In early December, a singing Santa Claus is set to descend on the Vinings Jubilee outdoor mall in northern Atlanta to perform holiday tunes at a safe distance from masked shoppers.
Santa won’t be the only celebrity in town.
Also sleighing in from the North: entrepreneur Andrew Yang. The 45-year-old ran against former Vice President Joe Biden in this year’s Democratic presidential primaries, where he grabbed attention for his proposal to send monthly checks to every American adult.
Now Yang is leaving his New York home for a two-month stay in Georgia to help Democrats hoping to bag one of the biggest prizes on their political wish list: control of the U.S. Senate.
After an already-grueling election season, the drama continues in at least one state until Jan. 5, when two runoff contests in Georgia will decide whether Republicans keep the Senate—or whether Democrats eke out an advantage to control the Senate, the House, and the presidency.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called the belated battle “the showdown of all showdowns” and told a packed room of Georgia Republicans: “This is Georgia’s decision to make. But it’s America that will live with the consequences.”
After the Associated Press projected Biden had won the presidency, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told a crowd of cheering New Yorkers, “Now we take Georgia, and then we change America!”
But that might not play well down South.
Democrats in Georgia may need to walk a tightrope between accepting outside support for a critical ground game against well-organized Republicans and downplaying messages that sound like outsiders are pulling all the strings. (Republicans are pulling plenty of strings too and quickly turned Schumer’s comments about Georgia into a campaign commercial: “Georgia, don’t let these radicals change America.”) A slew of close races in November showed a nation divided down the middle, not the blue wave of Democratic dominance some predicted. It appeared Democrats narrowly won the presidency but lost much of their edge in the House, and they’re aiming at best for a tie in the Senate. Republicans, meanwhile, have to figure out the best way to rally their voters in the state.
Despite the tensions, activists like Yang say they’re still chugging South: “Everyone who campaigned for Joe should get ready to head to Georgia.”
“This is Georgia’s decision to make. But it’s America that will live with the consequences.” —Marco Rubio
THE UNEXPECTED TWIST in this year’s Senate battle flows from an unusual quirk in Georgia law: In a Senate or House race, a candidate must grab more than 50 percent of the votes to win. If no candidate reaches the mark, the top two vote-getters head to a runoff.
In the November election, all of the Senate candidates in Georgia fell short of an outright majority, so the state’s two Republican senators will face two Democratic opponents in January. Republican Sen. David Perdue faces investigative journalist Jon Ossoff, and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler faces Atlanta minister Raphael Warnock.
Going into the Georgia races, Republicans hold 50 seats in the U.S. Senate. Democrats hold 48. That means Democrats need to pick up both seats in Georgia to bring the balance to a 50-50 tie. In that scenario and with a Biden win, a Vice President Kamala Harris would break the tie, giving Democrats a slim majority.
Even a slim majority is a significant advantage: It would give Biden the ability to secure Cabinet officials and judicial appointments—including nominations to the Supreme Court.
But it would also slow him down: A single Democratic dissenter could torpedo the party’s majority on some votes. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has already said he won’t vote to end the Senate filibuster or pack the Supreme Court.
And Democrats wouldn’t have the 60-vote threshold needed to pass some of their most ambitious legislation. That means they’d likely face pressure to negotiate with Republicans on at least some measures.
Cue the outsiders.
When a CNN reporter asked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., whether she would negotiate with moderate Republicans, she said she would focus on helping Democrats win in Georgia “so we don’t have to negotiate in that manner.”
Not all Democrats are pushing that strategy. Shortly after the party nearly lost its House majority in November, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., reportedly warned colleagues about going too far left: “No one should say ‘defund the police’ ever again. Nobody should be talking about socialism.”
That might be worthwhile advice for the Democratic candidates in Georgia, but they face scrutiny for the campaigns they ran before they knew how narrow the House and presidential races would be.
In June, Democrat Jon Ossoff, 33, didn’t directly answer a question from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about whether he supported the “Defund the Police” movement. He did say he supported legalizing marijuana, guaranteeing health insurance for all Americans, and expanding programs for tuition-free college. (He later said he supported police reform, not defunding the police.)
Ossoff also said he wanted to get rid of President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, calling them “a wannabe tyrant and his cowardly enablers.”
After the general election showed significant support for many Republicans, Ossoff showed a noticeable shift in the first campaign commercial for his January runoff against Perdue: Ossoff didn’t mention Trump, Biden, or the Democratic Party. He didn’t even mention his opponent. Ossoff said he would work to help the state recover from COVID-19 and invest in infrastructure: “We need leaders who bring us together to get this done.”
Raphael Warnock, the Atlanta minister running against Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, also downplayed outside influence heading into the runoffs, even as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wrote a letter urging support for Warnock’s campaign. Republicans pounced on the plug from Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist.