Democrat Senate hopes may hinge on Jewish candidate in potential Georgia runoff

Jon Ossoff looks set for repeat contest as rival drops below 50%; that race, and another senate runoff in traditionally Republican state, will likely determine control of chamber

Jon Ossoff campaigning in Chamblee, Georgia, June 15, 2017. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Jon Ossoff campaigning in Chamblee, Georgia, June 15, 2017. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

Jewish Democratic senatorial candidate Jon Ossoff appeared poised Friday for a runoff vote in the battleground state of Georgia that could prove crucial to Democrats diminished hopes of taking control of the US Senate, after incumbent GOP Senator David Perdue dropped below 50 percent of the statewide vote.

With 98% of the state reporting results of the race, Perdue’s lead diminished to 49.9% of the vote in the state, with Ossoff trailing close behind with 47.8%, and Libertarian Shane Hazel at just 2.3%, indicating that no candidate may clear the 50% threshold to win, according to AP.

Perdue could yet climb above the 50% threshold, but the votes have been trending in the opposite direction so far.

The possibility of control of the Senate could be decided in Georgia after  Republicans trounced Democratic challengers in crucial states but failed to lock down the seats needed to retain their tenuous majority. Georgia had two Republican seats on the ballot, that Democrats hoped to wrest from their control.

Senator David Perdue asks questions during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 6, 2020. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

There already is a January 5 runoff in the state’s other Senate race: GOP Senator Kelly Loeffler will face Democrat Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor at the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, after they emerged as top vote-getters, but failed to clear the majority threshold.

Georgia is also divided on the presidential race, with razor-thin margins between President Donald Trump and presidential hopeful Joe Biden. With 99% of the state reporting, Trump stood at 2,448,037, just 1,709 more votes than Biden’s 2,446,328, according to CNN, with Biden gaining ground.

Should Biden win the presidency and the Democrats win the two Senate seats, Biden would be dealing with a majority in the Senate, increasing his chances for passing legislation and securing major appointment confirmations. Otherwise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, could wield the power to block Biden.

Other races in North Carolina and Alaska also hold the potential to reshape the balance of power, but Georgia offers the more likely prospect. Nationally, the Senate stands at 48-48.

Raphael Warnock, a Democratic candidate for the US Senate speaks during a rally, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool)

The fierce advertising campaign in the state highlights Georgia’s newfound position as a top political battleground.

Ads in the race between Perdue, 70, and Ossoff, 33, have at times been downright nasty, and even potentially anti-Semitic.

In July, Perdue’s campaign was forced to take down a digital ad featuring a manipulated picture of Ossoff, who is Jewish, with an enlarged nose.

Ossoff called it “the oldest, most obvious, least original anti-Semitic trope in history.” Perdue’s campaign said the senator has a record of “standing firmly against anti-Semitism” and said the ad was an “unintentional error” by an outside vendor.

In his ads, Ossoff has sought to use Perdue’s own words to highlight the senator’s close relationship to Trump, amid growing dissatisfaction with the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Perdue has been one of Trump’s staunchest defenders in the Senate, though his own ads were completely devoid of any connection to the president.

In Georgia, two runoff elections would mean a campaign on an almost national scale, with tens of millions of dollars spent by both sides.

Biden has been mum on the Senate balance as he awaits the results in his own election, but he offered a preview days before Tuesday’s election.

“I can’t tell you how important it is that we flip the United States Senate. There’s no state more consequential than Georgia in that fight,” Biden declared at an Atlanta rally on Oct. 27, when he campaigned alongside Ossoff and Warnock.

Both sides promised unlimited funds would flow to the campaigns and onto the airwaves, and they predicted an all-star cast of campaigners for a state that in recent weeks drew visits from Biden, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and former President Barack Obama.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who led Senate Democrats’ campaign efforts in the 2018 cycle, warned that McConnell, who has gleefully dubbed himself the “grim reaper” of the Democratic agenda, would threaten a Biden presidency if he returns as majority leader.

“His DNA has been all about obstruction and very little about constructive progress together,” Van Hollen said.

McConnell almost certainly wouldn’t grant a floor vote to Biden’s proposal for a public option expansion of the 2010 Affordable Care Act or the Democrat’s proposed repeal of some of Trump’s top-end tax cuts. McConnell refused to grant Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, hearings or a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, heads to a briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other national security officials on the details of the threat that prompted the US to kill Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, on January 8, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Progressives, meanwhile, lament losses in Senate races that could have given Democrats a majority with a cushion. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, tried Thursday to downplay the pitfalls of GOP control, arguing that “bold executive branch actions that impact people’s lives” still could “define Biden’s legacy.”

Republicans countered with warnings of an “extremist” government if Democrats, who appear positioned to keep the House majority despite losing seats, control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“David Perdue won this race in regular time and will do the same in overtime,” said Kevin McLaughlin, executive director of the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, blasting Ossoff as a frontman for “national Democrats and their shared dream of a socialist America.”

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, was harsher. “We are in danger of losing the Senate to extremist liberals who want to raise your taxes, defund the police and pass legislation for a sweeping government takeover,” Hawley wrote in a fundraising pitch for Loeffler.

Biden’s tax plan proposes increases only on corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Neither Ossoff nor Warnock proposes “defunding the police.” And Hawley’s fundraising email didn’t explain what Democrats’ “takeover” would be. But his assertions track the fault lines that will define the runoff campaigns.

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