Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) has tested positive for the coronavirus amid her campaign to retain her Senate seat in a special election against Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Loeffler reportedly tested positive Friday; according to her campaign, she received an additional inconclusive test result Saturday, and is asymptomatic. She is currently quarantining. If she follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, she will need to refrain from interacting with others — including holding in-person campaign events — for at least 9 more days, a significant setback given Georgia’s special election is fast approaching, on January 5.
The senator campaigned in-person Friday ahead of her test, having reportedly received a negative test in morning; her events placed her in close contact with Vice President Mike Pence and fellow Georgia Sen. David Perdue, a Republican who will also be on the ballot January 5, potentially exposing them to infection. Pence has had a number of exposures, including at a White House superspreader event held in celebration of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, but appears to have avoided infection thus far.
Loeffler and Perdue are both in tight races; Perdue is running against Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, a filmmaker who narrowly lost a hotly contested congressional race in 2017.
The two contests have taken on national significance as their results will decide which party will control the Senate, and to what degree President-elect Joe Biden will be able to fill seats in his cabinet, let alone pursue any kind of legislation he promised during his campaign.
Some Republicans, like Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) have said if Republicans control the Senate in Biden “would be well advised to not nominate radical progressives and people that would have difficulty.” And a GOP-controlled Senate would also likely limit the size and scope of any future coronavirus stimulus and aid package, as the Republican Party has repeatedly said they believe Democrats’ plans for sweeping Covid-19 legislation are unnecessary and would add too much to the national debt.
Polls show a narrow race that is essentially tied. And as Vox’s Ella Nilsen has explained, while normally Republicans would be seen as having an advantage in Georgia’s runoffs — which are typically low turnout contests than normal elections — this year, there are a number of factors that make both races unpredictable.
For one, Nilsen notes, “the metro Atlanta area is booming, and a lot of people moving there are young and diverse. Increasingly, they’re voting Democratic.” This new influx of voters, coupled with the efforts of activists and local Democratic Party officials to register new voters and increase turnout, powered a narrow Biden victory in the state.
Second, both races have received national attention — Democrats and Republicans both see winning as critical, as both want control of the Senate. This has meant an influx of money and volunteers, as well as a unprecedented focus on both seats.
Third, Loeffler and Perdue have both been embroiled in financial scandals related to stock trades they made early in the pandemic, including sales that kept them from massive financial losses and acquisitions of companies that have increased their value due to the coronavirus’ spread.
Both candidates received information not yet available to the public about the severity of the coronavirus and its potential consequences. Both made savvy trades after learning that information, something the senators claimed was done without their knowledge. The Department of Justice briefly investigated Loeffler, and several other senators, before dropping its investigation; and both Loeffler and Perdue were cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee (a body that, as Ed Kilgore notes in New York Magazine has a “very tolerant approach to conflicts of interest”).
But it is the final variable that perhaps injects the most uncertainty into the race: President Donald Trump.
Trump has been of little help to either Republican because he has been primarily focused on casting doubt on the results of Georgia’s results in the presidential election. He lost the state by 12,636 votes, but incorrectly insists that election officials counted wrong.
Georgia has already counted its ballots twice — the second time was a hand recount, where all of its 5 million votes were examined and tabulated by trained election officials. Biden won both those counts.
The state certified its election results on Friday, with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger saying he stands by the count.
“Working as an engineer throughout my life, I live by the motto that numbers don’t lie,” Raffensperger said Friday morning. “The numbers reflect the verdict of the people, not a decision by the secretary of state’s office or of courts or of either campaign.”
Gov. Brian Kemp also signed off on the results.
But the Trump campaign requested another recount on Saturday, saying in a statement, “We are focused on ensuring that every aspect of Georgia State Law and the U.S. Constitution are followed so that every legal vote is counted.”
And Trump has repeatedly issued tweets casting doubt on the results in Georgia — and other states — claiming, falsely, that illegal ballots were counted and spreading debunked conspiracy theories about the machines and software used to tally votes during the first count.
These efforts have taken time and attention away from the Senate races, and has complicated Republicans’ messaging on the runoff. Rather than focus on the issues, both candidates have been forced to trumpet their support of Trump in his quixotic bid to overturn the election’s results.
During his stop in Georgia, Pence told audiences, “As our election contests continue, here in Georgia and in courts across the country, I’ll make you [a] promise: We’re going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted. We’re going to keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out.”
And NPR’s Claudia Grisales notes that Perdue’s efforts to frame the runoff as the only way to check Biden and keep the Senate in the GOP’s hands were interrupted by chants of “Stop the steal!” — a rally cry used by Trump supporters who incorrectly believe the election is being stolen from him.
Adding to the overall concern that Trump may be leading Republicans into sabotaging themselves in Georgia is the fact that the president has worked to cast doubt on the professionalism of election officials there, casting Raffensperger as corrupt and Kemp and incompetent.
“Georgia Secretary of State, a so-called Republican (RINO), won’t let the people checking the ballots see the signatures for fraud,” Trump tweeted Friday. “Everyone knows that we won the state. Where is @BrianKempGA?”
That the people running the special election can’t be trusted would seem to give the president’s supporters little incentive to participate in the contests. Trump has not yet explained why Georgians should vote for Loeffler or Purdue. And if the race is as close as the presidential one, both senators will need every vote to keep their seats.