Fact Check: Opening Ads In The Perdue-Ossoff Runoff Race
In the first TV ads of the runoff campaign that could help decide the balance of the Senate, Republican Sen. David Perdue warned his opponent would “radically change America,” while Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff accused his opponent of downplaying the coronavirus.
The ad from Perdue makes the misleading claims that Ossoff would “defund police” and provide “voting rights for illegal immigrants.” Ossoff has repeatedly said he does not support defunding police. And while he supports providing a pathway to citizenship to some 11 million immigrants currently in the country illegally, he does not support voting rights for noncitizens.
Ossoff’s ad offers similar side-by-side comments from Perdue and President Donald Trump that the ad contends show Perdue “ignored the medical experts, downplayed the crisis and left us unprepared.”
We’ll leave it to readers to decide for themselves if Perdue’s comments did that, but some of the comments highlighted in the ad came early in the year at a time when medical experts were making similar comments. And Perdue made other comments warning about the seriousness of the virus and reinforcing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to reduce the spread of the virus.
The first TV ad of the runoff from the Perdue campaign begins with a clip of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer celebrating after Joe Biden was projected the winner of the presidential race, telling a crowd in New York, “Now we take Georgia, then we change America.”
If Democrats were to flip the two Senate seats in Georgia’s January runoff elections — Perdue vs. Ossoff and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler vs. Democrat Raphael Warnock — Democrats would control both houses of Congress and the presidency.
“You heard him,” the ad’s narrator says. “Chuck Schumer is trying to use Georgia to take the Senate majority and radically change America. The Schumer, Pelosi, Ossoff change? Defund police. Voting rights for illegal immigrants. Washington, D.C. as the 51st state.”
That’s a distortion of Ossoff’s positions. Ossoff has repeatedly said he does not support defunding police.
For example, in a Sirius XM radio interview on Sept. 11, Ossoff said, “I oppose defunding the police and I think frankly, it’s a counterproductive and foolish way of characterizing what I think for some folks is a desire to reform police.”
In an interview on WSB radio on June 11, Ossoff reiterated, “No, the answer is not to defund police. The answer is to reform police. And the answer is to demilitarize police. Far too many local police departments are heavily equipped with armored vehicles and military equipment, and when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
The Perdue campaign points to comments Ossoff made in a radio interview in June: “You have to have national standards for the use of force, and yeah, you’ve got to be able to hold individual officers and entire departments accountable, and there also has to be funding for those departments on the line.” (Starting at the 19:39 mark.)
The Ossoff campaign says that Ossoff was talking about supplemental police funding, and that Ossoff’s position is similar to that of Biden, who in June told CBS News, “No, I don’t support defunding the police. I support conditioning federal aid to police, based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness. And, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community.”
As we have written, there is no agreed upon definition for the term “defund the police.” Some police critics, who believe there is systemic racism in law enforcement, really do want to abolish police forces and replace them with other forms of community safety entities. Others advocate shifting some money and functions away from police departments to social service agencies.
Ossoff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August that he agrees with Biden’s position of tying federal funds for law enforcement agencies to meeting certain standards, including whether they can “demonstrate they can protect the community.”
The ad also distorts Ossoff’s position when it says he supports “voting rights for illegal immigrants.” Ossoff’s campaign told us he does not, and the Perdue campaign didn’t provide any evidence that he does.
The Perdue campaign points to Biden’s support for “providing a roadmap to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants” currently in the U.S., including the so-called Dreamers who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. A bipartisan immigration bill that sought to do the same thing passed the Senate in 2013 with the support of 14 Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored the bill. Ossoff’s policy similarly calls for creating “a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants who are already here and otherwise follow the law.”
But that’s different from allowing “voting rights for illegal immigrants.” As we have written, it would likely take more than a dozen years under such legislation for immigrants to gain full citizenship, and voting rights. But they would then be citizens, not “illegal immigrants.” Ossoff’s campaign says he opposes voting rights for noncitizens.
The ad is correct that Ossoff supports statehood for Washington, D.C., but it’s not clear that statehood for D.C. could be accomplished even with a simple majority in the Senate. Under Senate rules, legislation can be blocked if it fails to receive the 60 votes necessary to end debate and move to a vote.
“Any effort to get DC statehood would be filibustered,” Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told us via email. “So the answer is that it would first require a change in the rules of the Senate to reform or end the filibuster, which is not going to happen with only 50 Democrats — at least not for some time. It could happen, if [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell’s Republicans used the filibuster to block everything — including COVID relief, infrastructure, and every other Biden initiative. But not for quite a while, and no sure thing at all.”
The latest ad from the Ossoff campaign mirrors one it has been running since the summer, accusing Perdue of downplaying the coronavirus crisis. The runoff ad, called “Echo,” is updated to pair similar quotes from Perdue and Trump to make the case that Perdue “ignored the medical experts, downplayed the crisis and left us unprepared.”
We’ll just focus on the quotes attributed to Perdue. The quotes are accurate; however, they are misleadingly juxtaposed with a chart showing the rising COVID-19 death count. Some of Perdue’s comments were made early in the pandemic, long before the corresponding number of deaths reached the levels shown in the ad.
The first two quotes come from an interview Perdue did with The Valley’s Morning News podcast — a Georgia program — on March 11. The bolded parts of the interview are included in the ad.
Perdue, March 11: It’s a balance between being precautionary and overreacting. And I think we have to realize that the risk of this virus in the United States right now still remains low. And the mortality rate is still being determined. The normal mortality rate of the normal flu is well under 1%. This so far is over 1%, but you know, so far, very, very few people have been exposed to it in the United States. […] So I think we’re doing what we should do right now. I don’t want to see America panic and overreact. But I do think it’s good for us to be precautionary and just take care of ourselves relative to whether we think we’re getting sick or have been exposed or anything like that.
Perdue went on to say that “the authorities are not taking this lightly. We’re presuming the worst and preparing for the worst. But at the same time, we’re hopeful this thing will burn itself out before we see a dramatic increase in the numbers here.”
The Perdue campaign also noted that in this interview, Perdue reiterated CDC guidance: “If you’re elderly or have a respiratory illness, be discretionary and stay away from large crowds. Use hand sanitizers, wash your hands frequently, try to stay away from people who are sick. And if you are sick, stay home. And if it feels like it’s getting serious, call a doctor, don’t go run to the emergency room right away but call a physician and get advice.”
To put these comments in the context of the moment, the day before the interview, there were about 1,500 COVID-19 cases in the U.S., with about 37 deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project. At that time, the New York Times reported 17 cases in Georgia, and no deaths.
In comments on Feb. 29, less than two weeks before Perdue’s interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show that the risk from COVID-19 “is still low,” and he said there was no need for people to change their daily routines “at this moment.” But he warned that could change if “you start to see community spread.” Fauci said the virus could develop into a “major outbreak” or “it could be something that’s reasonably well controlled.”
On March 9, just two days before Perdue’s comments, Fauci was still talking about the coronavirus as “an evolving thing” and that holding campaign rallies “in a place where there is no community spread, I think the judgment to have it might be a good judgment.”
Things changed quickly though in the days after Perdue made those comments on March 11. The day of that interview, the World Health Organization declared the global outbreak a pandemic, and two days later, Trump announced a national emergency.
The ad then highlights a comment Perdue made at a Chamber of Commerce meeting on May 14: “We’ve had ordinary flu seasons with more deaths.” Perdue rightly noted that there were about 80,000 deaths from COVID-19 at that time, and there were an estimated 61,000 influenza deaths in the 2017-2018 flu season (though the average over the last decade has been fewer than 40,000 per year). But even at the time it was a flawed comparison and, of course, COVID-19-related deaths continued to mount through the summer and fall (and now stand at more than 247,000). We have repeatedly fact-checked the president for making faulty comparisons between the flu and COVID-19, which has proven to be much more deadly (as medical experts repeatedly warned).
The ad then uses a quote from Perdue at a different Chamber of Commerce meeting on April 28: “The numbers projected were supposed to be much worse.” Perdue credited Trump’s actions for keeping those numbers down.
As we have written numerous times in the past when Trump claimed to have averted some 2 million deaths, a forecast of 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. is based on a model from Imperial College London in March that predicted U.S. deaths if no mitigation measures were taken and no individual behavior changes occurred. The figure, therefore, was not intended to be an estimate of likely deaths.
And as we have written, research does support the idea that lockdowns — which were instituted by states, not Trump — saved lives earlier this year, although it’s hard to say how many.
Finally, the ad uses a clip from Perdue being interviewed on CNBC on June 16 in which he was asked about the reopening plan in Georgia. “It’s going very well,” Perdue said.
Fauci and other medical experts were critical in May of Georgia and some other Republican-led states for opening too early. At the time, Perdue told Politico that he had recently eaten in restaurants twice in Georgia and, “We’ve got to get this economy open again. We’re on the back side of the cycle.” However, new cases spiked in Georgia in July and August.
Readers can make what they will of Perdue’s comments and decide for themselves if he downplayed the virus.
The Perdue campaign points to other comments and statements Perdue made around the same time that suggest he took the pandemic seriously and took measures to help protect the public.
For example, on March 2 after the first two cases of the coronavirus were reported in Georgia, Perdue and Loeffler issued a press release stating, in part, “We’re closely monitoring the cases of coronavirus in Georgia and urge everyone to take extra precautions. Governor Kemp and the Trump Administration are working with us to ensure we keep Georgians healthy and safe. It is of utmost importance that Georgia has the resources necessary to respond accordingly.”
And on March 23, Perdue released a public service announcement via video, which began: “First of all, I know this virus is causing a lot of concern, and rightfully so. Let me assure you of this: the world’s best public health officials are right here in Georgia at the CDC. They’re working around the clock to help contain this virus and to develop a vaccine.”
Perdue, March 23: The President’s early travel restrictions gave us time to prepare for the virus, and we’re continuing to take action to safeguard public health. We’re doing this by cutting red tape, partnering with the private sector to expand testing availability, and ensuring state and local officials have the resources they need. We’re also working on ways to help families and businesses that might be impacted financially.
Finally, please remember to follow the advice of public health officials: stay home if you are sick; wash your hands frequently with soap and water; keep a safe distance from others. If you are experiencing symptoms, call your health care provider right away. You don’t necessarily need to go there, just call them and give them your symptoms.
The Perdue campaign also pointed to a number of COVID-19-related actions Perdue has taken, including helping small businesses access the Paycheck Protection Program and helping to locate personal protective equipment for front-line workers.
The Perdue campaign also touted measures in the CARES Act, a nearly $2 trillion stimulus package to bolster the economy in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It included direct payments to Americans, loans for small businesses, support for hospitals and more. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate. Perdue, of course, voted for it, although he opposed two of its major provisions: the direct payment of $1,200 checks to qualifying individuals and the $600-per-week in additional unemployment payments.
One one front, Perdue has been out ahead of, and clearer than, the president: encouraging the public to wear masks.
Trump has waffled on his support for mask-wearing from the start — saying on April 3, the day the CDC issued recommendations for public mask-wearing, that he would not personally be wearing a mask. In an interview in early May, Perdue said that in Senate meetings the week before, “We all wore masks. We actually had a meeting before then (and) we had masks. And we have hand sanitizers, signs everywhere about washing hands and maintaining social distance. I think it’s very important that America sees that, that we are functioning, and that this is an essential part of life, that we work together.”
In an interview on Fox News on June 30, Perdue said, “I absolutely support wearing masks. We wear them here in the Senate. We’ve been back here for five weeks. We follow the protocols that the military and our essential workers have been following. We wash our hands, we use masks, and if we follow that, I believe the infection rate can be managed.”
And on July 9, Perdue tweeted a picture of himself wearing a mask and imploring the public to “wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing.”
That was 11 days before Trump did the same thing.
In Ossoff’s ad, a chart shows the rising COVID-19 death count, while Trump and Perdue comment about the virus. But the chart is misleading. For example, when Perdue said “the risk of this virus … still remains low,” the chart shows the number of deaths increasing from about 15,000 to 83,000. But, as we said, that comment was made when there were about 1,500 cases and about 37 deaths nationwide (and just 17 cases and no deaths in Georgia). Similarly, the graphic shows the death count rising from about 180,000 to about 210,000 when Perdue said “the numbers projected were supposed to be much worse” — when, in fact, there were 54,761 deaths at the time of his remarks on April 28.
That puts Perdue’s comments in a worse light. Still, Perdue’s comments comparing COVID-19 to the flu, praising Georgia’s early reopening plan and crediting Trump for keeping the death count below projections are all flawed. But again, we’ll let readers determine for themselves if those comments prove Perdue “ignored the medical experts” and “downplayed the crisis.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with FactCheck.org a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.