Democratic candidates vying to unseat Sen. David Perdue see Georgia as critical battleground

"Republicans just did not see this coming," one Democrat competing Tuesday said.

While the intraparty brawl between Georgia Republicans Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins -- who are competing against each other in the November special Senate election -- may be getting more national attention, the state’s other senator, Republican David Perdue, is also on the ballot this November, and there’s a large field of candidates vying to flip at least one of the state's Senate seats blue this election cycle.

Seven candidates qualified for Tuesday’s Democratic Senate primary, and since one candidate would need to secure more than 50% of the vote to win the nomination outright, the race is likely headed to an August runoff election.

“For any candidate to clear 50% would be an unprecedented, historic, herculean achievement, and we are fully prepared to win a runoff,” Jon Ossoff, the favorite to secure the most votes among the candidates, told ABC News in an interview Monday.

Teresa Tomlinson, the first female mayor of Columbus, Georgia, who’s also competing in the primary, said advancing to a runoff would be “devastating” for Ossoff because it would be the third election he’s run in where he didn’t win a majority of the voters.

“If he can't get 51%, that's a very serious problem for his validity as a candidate going forward,” Tomlinson told ABC News Monday.

Sarah Riggs Amico, the 2018 Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, wouldn’t say if she expected Tuesday to lead to a runoff election, instead predicting that there would be “record turnout.”

She highlighted her experience as the only candidate to pursue statewide office, adding, “There's certainly nobody else who's gotten almost half a million more votes than David Perdue ever has.” In the record low country-wide turnout in 2014, Perdue won with 1,355,392 votes. In 2018, Amico lost, but with 1,828,566 votes.

Tomlinson and Amico are considered to be the candidates rounding out the top three Democratic contenders. The three have significantly outraised the other four candidates, according to the latest campaign finance filings with the Federal Election Commission.

The other candidates who qualified for the ballot are Maya Dillard Smith, Marckeith DeJesus, James Knox and Tricia Carpenter McCracken.

Ossoff, who arguably has the most national name recognition among the candidates running and received the endorsement of civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis -- the most high profile Democrat in the state -- unsuccessfully ran in the 2017 special election to replace former Rep. Tom Price, who left office after being tapped to serve in the Trump administration. The election for the 6th Congressional District went to a runoff between Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, and is still the most expensive House race ever.

He lost the runoff by less than 10,000 votes, and Democrat Lucy McBath was able to defeat Handel months later, in the 2018 midterm election. Handel is again pursuing the Republican nomination in this district's primary Tuesday, and has received President Donald Trump’s “total endorsement.”

The CEO of an investigative journalism media production company, Ossoff has never been elected to office, but he said his lack of the “typical political profile,” including his young age, is what sets him apart in this race.

“I've made my career, producing hard hitting, award-winning investigative journalism that has exposed corruption, war crimes, the abuse of power and organized crime,” he said. “And at a moment when political corruption… is destroying our political system… someone who has dedicated their life to exposing and fighting corruption is exactly what we need in the Senate.”

Tomlinson pointed to her governing experience as what differentiates her from the other Democratic candidates, saying that because of her two terms as mayor, she’s able to speak about issues in a way her competitors aren’t.

“You can give an impassioned speech about your outrage about corruption, or an impassioned speech about your outrage about policing -- I do that all the time,” Tomlinson said. “But what exactly are you going to do legislatively that will lurch this forward in a meaningful way towards resolution?”

She said that difference could make all the difference in how competitive Democrats are against Perdue.

“If you're going to beat an incumbent in a politically transitioning state, you must have somebody who is not just pontificating about Democratic principles, but literally can get up and say, ‘You know, I have implemented these principles,’” Tomlinson said.

Before being elected mayor of majority-minority Columbus, Tomlinson, a Georgia native, had a national law practice, and was also a “community activist.” She told ABC News that she worked to reinvigorate localities that had faced significant divestment, which disproportionately tended to be majority non-white communities. This work inspired her to run for mayor by focusing on “race, poverty and blight,” a message that’s transferred over to her Senate run, which she said has been focused on calling out the “instability” in the country.

She said the mass protests and civil unrest that has erupted across the country in response to a police officer allegedly killing yet another unarmed black man is a “manifestation of her deepest concerns.”

“We have created systems that are no longer serving the needs of the vast majority of our citizens and the system is on the brink of beginning to crumble and unravel as we have not addressed them for so long,” she said.

For Amico, the decision to run in this race was prompted by her family’s trucking company almost going out of business. Before stepping down in January to focus on her Senate run, Amico served as the executive chairperson for the company she said she helped grow, even in the midst of the Great Recession, from 120 employees in 2008, to around 3,000 when she left.

“This race isn't necessarily the outcome of decades of political planning,” she told ABC News in an interview. “This is a race that's born out of… a very raw experience, you know? The business we built up damn near didn't survive the president's trade wars and the pension crisis on the multi-employer pension side.”

In the 2018 election, Amico and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, ran as if they were a ticket, even though their candidacies weren’t one on the ballot. Amico has not garnered the same national prominence as Abrams, who opted not to run for Senate and instead focus on tackling voter suppression and ensuring every American is counted in the 2020 Census, and now finding herself in the running to be presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s vice president.

But in her interview with ABC News, she talked about how this campaign is a continuation of her 2018 bid, saying in order to really tackle the issues at the center of it, like combating voter suppression and expanding Medicaid, “all roads lead to the U.S. Senate.”

“The connective tissue is pretty intense between the 2018 run and this. The difference is, I think, where you can be the most effective,” she said, mentioning things like the Voting Rights Act, election security and protecting the Affordable Care Act among a litany of issues that she said must be addressed at the federal level.

“I actually think in many ways we can finish the work we started in 2018 by flipping the seat,” she said.

Besides wanting to oust Perdue, Ossoff, Tomlinson and Amico all agree on at least one other thing: Georgia is a battleground state this election cycle.

Ossoff said Georgia, as the only state with both Senate seats on the ballot in November, “will be the most competitive state in the country this year.”

“Georgia will be the center of the political universe for the U.S. Senate map,” Amico said. “The reality is, I believe we can not only win this race against David Perdue -- I think it's most likely we will flip both seats.”

If they win the presidency and hold on to all the Senate seats they currently have, Democrats would need to flip at least three seats to have a majority in the Senate, including the vice president's tie-breaking vote. If Trump wins reelection, they must win at least four Republican-held seats.

Amico added that Biden is “going to be a hell of a candidate in the state of Georgia,” saying she believes he has a “tremendous amount of goodwill among voters” there.

Tomlinson predicted Biden would win Georgia. In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton lost by about 5 percentage points, but Democrats often point to the 2018 gubernatorial election, where the margin of victory between then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Abrams was a mere 1.4 percentage points.

“I think that the Republicans just did not see this coming,” Tomlinson said, referring to both the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests. “They did not see this political shift coming in this cycle, and then these other exacerbating circumstances have really left them flat-footed.”