WASHINGTON – For prominent Democrats around the country, the message to Georgia voters about January's runoff elections couldn't be more clear: Voting for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will keep Mitch McConnell from running the U.S. Senate.
But the candidates themselves have embraced a more balanced approach, forming most of their pitches around policy proposals and character attacks on their GOP foes without focusing solely on villainizing McConnell.
The strategic divide reveals a broader debate taking place inside the Democratic Party that revolves around McConnell and how the party should campaign in an era when Donald Trump is no longer president — one certain to simmer after Joe Biden assumes office.
"We have to make some messaging choices," said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama who advocates for putting McConnell front and center. "Do you focus on Trump, or do you focus on someone else? You need an embodiment of that message."
It's a debate that elicits a spirited reaction from many Democrats, pitting those who see a chance to push a broader indictment of the GOP against those who think dwelling on a congressional leader will never move voters like Trump.
And it sits near the center of the party's post-Trump future, taking place most urgently in the Georgia elections.
"There's a school of thought Democrats should be making this more a national argument, the way Republicans are," said a Democratic consultant familiar with discussions around the Georgia campaigns. "McConnell's not popular anywhere. The question is, is he the right message?"
A second Democratic aide who confirmed internal disagreements between operatives said he believed Ossoff and Warnock should do more to drive the point to voters that continued GOP Senate control would result in an inability to move beyond the Trump years. If they don't, the aide fears, they are likely to lose.
"Keeping GOP leadership means Trump retains a foothold in everyone's life," the aide said. "He can send a tweet and kill a bill. They have been accomplices this whole time."
For the most part, the Democratic candidates in Georgia have chosen to frame their races about tangible benefits to state residents, like coronavirus relief and health care access, while castigating their rivals as personally corrupt for questionable stock trades.
But there's a less noticed difference between the mindsets of the Ossoff and Warnock campaigns. Ossoff hasn't shied away from tagging McConnell as the problem. Just this past week, he sent a pair of tweets aimed at McConnell, and he regularly brings up McConnell's name in TV interviews. Ossoff is also running a radio spot that warns, "Republicans will block everything Joe and Kamala try to do," but doesn't mention McConnell by name.
"From the start of this runoff election, Jon has made the stakes of this election very clear. If Mitch McConnell keeps his grasp on the Senate, he will stand in the way of the work President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris were elected to do," said Miryam Lipper, Ossoff's spokeswoman.
While GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler invoked the name of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer nine times in the debate a week ago, Warnock never mentioned McConnell at all.