Stimulus checks have emerged as a key issue in the runoffs for two Senate seats in Georgia that will determine which party controls the upper chamber.
The two Democratic candidates, Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, are both arguing that Congress needs to include direct payments to Americans in coronavirus relief legislation. Ossoff in particular is emphasizing the topic, while drawing attention to comments that his opponent, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), has made in the past that are critical of direct payments.
Stimulus payments have been popular with the public, and Democrats are hoping that highlighting the issue could help them with voter turnout.
“This might be the kind of appeal that might motivate voters to go to the polls,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
The Jan. 5 Georgia Senate runoffs are being closely watched because of their implications for President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to pass items on his agenda. Democrats need to win both races to have control of the Senate. Early voting started on Monday.
Polls show that both races – between Ossoff and Perdue in one, and Warnock and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) in the other – are close. Biden narrowly carried the state in the 2020 presidential election.
The runoff campaigns are taking place as Democrats and Republicans are engaging in efforts to pass another coronavirus relief package before the end of the year. A bipartisan proposal at the center of discussions does not include direct payments to Americans, but some lawmakers are pushing for the inclusion of a second round of checks along the lines of the one-time payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child that Congress authorized in the CARES Act in March.
Both Ossoff and Warnock in recent days have been calling on Congress to pass a coronavirus relief package this year that includes direct payments to Americans.
“David and Kelly should be in Washington delivering $1,200 checks for every single Georgian, and $500 for every child in this state, because people are hurting and we need help now,” Ossoff said at a rally on Tuesday that also featured Biden.
“We’re fed up with @KLoeffler’s failure. I will vote for direct stimulus checks to Georgians,” Warnock tweeted on Saturday.
Biden during Tuesday’s event brought up direct payments when seeking to contrast the Democratic and Republican candidates in Georgia on coronavirus relief, arguing that a relief package passed by Congress “should deliver direct cash payments to people right away.”
“Your two Republican senators are not supporting that kind of package,” Biden added. “Both Jon and Raphael do.”
The calls for more direct payments from the Democrats come as they also seek to emphasize the wealth of their Republican opponents and attack Loeffler and Perdue for stock trades made while in office. The incumbent senators have both said they did not act improperly.
Ossoff’s campaign in particular is highlighting comments that Perdue has made in the past about direct payments. When Perdue was asked by the Marietta Daily Journal in May about individuals who have not lost work receiving $1,200 payments, he said he “personally opposed it.” In July, Perdue said in an interview with PBS NewsHour that he preferred a payroll tax cut to direct payments.
Ossoff’s campaign has released ads that attack Perdue on the direct payment issue. And Ossoff said on MSNBC on Sunday that if he ran into Perdue, he would tell him to “get on a plane to Washington and vote for $1,200 stimulus checks for your constituents who are hurting right now.”
The Perdue and Loeffler campaigns argue that the senators have delivered relief for their constituents and that it’s Democratic politicians who are holding up a new round of legislation.
Perdue’s campaign also pointed to his support for the CARES Act amid Democratic criticism of his position on direct payments.
“Senator Perdue’s vote in favor of the CARES Act is the best indication of his position on that, and if Jon Ossoff and Democrats in Congress would quit the partisan gamesmanship, more economic relief could finally reach Georgians who need it most,” said Perdue campaign Communications Director John Burke.
Stephen Lawson, communications director for the Loeffler campaign, said Loeffler supported the first round of stimulus payments and is open to additional, targeted checks, but that the priority should be providing relief to businesses and getting people back to work.
Lawson argued that while Loeffler has been working to provide relief, “Raphael Warnock would just be another rubber stamp for [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer [D-N.Y.] in holding up relief that Georgians need.”
There is widespread public support for another round of direct payments. A Gallup poll conducted in August found that majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents thought that the federal government should send another payment.
Chris Grant, a political science professor at Mercer University, said that Democrats may hope that by emphasizing the issue of direct payments, it could not only encourage members of their party to vote but it could also cause some Republicans to stay home and not vote.
“I do think strategically this is one of the reasons this makes a lot of sense for them,” he said.
Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive group Democracy for America, said that advocating for more direct payments is likely to resonate with voters who are employed but are working fewer hours or making less money than they did before the pandemic.
“Politically, this is a no-brainer, to be telling people who are hurting economically during the holiday season that the government can and should be doing more to help them, and that if you elect me, I will fight for that,” he said.
Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia unaffiliated with any of the Senate campaigns, said that it makes sense for Perdue and Loeffler, as sitting lawmakers, to not “negotiate with themselves” and talk about all the specifics about what they would and would not vote for before there is a deal on the table.
“They face the reality of having to vote,” he said. “Warnock and Ossoff have the luxury of working completely in theory.”
Much of Perdue and Loeffler’s focus during the runoff campaigns has been about themes other than a relief package, such as serving as a check against Democratic control of Congress.
“What they’re talking about is being a check on a far-left agenda,” Robinson said.