about to pull ahead in the race, and he argued he is the best candidate to speak to this moment when social justice is at the forefront.

“Everybody is on pins and needles right now with what is going on in the country, whether it be racial tensions, whether it be the pandemic, all of the social inequalities going on,” he said, calling Lieberman “sort of tone-deaf when it comes to speaking about that.”

Lieberman took heat after a report highlighted excerpts of his 2018 novel about an imaginary slave that could communicate with plants and animals. The chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, state Sen. Nikema Williams, called these “racist tropes” and labeled the writing “offensive” andantithetical to our party’s values.”

Lieberman told The Huffington Post that the book was “an honest examination of enduring racism against Blacks — which is real, harmful and totally infuriating.”

“The ‘magical negro’— some of that language would have been OK in maybe the mid-1990s,” McDaniel said, “but in this day and time where social media is really driving the narrative, it creates a more toxic environment than someone who wants to lead a diverse state.”

The third Democrat on the ballot to be polled is Ed Tarver, a former state senator from Augusta and former U.S. attorney. He said he’s the most qualified candidate for the job, given his experience in all branches of government.

“The fact that I don’t have personal friends or contacts that are celebrities doesn’t take away from my message,” he said, in reference to Warnock. “I think our message is stronger.”

‘A Coin Flip’

Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster who has worked in Georgia for 12 years, said the scenario of two Republicans in the runoff is unlikely.

“I don’t think we’re going to be anywhere near the situation where you could see two Republicans in the first and second spot here,” he said. “Georgia is very much a coin flip in the presidential race.”

McCrary also predicts Warnock has “put himself in exactly the right position” to pull ahead in the race, as voters are starting to pay attention after Labor Day.

And in a runoff, McCrary is bullish on Democrats’ chances.

“It’ll be very difficult for the Republicans to put their party back together in this short order after this extremely negative campaign between Loeffler and Collins,” he said.

That would be a break from historic precedent. The last two Georgia Senate runoffs in 1992 and 2008 have both been won by Republicans.

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