THE MOST photographed attendee at a rally on December 5th for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—the Democratic candidates in Georgia’s pair of run-off Senate elections on January 5th—was a little tawny dog on a pink leash wearing a black shirt that read: “Warnock Loves Puppies”. The slogan refers to one of Mr Warnock’s ads, which went viral. It shows him walking a dog along a tree-lined street, implicitly comparing the “smear ads”, as he puts it, from his Republican opponent, Kelly Loeffler, to the bag of dog waste he deposits in a rubbish bin at the ad’s close.
The campaign website for Ms Loeffler, one of the state’s incumbent senators, calls Mr Warnock—for the past 15 years the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King junior and senior both preached—a “left-wing radical with a dangerous agenda”. The campaign website for David Perdue, the other incumbent, has tried to tie Mr Ossoff to “anti-police radicals”. Messrs Ossoff and Warnock, meanwhile, depict their opponents as a pair of out-of-touch, self-dealing plutocrats. In other words, the Democrats are using the same line of attack with which Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012, while the Republicans wage President Donald Trump’s culture war. Control of the Senate—and therefore, perhaps, the fate of Joe Biden’s presidency—hinges on which pair of candidates Georgians prefer.
That is because, as things now stand, Republicans will hold 50 seats in the next Senate. If Democrats defeat Mr Perdue and Ms Loeffler, they too will hold 50, but because the vice-president casts the Senate’s tie-breaking votes, they will control the chamber. That would give Mr Biden more leeway in staffing: the Senate has to confirm his cabinet choices, along with hundreds of other political appointees, not least any Supreme Court seats that come open during his term. It may also determine how ambitious he can be with legislation.
Democrats have never won a statewide run-off in Georgia and have not held a Senate seat there since Zell Miller (who was so conservative that he gave a keynote speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention) retired in 2005. Nonetheless they appear both energised by their success in November—Mr Biden won the state, which no Democratic presidential candidate had done since Bill Clinton in 1992—and at least reasonably unified. Both candidates regularly appear together, and have benefited from both the (virtual) visit of Mr Obama and the organising abilities of Stacey Abrams, who lost a close race for governor in 2018 and has since turned her energy to voter registration and mobilisation.
The two candidates complement each other. Mr Warnock is a 51-year-old native Georgian. As befits a Baptist preacher with a doctorate, he is a practised, erudite speaker; in Atlanta, the long-standing question was not whether he would one day run for office, just which office. Mr Ossoff is just 33, and the son of an immigrant (his mother is Australian; he would be Georgia’s first Jewish senator, as Mr Warnock would be its first African-American one). Mr Warnock’s speeches tend toward issues and aspiration; Mr Ossoff appears more comfortable wielding a hatchet. At Saturday’s rally, he called Mr Perdue—whose immense volume of stock trades prompted a Justice Department investigation that closed without any charges being filed—a “crook”, as well as a “coward” for declining to appear at a debate on December 6th.
Mr Perdue and Ms Loeffler are cut from similar cloth: wealthy, successful businesspeople who in an earlier era would probably have been standard country-club Republicans, but who have gone all in on Trumpism. Ms Loeffler has released an ad that jokes about killing “liberal scribes”, and has appeared at rallies with far-right militia members and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia congresswoman-elect and supporter of QAnon, a sprawling, evidence-free conspiracy theory about a powerful cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles. One of Mr Perdue’s ads artificially lengthened the nose of his Jewish opponent. He has been among the president’s staunchest congressional supporters.
Mr Trump himself emerged from his post-election seclusion to headline a rally for the two in south Georgia on December 5th. Most of his 101-minute speech was devoted to airing lies (among them, he claimed to have won Georgia, Wisconsin and the presidential election, all of which he lost) and grievances about the vote last month. He attacked Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, and secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, for following the law and certifying Mr Biden’s victory. He all but threatened to back a primary challenger to Mr Kemp in 2022. When Ms Loeffler and Mr Perdue appeared awkwardly on stage, they struggled to be heard over the crowd’s “Fight for Trump!” chants.
According to the polls, both races are tight. But Democrats should take little comfort from that. In November, polls favoured them or showed tight contests in several Senate races that Republicans won. Traditionally, more Republicans than Democrats show up for mid-term and run-off elections. In January, Democrats have to worry not just about this type of cyclical drop in turn-out, but also whether disaffected Republicans who pulled the lever for Mr Biden last month will vote for divided government as a check on his power.