ATLANTA – Jon Ossoff took the stage in Columbus and looked out over a parking lot filled with cars, with supporters blaring their horns in approval as he declared that “change has come to Georgia.”
Hours earlier, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler stepped to a microphone in suburban Atlanta and addressed hundreds of eager supporters packed into the Cobb County GOP headquarters. The freshman senator and her Florida colleague, Sen. Marco Rubio, stirred the crowd with their insistence that the change offered by Ossoff and his fellow Democratic Senate hopeful Raphael Warnock means “radical elements” would control Washington.
Those opening salvos of Georgia’s twin Senate runoff campaign -- Ossoff looking to unseat Republican Sen. David Perdue and Warnock facing off with Loeffler -- showcase starkly different approaches the two parties are taking to the unusual circumstances that make this newfound two-party battleground the epicenter of a national battle for control of the Senate.
Both sides are playing to core supporters, the most reliable voters among the 5 million who split their ballots roughly evenly between the two parties in the first round. But for Democrats, it’s seemingly a more piecemeal, voter-by-voter approach, while Republicans are pushing a broad branding message through mass media. Whichever strategy proves more effective on Jan. 5 will help determine the ambitions and reach of President-elect Joe Biden’s tenure depending on which party ultimately controls the chamber.
Republicans need one of the Georgia seats for a majority. Democrats must win both to yield a 50-50 Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris then holding the tie-breaking vote.
“This is literally the showdown of all showdowns,” Rubio told the Cobb County crowd, many of them not wearing masks as the Florida senator did. “This is Georgia's decision to make. But it's America that will live with the consequences.”
Against that backdrop, the Democratic campaigns still are limiting the scope of their in-person events as coronavirus cases spike nationally, observing social distancing and mask protocols just as Biden did in his presidential bid. Meanwhile, they are quietly ramping up voter contact and registration efforts as they try to replicate their record turnout after Biden drew almost 2.5 million votes to lead President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.
Republicans counter by reflecting their presidential standard-bearer, as well, even after his national defeat. They’re embracing unrestricted in-person events just as Trump spent the closing weeks of the presidential campaign holding his signature mass rallies in battleground states across the country -- including two rallies in Georgia. And Republicans are using the events to embrace fully the nationalization of the runoffs, urging voters to see the choice as a simple one: A Senate with New York Democrat Chuck Schumer as majority leader or one with Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell continuing in that role.