At a Glance:

  • First-term Republican Senator David Perdue has been among the biggest supporters of President Trump’s agenda to promote fossil fuels and dismiss concerns about climate change.
  • Challenger Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, says the climate is changing in devastating ways. He has not endorsed the Green New Deal, but he has called for a major infrastructure program that includes clean energy, energy efficiency and helping Georgia farm and coastal communities adapt.
  • Perdue has framed himself as a bulwark against what he described as the socialist policies of Democrats. Ossoff has described Perdue as a tool of the fossil fuel industry.
Perdue v. Ossoff

Climate change may not be front and center in Georgia’s Senate runoff election on Jan. 5 between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, but the all-important race that will help determine Senate control offers voters a clear choice in a state that has a lot to lose from global warming.

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Georgia has suffered from the kind of weather extremes that have been linked to climate change, including excessive flooding, drought, sea level rise and supercharged hurricanes.

Ossoff has “come out as a very vocal champion” of tackling climate change, said Brionté McCorkle, director of Georgia Conservation Voters, while Perdue “has shied away from the issue.”

After the Nov. 3 elections, Republicans hold a 50-48 Senate advantage, meaning that both Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock—who is challenging Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in the state’s other Senate runoff—would have to win on Jan. 5 for Democrats to assume control of the Senate.

Assuming President Trump fails in his bid to contest the election, Joe Biden would become the nation’s 46th president and his vice president, Kamala Harris, would then cast the decisive, tie-breaking votes in her role as president of an evenly divided, 50-50 Senate.

A Democratic sweep in Georgia—in races neither Democrat is favored to win—would potentially open the door to passage of far-reaching climate legislation for the first time ever. 

“These races are going to be nationalized,” said Nathaniel Stinnett, founder and executive director of the nonpartisan Environmental Voter Project, which does not endorse candidates but was able to get at least 70,000 environmentally minded voters in Georgia to vote in their first-ever election this fall. “The whole world is going to turn its eyes to Georgia.”

Perdue, a former corporate CEO, beat Ossoff, a former congressional staffer and media executive, by almost 2 percentage points, 49.7 percent to 48 percent, in the Nov. 3 election. But because neither received 50 percent of the vote, the runoff election was required under Georgia law. 

The race was one of the most expensive of the year when outside spending is included, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign financing. 

In all, more than $67.5 million was spent by outside groups to help Perdue, while $38.1 million was spent for Ossoff, the center found. Not surprisingly, the Senate Leadership Fund, aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, spent $43.6 million against Ossoff. The Senate Majority PAC, aligned with Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, spent $31.1 million against Perdue. Both candidates also raised more than $20 million each for themselves, according to the center.

“Based purely on the numbers,” Ossoff is at “a severe disadvantage in his runoff race,” said Daniel Franklin, an emeritus professor of political science at Georgia State University. Ossoff finished about 90,000 votes behind Perdue, he said, and the 115,000 other votes went to the Libertarian Shane Hazel. It’s likely that Perdue would get many of those in the runoff, Franklin said.

The Money Race: Georgia

Cory Struthers, an assistant professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia who studies elections, sees both races as competitive, but with Republicans having an edge.

“The evangelical, traditional values that drive Republicans are going to be so strong for these Senate races, because the control of the Senate is at stake,” she said, citing issues such as control of the Supreme Court, abortion and gun rights.

A big challenge for Democrats, she said, will be keeping a large number of them motivated to return to the polls after having already knocked Trump out of the White House.

It’s also uncertain how many Republicans will turn out in the absence of Trump at the top of the ticket, Franklin said.

Republicans in Georgia this week are also in disarray, forming something of a circular firing squad over the election, in which Biden maintains a razor-think lead, results that Trump is disputingwithout evidence. 

Both Perdue and Loeffler called on Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign, claiming unfounded charges of mismanagement of the election. Raffensperger fired back, saying he answers to the voters, not the senators. 

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who is also a Republican, has said on CNN that he has not seen evidence of widespread voter fraud or irregularities.

For his part, McConnell has been sending out emphatic and repeated appeals for money. “The Senate is the FINAL FIREWALL against the Left’s radical and dangerous agenda, which is why we MUST keep Georgia RED,” read one from Wednesday.

But Democrats are up to the challenge, said Van Johnson, mayor of Savannah.

“We have people who are here who are ready and engaged, and Georgia is ready to make a difference in the balance of power in the United States Senate,” Johnson said Monday on CNN.

How much of an issue climate change becomes in the runoff remains to be seen. Overall, an estimated 52 percent of Georgia adults—the same as the nation as a whole—believe global warming should be a high priority of the next president and Congress, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps.

The nation has been focused on western wildfires made worse by climate change, but Georgia has its own serious forest fire threats, said McCorkle, of Georgia Conservation Voters.

Downed trees are still piled up alongside Atlanta roadways from Hurricane Zeta, the 27th named storm of a record-setting hurricane season, which passed through north Georgia as a tropical storm late last month, she said. That storm knocked down trees, killed three Georgians and left 1 million people without power, according to local media reports.

Georgia’s climate voters, she said, include rural residents who hunt, fish and farm and a growing younger, more diverse population living in the cities, and others who want to correct environmental injustices in communities that have been threatened by pollution from coal-fired power plants and other industries. 

President Trump’s, and by extension Perdue’s, handling of the coronavirus was a bigger issue in the campaign than climate change or the environment, said Georgia State’s Franklin. It is “a more immediate problem.”

The two candidates also focused on Trump, with Ossoff doing what he could to pin Trump on Perdue, and Perdue making that relatively easy by governing as a close Trump ally. 

Ossoff, the CEO of a small London-based documentary production company called “Insight: The World Investigates,” like a lot of other Democrats, addresses climate change through the lens of jobs and the economy. He’s said Georgia needs to rebuild from the “wreckage” caused by the coronavirus pandemic and has promised to reverse the Trump administration’s rollbacks of fuel economy standards and clean air and water regulations, and then work to strengthen those rules.

Ossoff’s climate message has a chance of resonating because of Georgia’s changing demographics, as more Blacks and young people have moved to the Atlanta region, bringing with them more liberal viewpoints.

Craig Auster, senior director of political affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, said Ossoff, who has the LCV Action Fund endorsement, “is really committed to climate change issues and moving toward clean energy.”

The conservation voters group gives Perdue a lifetime environmental voting score of 3 percent, and Auster said, “There are very few issues where he has done the right thing. Sen. Perdue has spent his time in D.C. pretty consistently voting against our environment and against climate action.”

Perdue, the former CEO of Reebok, Pillowtex and Dollar General, generally avoids talking about climate, except to praise Trump for exiting the global Paris climate agreement and excoriating the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency killed. 

He has voted with McConnell to support the coal industry, and he voted against a “sense of the Senate” resolution that climate change is real and caused by people.

Perdue has been endorsed by Americans for Property Action, a Super PAC aligned with billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, and he sees politics in stark terms, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “My role is going to be to expose this radical agenda that Democrats are trying to perpetuate.”

On his website, in a video, Perdue says: “We are in an ideological war for the future of our republic. The Democrats actually want to convert America to a socialist state. They want to increase taxes. They want socialized medicine. They want the Green New Deal. We cannot let that happen. Will you stand with me and re-elect Donald J. Trump.”

In a Nov. 7 tweet, Perdue wrote: “We win these two races, we save the Senate. We save the Senate, we save the country. This is what is at stake.”

In cable television appearances since the election, Ossoff has kept his focus on the coronavirus and the economy, while mentioning a need to move toward clean energy.

Democrats, he said on MSNBC, need control of the Senate to help a Biden administration “mount an effective response” to the coronavirus.

“This is about the human consequences of elections,” he said. “The national interests and Georgia interests are aligned.”

The runoff election will come down to which party can turn out the most voters, despite the distractions of the holiday season. 

The youth-led Sunrise Movement is among the advocacy organizations that worked to make younger voters critical to Biden becoming the president elect, and it is also active in Georgia, organizing young voters, including Black and brown voters who are critical to the Democratic coalition.

“Sunrise is going all in for the runoff, and so is every organization that worked to turn out voters in the general election,” said Erica Darragh, communications team leader for Sunrise Atlanta.

She acknowledged that Ossoff has not endorsed the Green New Deal, which proposes a massive shift in federal spending to create jobs and hasten a transition to clean energy by 2050, and did not get a formal Sunrise endorsement. But she said his campaign platform includes investment in green infrastructure and renewable energy, rejoining the Paris Climate agreement, and reversing Trump environmental policy rollbacks.

“This is the last chance for the Democratic Party to control the Senate,” she said, adding that the next two years “will set the tone for the Biden administration on how much we can get done” on climate.

The Environmental Voter Project will be working to persuade even more environmentally minded people who have never voted to get to the polls, Stinnett said. “And if you became a first time (environmental) voter and showed up, we are going to move heaven and Earth to make sure you show up to vote again.”

The Takeaway:

While Ossoff has kept his distance from the Green New Deal he found his own way to talk to voters about the problems of climate change and his support for a clean-energy future. That message likely resonated with the state’s growing progressive voter base, but not quite enough.

The runoff race will come down to whether Republicans or Democrats get more of their voters to turn out for a second election in just two months—a tall order given the distractions of the holiday season.

But Georgia and the nation are entering uncharted territory with so much at stake in not one, but two, Senate races. The conventional wisdom may say Perdue has the clear edge, but with so much continued uncertainty, Ossoff, while the underdog, has at least a shot at winning. 

InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

James Bruggers covers the U.S. Southeast, part of ICN's National Environment Reporting Network. He previously covered energy and the environment for Louisville's Courier Journal, where he worked as a correspondent...