Democrats in Georgia say voters care about COVID and getting economic relief above all other issues — and that Donald Trump's late-night demand for more direct payments helps them with their existing message.
Since the double Senate runoff started in Georgia, Democrats and progressives have been telling supporters that there are only three people standing in the way of the congressional Democrats having a chance at expanding relief efforts and direct assistance in the next Congressional session: Sens. David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler, and Mitch McConnell.
Advocacy groups have converged on Georgia over the last month, as Congress has negotiated a massive COVID aid program that includes unemployment insurance and business relief — and a $600 direct payment to those whose income falls under a certain threshold. Those payments, which were added to the latest deal after a joint effort by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Josh Hawley, have turned into the last-minute breaking point.
In a video posted to Twitter late on Tuesday night, Trump called the $900 billion relief bill a “disgrace” and threatened to veto the bill if Congress didn’t increase direct payments to $2,000 from the proposed $600, which he called “ridiculously low.”
The Democrats running in Georgia, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, immediately announced that they supported the president’s call.
“President Trump is, as ever, erratic and all over the place. But on this point, tonight, he’s right,” Ossoff said in a CNN interview on Tuesday night. “$600 is a joke. They should send $2,000 checks to the American people right now because people are hurting.” He added that Perdue had opposed and obstructed direct payments.
Perdue and Loeffler now are in an uncomfortable position as they campaign to keep their seats. McConnell reportedly urged Republican senators to support another round of direct payments because Loeffler and Perdue were “getting hammered” for the monthslong delay in aid, like direct payments, for Americans.
On the campaign trail and in newly released ads after the deal was announced, Loeffler and Perdue both praised the relief bill and highlighted the second round of direct relief that would be issued to Americans.
After Trump’s announcement, Loeffler told the press that she would “look” at supporting increasing direct payments “if it repurposes wasteful spending.” A Senate spokesperson for Perdue did not respond for comment on whether he supported the president’s call for increased direct payments.
“This wrench that Trump has thrown into their plans has given Ossoff and Warnock the chance to remind Georgia voters that they are both on board with increased direct payments,” a spokesperson for Warnock’s campaign told BuzzFeed News. “Meanwhile, Loeffler and Perdue are now in a tough spot trying to explain why they're pushing for Georgians to get less relief that even Trump opposes."
Expanded COVID relief and the stall to implement another relief package was already one of the main tension points in the runoff elections before both Trump’s announcement and the recently passed relief bill.
“We’ve had about 2 million conversations throughout 2020 and tons of focus groups and tons of polling since March,” Nsé Ufot, the executive director of New Georgia Project, told BuzzFeed News. “The number one issue across the board, across race, across age, across gender and geography has been COVID.”
“Our work in this moment has been connecting the act of voting with the changes people want to see around COVID like healthcare and the economy,” Ufot added.
Progressive groups like the Working Families Party, Sunrise Movement, and Georgians for Registration and Increased Turnout (GRIT) have worked the pandemic and relief efforts into the canvassing scripts and literature as they knock on doors and make calls around the state.
“The bottom line, in a very concise way, is that people are struggling. People are unemployed, people don’t have healthcare insurance, people sometimes don’t know where their next meal is coming, and this is sometimes exacerbated by COVID,” said Britney Whaley, a senior political strategist who is running Working Families Party’s canvassing operation in Georgia. “It paints this picture of who’s suffering the most. People know. They don’t have to read a 500-page bill to know that this is inadequate.”
She said that the party’s nearly 200 canvassers and their phone-banking program have connected the candidates to the issue and that they would continue to do so ahead of the race, but many of the Georgians they’re speaking with have made the connection on their own.
“These two senators have been in DC, and in some instances they’ve been creating roadblocks and in the opposition. It’s not hard to connect that we have two senators who have been in DC for months and there’s been back-and-forth while we’re fighting for our survival,” Whaley said. “That’s not something that we have to tell the average Georgian when we’re at their doors. That’s something they tell us.”
Support for a new relief package was widespread across the country ahead of the general election and a New York Times poll found that 7 in 10 voters supported a new stimulus program while Congress was stalling on relief measures. In Georgia, where 3.9 million people have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic, a mid-November Data for Progress poll found that 63% of likely Georgia runoff voters said they would be more likely to support a candidate who supported an additional $1,200 stimulus check.
In an early December memo, progressive organizations including Justice Democrats and Sunrise Movement urged Democrats to campaign around a stand-alone bill to issue a new round of $1,200 checks that would give Democrats “a clear message about something tangible that Democrats will do for you” that they believed would help the party win the two runoff elections in Georgia.
Shanté Wolfe, Sunrise Movement’s electoral politics director, said that they decided to sign onto the letter to highlight a new strategy of connecting their movement with Southern voters while motivating them to turn out to the polls.
“Sometimes it’s not the message, it’s the messenger,” Wolfe said. “When we’re on the doors and phones, we talk about Ossoff and Warnock and the bigger picture of this race and how it would secure a 50-50 split, and we also talk about utilities and how they’re going to pay bills, which are at the top of people’s minds as we move into 2021.” She added that the group would push conversations about the new stimulus bill in the final days of the race.
For groups like GRIT, the effects of COVID on people’s lives have been one of the main issues they speak about with voters when they’re knocking on doors in apartment complexes, and it’s one that voters are worried about. The new COVID relief bill and Trump’s criticism of it only offer them more talking points.
“I can guarantee you that the first person’s door I knock on to talk about the election and COVID stimulus when I’m out canvassing again, I’m going to flat out tell them that this new deal that was made was bullshit and we need to do better and there’s no chance in hell that we can do better if we don’t get Warnock and Ossoff in,” Ben Davidson, one of the leaders of GRIT, a hyperlocal organizing group that started knocking on doors in the apartment complexes of the rapidly diversifying suburbs of Atlanta told BuzzFeed News before Trump’s announcement.
“This is good for us,” Davidson said in an interview after Trump’s announcement. “It helps people and shows that people Loeffler and Perdue don’t have people’s best interests at heart. This isn’t changing anything for us, and if anything, it gives us more ammo.”
Warnock and Ossoff have both made expanding COVID relief a cornerstone of their campaigns and have pushed the point in ads and on the campaign trail — congressional Republicans pushed for smaller relief checks during COVID negotiations throughout the year. Democrats campaigning in the state, including President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, have characterized the two runoff elections as central to passing any legislation that would expand relief efforts.
“I need two senators from this state who want to get something done — not two senators who are just going to get in the way. Because, look, getting nothing done just hurts Georgia. Look at what’s happening right now in Congress,” Biden told supporters at a drive-in rally in Atlanta last week while listing off policy priorities that they could help pass with Democratic control of the Senate.
Both Ossoff and Warnock’s campaigns see the issues over direct payments and calls for expanded economic relief as a boon for connecting the impact their races could have on Senate control with tangible outcomes for voters if they’re elected. The campaigns plan to continue criticizing Perdue and Loeffler over the issue in the final days ahead of the election.
“It’s going to be focused on how we can make sure Georgians are getting what they need and aren’t suffering from these backroom deals and legislation that doesn’t account for our community’s needs,” a spokesperson for Warnock said.
Correction: Shanté Wolfe is Sunrise Movement’s electoral politics director. Wolfe's title was misstated in a previous version of this post.