WASHINGTON — When Senator David Perdue of Georgia didn’t present up for a debate on Sunday evening, he ensured two outcomes: Jon Ossoff, Mr. Perdue’s Democratic opponent, would take pleasure in free airtime unencumbered by assaults from his rival, and the opposite Senate debate that evening would draw way more consideration.
Handing Mr. Ossoff an open microphone, Republicans decided, was nicely definitely worth the cut price.
As Georgians put together to vote in two runoffs subsequent month that may resolve management of the Senate, there may be little thriller as to which of the 2 Democratic candidates G.O.P. officers wish to elevate as a goal as they attempt to rouse their base: the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who’s operating in opposition to Georgia’s different Republican senator, Kelly Loeffler.
Ms. Loeffler made plain the Republican technique when she referred to as Mr. Warnock a “radical liberal” 13 occasions of their debate on Sunday night. She repeatedly invoked his previous criticism of cops and a sermon in which he once said that “nobody can serve God and the military,” a theme that has roots in biblical passages.
Her plan of assault adopted the same portrayal by President Trump throughout his rally on Saturday in Valdosta, Ga., the place Republicans performed a video that likened Mr. Warnock to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago pastor whose feedback drew scrutiny to his relationship with Barack Obama within the 2008 marketing campaign. The video included footage of Mr. Wright famously saying “God damn America.”
That identical critique has been echoed by different Republican surrogates, who’ve spent extra time specializing in Mr. Warnock than Mr. Ossoff.
“This is a man who celebrated Jeremiah Wright, the radical pastor who was so far to the left that even Barack Obama had to repudiate him,” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas mentioned throughout a cease in Georgia final month.
Making Mr. Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta’s storied Ebenezer Baptist Church, the face of the opposition for the Jan. 5 election — moderately than Mr. Ossoff, a younger white documentary filmmaker — represents a two-pronged technique.
Spotlighting a Black candidate and linking him to the state’s most distinguished African-American Democrat, Stacey Abrams, quantities to a method to encourage turnout amongst white conservatives, particularly those that harbor racist views and are uneasy about Black management. Mr. Warnock can be the primary Black Democratic senator from the South.
The run-against-Warnock method, although, additionally takes a web page out of the nationwide Republican Party’s playbook for the 2020 marketing campaign. Republicans discovered nice success in down-ballot races, in opposition to principally white candidates, by tying them to essentially the most liberal figures and concepts within the Democratic Party — like defunding the police, which Mr. Warnock doesn’t help.
These assaults, delivered with out overt references to race, could show sufficient to influence the multiracial coalition of suburbanites who swung to Joseph R. Biden Jr. within the presidential contest to vote subsequent month for the 2 Republicans and guarantee a G.O.P.-controlled Senate.
“Both are political newcomers with thin paper trails,” the Republican strategist Liam Donovan mentioned of the 2 Democratic candidates, “but Warnock gives you a lot more to aim at than Ossoff, especially on familiar themes that resonate with G.O.P. audiences. Ossoff is just too dull to make a useful political caricature of.”
Republicans have one other crucial relating to Mr. Warnock: Because Ms. Loeffler spent a lot of her focus and cash warding off Representative Doug Collins, a Republican, within the first spherical of voting final month within the Senate race, Mr. Warnock emerged from November with the bottom unfavorable rankings of the 4 candidates vying for the 2 seats.
Ms. Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat final December and is a first-time candidate, is seen by officers in each events because the extra weak of the 2 Republicans; she has barely underperformed Mr. Perdue within the small set of polling that has been launched because the runoffs acquired underway.
Mr. Warnock acknowledged the onslaught coming his approach and shortly launched an advert previewing the assaults, suggesting Republicans would even declare he didn’t like puppies.
“I love puppies!” he declared as he stroked one within the business.
Mr. Warnock, although, didn’t have any such line on the prepared on Sunday evening to defuse Ms. Loeffler’s unrelenting portrayal of him as a radical. Instead, he sought to alter the main target to his rival’s wealth and the inventory trades she made whereas serving within the Senate this 12 months.
Mr. Warnock mentioned Ms. Loeffler “used her advantage as a U.S. senator to make millions on a pandemic while playing it down to the people she was supposed to represent.”
Mr. Warnock emphasised his dedication to unity — “I have worked my whole life to pull people together,” he mentioned — and sought to reassure voters in what remains to be a right-of-center state that he supported cops.
“Our law enforcement officers lay it on the line every day,” he mentioned, including that they “will have an ally in me.” Ms. Loeffler, although, didn’t let up.
“I’m not going to be lectured by someone who uses the Bible to justify division,” she mentioned, referring to Mr. Warnock’s sermon about God and the navy. Mr. Warnock responded by accusing Ms. Loeffler of distorting his phrases for “cheap political points” and mentioned the sermon was about “a moral foundation of everything we do.”
What in the end could drive the Loeffler-Warnock race, and maybe each of the runoffs, is whether or not Republicans’ assaults remind Georgia voters of why they’ve demonstrated a longstanding desire for Republican senators, permitting them to place apart their distaste for Mr. Trump’s conspiracy-mongering.
This could rely partially on how Mr. Trump conducts himself after Dec. 14, when the Electoral College will formalize Mr. Biden’s victory. On Monday, Georgia officers recertified the state’s election outcomes after a second recount affirmed Mr. Trump had misplaced.
“That strikes me as a pivot point,” mentioned Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, referring to the Electoral College deadline subsequent week. He expressed the hope of many in his social gathering that from that time on the 2 Georgia Republicans may run expressly on a message of “We need a firewall.”
For now, Mr. Trump’s refusal to concede defeat is denying the 2 Republicans the chance to run on this message; Ms. Loeffler demonstrated that within the debate when she refused to say Mr. Biden had received the presidency, for worry of alienating Mr. Trump and his fervent supporters.
Even if the Georgia Republicans can totally current themselves as checks on Mr. Biden, there are nonetheless dangers in making Mr. Warnock their singular goal. If the assaults have an air of bigotry, Republicans could flip off the coalition of moderates they’re attempting to win over within the runoffs. Many Georgians throughout racial strains are proud to assert a New South identification and will recoil from something that smacks of overt race-baiting.
Further, the anti-Warnock messaging could energize Black voters, who make up roughly 30 p.c of the Georgia citizens.
“Democrats have a hard time getting some of their African-American voters to come back when there’s not a presidential race at the top of the ticket,” mentioned Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “But African-Americans have never had an African-American Senate candidate to vote for either.”
Jim Galloway, the dean of Georgia’s political press and a longtime columnist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has warned about the risks for Republicans in the event that they make the assaults too excessive.
He wrote in a latest column that the social gathering “crosses a line” when it permits Mr. Collins to assert, as he did final month, that “there is no such thing as a pro-choice pastor. What you have is a lie from the bed of hell. It is time to send it back to Ebenezer Baptist Church.”
Mr. Galloway wrote: “I have been unable to decide which is more disturbing — referring to an African-American man as an “it,” or marking Ebenezer and its congregation as a den of satanic affect. But it’s onerous to stroll both again — and together with her silence, Loeffler has acquiesced to each.”
Pressed on this query within the debate on Sunday, Ms. Loeffler insisted she was not turning to racist appeals and, echoing Mr. Trump, mentioned that “there is not a racist bone in my body.” She argued that Mr. Warnock’s beliefs — not his identification — had been why voters must be scared of Democrats controlling each chambers of Congress and the White House.
“What’s at stake here in this election is the American dream,” she mentioned. “This is an attack on every single Georgian who gets up every day to work hard to provide a better life for their family.”
Mr. Warnock hit again: “She’s lied, not only on me, but about Jesus.”