Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs center on stock trading and Trump's false claims of rigged elections

Key Points
  • With weeks to Georgia's runoff elections, both races are centered on accusations of improper stock trades and Trump's doubts about the integrity of the state's ballots.
  • The contests pit two incumbent Republicans — David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — against two Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
  • The outcome of the races will shape Biden's policy plans, the odds of tax reform and the balance of progressives and moderates in the Cabinet.
Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue arrive at a campaign stop with Vice President Mike Pence, not pictured, at the Cherokee Conference Center in Canton, Georgia, U.S., on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020.
Elijah Nouvelage | Bloomberg | Getty Images

With weeks until two critical Senate runoff elections in Georgia, both races appear centered on accusations of improper equity trading and President Donald Trump's mixed messaging about the integrity of the state's ballots.

The contests pit two Republican incumbents — David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — against two Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

At stake are not only two Senate seats long held by the GOP, but party control of the upper house of the U.S. Congress. In a real sense, Georgia voters will singlehandedly decide on the course of congressional policy for 2021.

On the ballot will be the size of President-elect Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" economic plan, the odds of meaningful tax reform, the balance of progressives and moderates in the Cabinet and the composition of federal courts throughout the country.

It's "impossible to overstate the importance" of the Georgia runoff election, Cowen analyst Chris Krueger wrote Thursday morning.

"The fate of 2021 federal policy will be decided by two Georgia Senate elections — full stop," he added. "Dems have to win both to take the Senate majority. This is close to a jump ball in our mind."

Both runoff elections are scheduled for Jan. 5; polls will close at 7 p.m. ET.

Leading up to the runoffs, Republicans have secured 50 Senate seats and Democrats have 48, including two independent senators who caucus with Democrats.

In other words, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell needs to hold on to just one Georgia seat to cement a majority in the chamber, whereas Democrats need to win both for a 50-50 split. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be the tiebreaker in Senate votes that resulted in ties.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock speaks during an Election Night event on November 3, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jessica McGowan | Getty Images

Georgia has for much of the last 30 years been viewed as a Republican stronghold, dominated by GOP politicians at both the state and federal levels.

So when Georgia officials last month certified that Joe Biden had become the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election since 1992, it sent political shockwaves across the nation and ensured that control of the U.S. Senate was anything but certain.

Though there are few polls to judge how Georgia voters are feeling about either race, online betting markets suggest gamblers are expecting a razor-thin margin on Election Day.

Taking stock

Notably, both Republican incumbents are defending themselves against accusations of ill-timed equity trading and trying to persuade voters that their stock trades were innocuous.

According to a New York Times investigation published Wednesday, Perdue's 2,596 trades during his first term in office accounted for nearly a third of all senators' trades reported in the past six years.

The transactions, mostly in stocks but also in bonds and funds, are about equal to the combined trading volume of the next five most active traders in the Senate, the Times report found.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who is running for reelection, speaks during a campaign event at Peachtree Dekalb Airport in Atlanta, Ga., on Monday, November 2, 2020.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Some of his trades, including a sale of more than $1 million worth of stock in a financial analysis firm, Cardlytics, have reportedly sparked federal investigations at the Justice Department.

Both Perdue and Loeffler deny accusations of illegal or improper stock trading.

Still, Perdue's opponent and Atlanta native Ossoff has seized upon those investigations and sought to leverage them in his campaign against the incumbent.

"Perhaps Sen. Perdue would have been able to respond properly to the Covid-19 pandemic if you hadn't been fending off multiple federal investigations for insider trading," Ossoff said during a debate against Perdue in October.

"It's not just that you're a crook, senator, it's that you're attacking the health of the people that you represent," Ossoff added.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) speaks to supporters during a campaign event at Bare Bones Steakhouse on October 28, 2020 in Buford, Georgia. Sen. Loeffler is running for re-election after being appointed by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp in January following the retirement of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA).
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Loeffler, who came under fire earlier in the year for trades made after closed-door Senate hearings, is married to Jeffrey Sprecher, the CEO of the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange. The couple's combined net worth is about $520 million, according to The Washington Post.

Sprecher and Loeffler's trades, involving sales of up to $3 million worth of securities, came in the weeks before stock market indexes dramatically fell in value due to the coronavirus pandemic, and on the heels of a private, all-senators briefing on the virus outbreak from Trump administration health officials that Loeffler attended on Jan. 24.

Loeffler faces a challenge from Warnock, a reverend at the same Atlanta church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor in the 1960s.

Donald dissonant

Trump has been an outspoken critic of Georgia's recent elections and has, without evidence, said the state's results are fraudulent.

The president has for weeks attempted to strike harmony between two contradictory realities: One in which Georgia and its election system are rife with "massive voter fraud" and another in which he implores the state's voters to use that same system to reelect Perdue and Loeffler.

The attacks levied by Trump, and the even more extreme conspiracies floated by his allies, have other Republican leaders worried that his broadsides could work to depress GOP turnout come January.

Conservative attorneys, such as Trump supporter Lin Wood, have continued to file long-shot lawsuits challenging election results in key states, while amplifying their conspiracy claims outside of court.

At a large, in-person rally in Atlanta on Wednesday, Wood viciously attacked Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and called on Perdue and Loeffler to demand a special session of the state's legislature.

"We're not going to go vote on Jan. 5 on another machine made by China!" Wood told the crowd.

In recent weeks, Trump has appealed to Georgia voters while continuing to criticize the state's Republican leaders and pressuring them to take steps toward reversing Biden's win there.

"We are not sure anyone has an accurate model for what turnout looks like for a runoff election during a pandemic when control of [the] Senate [is] at stake and Trump's base may not [turn out] because the President has convinced them the elections are a fraud perpetuated by the Deep State," Cowen analyst Krueger wrote.

The president tweeted Thursday morning that "The 'Republican' Governor of Georgia, @BrianKempGA, and the Secretary of State, MUST immediately allow a signature verification match on the Presidential Election."

"If that happens," the president added, "we quickly and easily win the State and importantly, pave the way for a big David and Kelly WIN!"

— CNBC's Kevin Breuninger contributed reporting.