‘Crooks’ Versus ‘Socialists’: Ads Frame Georgia’s Bitter Runoffs

Republicans and Democrats are inundating Georgia with an inescapable flood of advertising before next week’s high-stakes Senate runoff elections, with the typical state resident being exposed to some 500 ads in the past two months.

And a solid majority of the ads -- about 70% -- are partly or entirely negative.

Republican spots portray Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock as “dangerously radical” and warn they’ll will hand over power to socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

‘Crooks’ Versus ‘Socialists’: Ads Frame Georgia’s Bitter Runoffs

Democratic ads counter that Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are out-of-touch multimillionaires who cashed in on the Covid-19 crisis but won’t help out-of-work Georgians.

“We are seeing almost $500 million in advertising telling us one thing — this is a choice between two crooks versus two socialists,” says Rick Dent, a Democratic political consultant in Georgia. “That’s the extent of it. All that money and that is the messaging to determine to future of the U.S. Senate.”

The sheer volume rivals any presidential campaign, with some television stations in the state broadcasting more than five hours of political commercials a day. The barrage is fueled by the record-breaking fundraising of small-dollar donors from both parties. The candidates and their party coordinated campaigns account for 73% of the ads broadcast but only 59% of the spending.

The biggest winners are Terrier Media Buyer Inc., an arm of Apollo Global Management that bought Cox Enterprises stations last year, and Tegna Inc., both of which stand to bring in more than $50 million in political advertising in the runoffs alone, according to Advertising Analytics data compiled by Bloomberg.

With no one receiving a majority in multi candidate races in the Nov. 3 general election, Georgia is conducting its first dual runoff for two Senate seats, pitting Perdue against Ossoff and Loeffler against Warnock. The election ends Jan. 5, with 2.5 million people already voting early and by mail.

‘Crooks’ Versus ‘Socialists’: Ads Frame Georgia’s Bitter Runoffs

The outcome of the two races determines which party will control the Senate — and thus President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. If both Ossoff and Warnock win, the Democrats will have 50 seats, allowing Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to cast tie-breaking votes. A win by just one of the Republicans would force Democrats to negotiate with moderate senators to pass major legislation or confirm Biden’s nominees.

High Stakes

Those stakes are made abundantly clear in many of the ads, particularly those by Republicans.

“If you vote for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who are you really putting into power? Nancy Pelosi, A.O.C. and Bernie Sanders — the far left with complete, unchecked power to defund our police, give amnesty to illegals, let government take over your health care and push massive tax hikes,” warns one ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

A Perdue ad features Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal New York congresswoman, saying that if Democrats win the Georgia Senate races “we don’t have to negotiate.”

“No negotiation. Think about that. With Jon Ossoff, they get total control,” Perdue says in the ad. “Only you can stop them.”

Attacks and Counter-Attacks

The Democratic candidates are spending more than their rivals, with $143.3 million in paid and reserved air time to the Republicans’ $86.7 million. But Republicans are getting a boost from their allied super-PACs and other outside groups, which are outspending Democratic groups on independent expenditure ads, $152 million to $47.7 million.

‘Crooks’ Versus ‘Socialists’: Ads Frame Georgia’s Bitter Runoffs

The Republican ads are also more negative. About four of every five paid for by Republican candidates and groups have been fully or partly negative, compared to three in five for Democrats.

Loeffler’s ads are the most negative, making frequent use of videos of Warnock’s sermons as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Her commercials accuse Warnock of using an obscene phrase about America used by another pastor, Jeremiah Wright, whose connections to Barack Obama became an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign. But Warnock was only quoting Wright in a speech to Yale Divinity School about race and religion.

Warnock responded with an ad showing Loeffler speaking from the pulpit of Warnock’s church in January — days before he entered the race, saying she was “humbled to be there.” Both the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father were pastors at Ebenezer.

To blunt those attacks, Warnock has also made several direct-to-the-camera appeals. His first ad of the runoff campaign mocked the tone of Loeffler’s ads, with ominous sounding narration: “Raphael Warnock eats pizza with a fork and knife. Raphael Warnock once stepped on a crack in the sidewalk. Raphael Warnock even hates puppies.” The ad concludes with him saying, “I love puppies.”

Democrats have launched their own attacks, mostly on Perdue and Loeffler’s wealth and the timing of their stock trades.

Perdue, who was a top executive of Reebok International Ltd., and the chief executive officer of Pillowtex Corp. and Dollar General Corp., has an estimated net worth of more than $15 million. Loeffler is the former CEO of a digital currency company, Bakkt, and her husband is CEO of Intercontinental Exchange, which owns the New York Stock Exchange.

Loeffler has put her family’s net worth at about $800 million, but a boost in the stock price of Intercontinental Exchange this year now puts their net worth at more than $1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Ossoff, who inherited wealth from his grandparents and runs a documentary film company, is worth between $2.3 million and $8.8 million, according to his financial disclosure.

Democrats and their allies have played up their opponents’ wealth with images of mansions, golf courses, yachts and champagne flutes, and contrasting that to everyday Georgians struggling through the pandemic.

“She’s the richest member of Congress. He grew up in public housing,” one Warnock ad says.

Both Perdue and Loeffler made stock trades early in the year between the time members of Congress were briefed on the potential economic consequences of Covid-19 and when the public was made aware of it. Some trades involved pharmaceutical companies and personal protective equipment makers.

“Three hundred thousand Americans have been killed by a virus that David Perdue said was no worse than the flu. He was on the phone with his broker buying medical stock while Georgians were dying. It’s unacceptable,” Ossoff says in one ad.

Perdue has said the trades were made by his wealth manager. The Senate Ethics Committee and the Justice Department have investigated but have not brought charges against either senator. But Perdue’s response ad saying he was fully exonerated isn’t true, either.

Passing the Football

With so many ads cluttering the airways — at least 179 separate ones running a combined 282,000 times as of Tuesday — their makers have employed local landmarks, humor, music and celebrity endorsements to get noticed.

Herschel Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner for the University of Georgia who went on to a career in professional football, is pitching the Republican slate in a couple of commercials. “With everything on the line here in Georgia. I know who I’m giving the ball to,” he says in one ad before passing a football to Loeffler, who passes it to Perdue and back to Walker.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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