All Eyes on Georgia

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November 5, 2020

Party control of the Senate appears likely to hinge on two Georgia runoff races in January, after all the candidates in both races failed to secure a majority of votes in Tuesday's elections.

The two leading competitors for the Georgia special election seat—Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican senator Kelly Loeffler—are headed to a runoff race on Jan. 5, 2021. Incumbent senator David Perdue (R., Ga.) appears he will also be forced to a January runoff with Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff as he has fallen below the 50-percent barrier.

Now the political world's attention will focus on the Peach State, as the two contests will determine Senate control if Joe Biden is elected president. With Republicans ahead in the North Carolina and Alaska Senate contests, Democrats will have to win both Georgia contests to force a 50-50 tie, with a hypothetical Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker.

The looming runoff elections are sure to bring massive campaign funding and national political muscle into the race with Senate control at stake. The same scenario has played out in Georgia the last two times (1992 and 2008) a Democrat wrested away Republican control of the White House. On both occasions, the Republican Senate hopeful in Georgia won.

"It's the third time in a couple decades where you have a Senate runoff [in Georgia] right after the presidential election, that quick turnaround, that first test of what voters think of the new political alignment in Washington," NBC News analyst Steve Kornacki told the Washington Free Beacon.

Loeffler, a former business executive, was appointed to the seat earlier this year after Georgia senator Johnny Isakson (R.) retired for health reasons. She spent much of the campaign ignoring Warnock while training fire on Republican congressman Doug Collins to secure her spot in the runoff. Despite their attacks on one another during the campaign, Collins endorsed her after missing the runoff, a key sign of GOP unity. Perdue and Ossoff, meanwhile, have been in a tight race for months.

In a statement, Perdue campaign manager Ben Fry touted Perdue's popular vote advantage over Ossoff and predicted victory.

"If overtime is required when all of the votes have been counted, we're ready, and we will win," he said. "It is clear that more Georgians believe that David Perdue's positive vision for the future direction of our country is better than Chuck Schumer's radical, socialist agenda."

Georgia is no stranger to runoff elections. In 2008, a Democratic wave year, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) was forced into a runoff with Democrat Jim Martin. Democrats, already delighted with Barack Obama's victory and large majorities in Congress, punted on the race as Chambliss cruised to a 15-point victory.

In 1992, the race also went to a runoff between Democratic senator Wyche Fowler and Republican challenger Paul Coverdell. President-elect Bill Clinton had just carried Georgia three weeks earlier and visited the state again to help push Fowler over the finish line, but Coverdell prevailed by 1.3 points on Nov. 25, 1992. It was a message that Georgia voters wanted a check on the president, who like Obama would enter office with healthy majorities in the House and Senate.

In both Coverdell and Chambliss's runoff victories, overall turnout, particularly among black voters, plummeted from the general election.

"The real question in the runoff is what's going to happen with the black voters, are they going to return, or is there going to be a drop-off with black turnout?" University of Georgia political science professor Trey Hood told the Free Beacon. "There's going to be money thrown at it no matter what because it'll be the only thing going."

Outside groups spent more than $105 million attacking or supporting Perdue and Ossoff during the general election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They spent about $20 million on Loeffler, Warnock, and Collins in a race that was always expected to go to a runoff.

Experts expect spending from both parties to be enormous for the final stretch.

"I can't even begin to think of a number that would be big enough for what it would be," Kornacki said. "Everybody who has spent the last four years living and breathing politics day in, day out, that compulsion is not going to go away."

No Democrat has won a U.S. Senate race in Georgia since conservative Democrat Zell Miller in 2000.

Trump has a narrow lead over Biden in Georgia, but the advantage is narrowing as more absentee ballots are counted. Biden's closeness in Georgia tracks with a long trend in favor of Democrats since 2000. President George W. Bush won the state by double digits in 2000 and 2004, and John McCain and Mitt Romney carried it by 6 and 8 points, respectively, despite losing their general elections.

But in 2016, Trump won by only 5 points. In 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams lost by just 1.4 points to Republican Brian Kemp in the state's gubernatorial race.

Hood said not to call it a blue state just yet, though.

"Republicans control the governorship, all statewide constitutional offices, majorities in the legislature, both U.S. Senate seats," said the University of Georgia professor. "I've already heard people saying it's a purple state. That remains to be seen. It's definitely a red state right now."

Georgia's political change mirrors its demographic ones. As its population has increased over the past generation, Georgia has become increasingly diverse. It went from 69.1 percent white to 53.6 percent white from 1992 to 2020, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. At the same time, the black percentage of the population increased from 27.3 to 31.4. A Woods & Poole Economics study estimated whites will be less than 50 percent of the state population by 2033.

Published under: 2020 Election