Encouraged by Georgia's demographic trends and Stacey Abrams's narrow defeat in the 2018 governor's race, Democrats have long insisted the state is on the verge of turning blue. But even with the rare opportunity to flip two Republican-held Senate seats in 2020, their grassroots fundraising and interest from outside groups have been minuscule compared with high-profile races around the country.
Sen. David Perdue's (R., Ga.) leading Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff has raised $3.5 million in total contributions since entering the race in September. Perdue dwarfed that number with $6.1 million in contributions during the 2019-20 cycle.
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The same dynamic is at work in Georgia’s other Senate race, where newly appointed senator Kelly Loeffler (R., Ga.) leads her top Democratic challenger, Rev. Raphael Warnock. Warnock has raised $1.5 million since January for the upcoming special election, while Loeffler has raised $1.6 million over the same period and lent her campaign $10 million from her personal fortune, with plans to spend more.
Since her close loss to Republican Brian Kemp, Abrams has repeatedly ordered Democrats to take Georgia seriously as a swing state. State Democratic Party chairwoman Nikema Williams told the New York Times, "the future is blue, not purple," in Georgia. But despite bold talk about flipping the two seats—Abrams called Georgia's races "hyper-competitive" on MSNBC last year—the leading Democratic candidates are being outpaced in fundraising by Democrats elsewhere.
Experts told the Washington Free Beacon a variety of factors could be depressing Democratic investment in Georgia, including repeated overconfidence followed by disappointment.
"Georgia seems to be Lucy's football from Charlie Brown," RealClearPolitics elections analyst Sean Trende said. "Every two, four years, we hear it's in play and then the Republicans end up winning. Even in a pretty godawful environment for Republicans in 2018, [Brian Kemp] won…. If you couldn't put it away in a year like 2018, it's not clear you'll be able to put it away in a year like 2020."
Instead, Trende said, Democrats are focusing on the "pivot" Senate races in Colorado, Maine, Arizona, and North Carolina, where the Republican incumbents are more vulnerable, though Democratic groups could begin pouring money into Georgia if the races appear close as November approaches.
Candidates in several states seem to be getting more attention from the Democratic Party. They include Mark Kelly in Arizona ($30.4 million in total contributions according to federal filings), Amy McGrath in Kentucky ($29.5 million), Jaime Harrison in South Carolina ($19 million), Sara Gideon in Maine ($14.2 million), John Hickenlooper in Colorado ($8.5 million), Cal Cunningham in North Carolina ($6.7 million), and Theresa Greenfield in Iowa ($6 million). Even Montana governor Steve Bullock, who did not enter his state's Senate race until March, has outraised the top Georgia Democrats with $5.7 million in total contributions. All are trying to unseat Republican incumbents.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, there has been almost no outside spending supporting Democrats in Georgia's races, aside from a $75,000 contribution from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to Warnock and $91,000 from the Undivided Purpose super PAC to Democratic candidate Teresa Tomlinson, one of Ossoff's opponents.
The pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC has spent $14.7 million in the 2020 cycle, but none of it in Georgia. Pro-Republican super PACs have spent no money attacking Democrats in either Georgia Senate race. The two contests, rated "Lean Republican" by the Cook Political Report, rank 14th and 15th in total outside spending among Senate races.
Another key factor: Abrams's decision to not challenge Perdue robbed Democrats of a liberal national star who could have cleared the field. Democrat Teresa Tomlinson entered the race on May 1, 2019, one day after Abrams announced she would not run.
"If she had gotten in, the pressure to make Stacey Abrams happen would have been immense," Trende said.
Ossoff had the entire country's attention when he ran in a special Sixth Congressional District election in 2017, and he shattered House fundraising records with a $30 million haul. Now Ossoff, Tomlinson ($2.4 million), and businesswoman Sarah Riggs Amico ($849,000) have raised less than $7 million in contributions combined. Ossoff has pulled in more than 60 percent of his itemized contributions from donors outside of Georgia.
Should no Democrat challenging Perdue crack 50 percent of the vote in Georgia's primary Tuesday, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff on Aug. 11. There has been little polling in the race, but two recent surveys showed Ossoff well ahead of his competitors.
J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia Center for Politics noted Georgia's requirement for runoff elections if no candidate clears 50 percent is another disincentive for Democrats. Lower-turnout runoffs tend to favor Republicans, which could be a factor in Democrats' apparent caution to spend money in Georgia.
"More than anything else, I would say the runoffs add some uncertainty that would give some of these national groups some pause in terms of investing there," Coleman said.
Warnock, who has been endorsed by Abrams, is the leading Democrat challenging Loeffler. Loeffler was appointed in January to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson (R.) after he retired due to failing health. She also faces opposition from Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.), who became the face of Trump's impeachment defense on the House Judiciary Committee.
There is no primary for either party in the Loeffler election; it is a "jungle" race which seems likely to result in a runoff. Other Democrats running against Loeffler include former U.S. attorney Ed Tarver and Matt Lieberman, son of former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.).
A Democrat has not won a Georgia Senate race since Zell Miller in 2000, and his views would be anathema to today's party. The former Georgia governor endorsed President George W. Bush in 2004 and gave the keynote address at that year's Republican National Convention.
President Donald Trump carried the state by five points over Hillary Clinton in 2016, the closest margin since Bob Dole's 1.2-point win in 1996. However, Isakson won his race in 2016 by 13 points, massively outperforming Trump. No Democratic presidential hopeful has won Georgia since Clinton in 1992.
If Joe Biden is elected president, Democrats will need to net three Senate seats to capture the majority. If Trump is reelected, they will need four.