The message from President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. that streamed across television screens in Georgia on Friday was simple, direct and dire: “Let me be clear: I need Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the United States Senate.”
Minutes later, a joint ad from their Republican opponents, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler was similarly urgent: “This fight will determine America’s future.”
The ad wars in Georgia’s two Senate races, which have soared past the $450 million mark and saturated the airwaves at previously unheard-of levels, reflect the stakes of one of the most unusual special elections in American history — the opportunity to vote for control of the Senate through two statewide races, held at the same time, with a new administration’s agenda hanging in the balance.
What began as an intensely negative, mudslinging ad campaign is now taking on increasingly national messages — that the Senate, and therefore the country, is what voters should consider as they cast their ballots, not necessarily who can best serve Georgia’s needs.
Democrats, who need to win both runoff races to control the Senate, say dual victories are necessary for Mr. Biden to undertake a concerted and complete recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans say a win in January, when the elections take place, is the only buffer left against what they claim is creeping “socialism.”
Mr. Biden’s ad, which began running on Friday, comes after weeks of ads from both Mr. Ossoff and Mr. Warnock that have pitched the recovery from the pandemic as hinging on their election.
“We can get our daily lives back, but only if we vote,” Mr. Ossoff says in one of his ads. Indeed, more than 70 percent of Mr. Ossoff’s ads focus on the coronavirus, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm. Mr. Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, has spent slightly less of his ad budget on the issue of the pandemic, but it is still the second-most frequent topic in his messaging.
While the Republican attacks hit various topics, including focusing on Mr. Warnock’s sermons and Mr. Ossoff’s private business interests, they often come back to a recurring theme that was prevalent in both the midterm elections and the impeachment ad wars: that the modern Democratic Party is controlled by the far left. Republican attack ads are packed with images of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a favorite target of Republicans seeking to paint the party as overly liberal.
“It’s freedom versus socialism,” a narrator declares in another joint ad from Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler. “This fight will determine America’s future, and we need your help now.”
It is a common tactic, one that was prevalent during the general election in many races, including the presidential one. While attempts to paint a lifelong, well-known moderate like Mr. Biden as a socialist were difficult, the branding worked in many down-ballot victories for Republicans.
“I am not at all surprised about the Republicans’s shift to the socialist attack. It worked down the ticket across the country in the 2020 general election,” said Kelly Gibson, a Democratic media strategist who advised the campaigns of Andrew Yang and Julián Castro. “The Democrats lost House seats in places that were surprising, and the main message was ‘socialist’ and defund the police.”
Both races are dominated by negative ads. None of the candidates are running a majority of positive ads, and many are continuing the criticisms from the general election. Ms. Loeffler’s campaign and allied Republican groups have been running particularly caustic ads against Mr. Warnock, focusing on issues of race and policing. Nearly half of Ms. Loeffler’s ads mention law enforcement or the “defund the police” movement.
Other ads by both Ms. Loeffler and Republican allies have targeted Mr. Warnock’s sermons and have sought to tie him to a now-famous clip of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., once the pastor of former President Barack Obama, delivering a sermon about the nation’s past oppression of racial minorities that included the phrase “God damn America.”
One ad, by the Republican group American Crossroads, deceptively edited footage in which Mr. Warnock was quoting Mr. Wright and discussing his remarks, making it appear as if the Democratic candidate had also said the phrase on his own when, in fact, he had not. (In the past, Mr. Warnock has suggested that Mr. Wright’s sermon squared with the “truth-telling tradition of the Black church.”) In a response ad, Mr. Warnock’s campaign aired footage of Ms. Loeffler speaking at his church in January, saying she told the congregation she was “humbled to be there” and “would love to come back.”
A coalition of African-American pastors in Georgia said at a news conference on Saturday that Ms. Loeffler’s ads had crossed a line and constituted “a broader attack against the Black church and faith traditions for which we stand.”
Both Mr. Warnock and Mr. Ossoff have run ads highlighting stock sales and business transactions made by Ms. Loeffler and Mr. Perdue after they received briefings on the coronavirus earlier this year, but before it had spread in the country.
“Kelly’s for Kelly,” one recent ad from Mr. Warnock’s campaign claims, after calling Ms. Loeffler the richest member of the Senate. “Warnock is for us.”
Even some of the ads that are meant to take the edge off the polarizing race slip in some attacks. In a new ad from Mr. Perdue, seven women are gathered next to a hearth, chairs in a circle, trading compliments about the first-term senator. But at the end, one woman adds: “I know that David is not going to defund our police, and he is not going to gut the military.”
Amid all the negative ads, television viewers in Georgia may or may not notice the increasingly national message. Indeed, the airwaves are becoming so saturated that political ads often run back to back, sometimes occupying entire commercial blocks for a full television show. In the past seven days, campaigns and outside groups spent more than $50 million on television, airing 88 unique political ads across Georgia.
Some days in December, more than a third of all ads in Georgia were political. In the 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. hour, home to local news broadcasts and a common target for political campaigns, more than 60 percent of all ads were political. Both figures outpaced the ad saturation during the general election, when numerous races were vying for airtime.
With so many ads blanketing the airwaves, political strategists and ad experts both concede that the returns can be diminishing.
“It’s like World War I, when they would sit there in the trenches and they would shell each other for weeks, but then nothing would happen because everyone was in trenches and bunkers,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. He said it was like “shelling impenetrable bases.”
But, at the same time, Dr. Goldstein noted, the budgets for these Senate races are seemingly limitless, and ad budgets do not appear to be ballooning at the expense of field or other programs. And when the Senate is in play in such a close race, any impact on voters can be worth it to donors.
“The stakes are so high and the margins are so tight that even a really inefficient strategy makes sense for people who are trying to control the United States Senate,” Dr. Goldstein said.
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