Georgia’s Senate run-off elections arrive Tuesday after a whirlwind two-month campaign that smashed fundraising records, inspired historic voter turnout, bombarded the airwaves with ads, and loomed over congressional negotiations on major spending legislation.
The stakes may never have been higher in such a narrow election. Amid President Donald Trump’s incessant attacks on Georgia’s election integrity, four people are seeking two seats that will determine which party controls the Senate. For President-elect Joe Biden, nothing less than his entire agenda is on the table.
Those high stakes are underscored by planned visits on Monday by Trump and Biden, repeat appearances for both the outgoing and incoming presidents.
“Something like this has never happened before and probably never will again,” said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. “Two seats, from one state, in one election, that will decide Senate control. It’s just unprecedented.”
During the final week of the campaign, the events ranged from small, tightly controlled get-togethers to drive-in rallies. Voters said they understood the broader significance of these races — and the circumstances surrounding them.
Democrat Terri Sapp, 47, said she voted early “because I just didn’t want to risk the chance that something might happen to me first,” and to “fire” Republican Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader.
Trump has focused his attention in the state not on the Republican candidates or the future of the Senate, but almost entirely on his baseless claims that voter fraud caused Biden to win the state in November by a little more than 12,000 votes. Some Republicans fear he may throw the election to the Democrats by demanding the resignation of Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans.
If Democrat Jon Ossoff can beat first-term GOP Senator David Perdue, and fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock can defeat Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, the Senate will be split 50-50 between the parties. If that happens, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast any tie-breaking vote, effectively flipping control of the chamber to Democrats.
But a victory by either Republican would give McConnell 51 votes, a slim majority but enough to curtail Biden’s initiatives and block key nominations to his cabinet and the judiciary.
Perdue’s chance for last-minute barnstorming was curtailed after he decided to quarantine after coming into close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, meaning he’ll likely skip Trump’s Monday rally and his own event on election night.
Limited polling in the state shows both races are extremely close while drawing intense interest. More than 70,000 new voters have registered in Georgia since Nov. 3. More than 2.8 million people had cast ballots as of Thursday, shattering the previous record for the December 2008 Senate runoff, when 2.1 million votes were cast.
Although Georgia doesn’t register voters by party, the locations of heavy early voting in urban and minority areas suggests strong Democratic turnout. But Republicans tend to vote in person on Election Day so it’s difficult to predict an outcome.
The results won’t be known for days, given that it took 10 days to call the Nov. 3 election in Georgia. And those counts will almost certainly face legal challenges.
The unusual dual run-offs are playing out because none of the candidates got more than 50% of the vote in the Nov. 3 general election, a requirement for winning statewide elections in Georgia.
Since then, spending has poured in for the twin contests, which the Center for Responsive Politics now lists as the two most expensive congressional elections in American political history. Nearly half a billion dollars has been spent just in the runoffs, with another $205 million spent during the first round.
Georgians last elected a Democrat to the Senate two decades ago, and such runoffs in the state typically have low turnout, which favors Republicans. Yet Democrats are fighting hard after Biden took the state. High-profile Democrats, including former first lady Michelle Obama, have cut ads on their behalf.
“The state is clearly going through some realignment,” Bullock said. Bill Clinton in 1992 was the last Democratic president to carry Georgia before Biden, and a Democrat hasn’t held a Georgia Senate seat since 2005.
In their campaign-trail messaging, Republicans Perdue and Loeffler claim Ossoff and Warnock are “dangerous radicals” and socialists who’ll support liberals like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Warnock is under attack for past supportive statements about the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and the pastor Jeremiah Wright, whose sermon including a condemnation of the U.S. was a campaign flashpoint for Barack Obama in 2008. Ossoff, educated at Georgetown University and the London School of Economics, has been dismissed as a “trust-fund socialist.”
From the left, Ossoff and Warnock claim the Republicans are heartless and too wealthy to relate to or care about the less fortunate — Loeffler’s husband Jeff Sprecher, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, recently hit the billion-dollar mark — and who tried to enrich themselves at the expense of Georgia residents suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn.
Georgia’s runoffs have even created international fascination. Bullock says he’s fielded media inquiries about the contests in recent days from news outlets in Argentina, Chile, Finland, Germany, South Korea, and “much of the British media.”