Georgia’s Dual Senate Runoffs Carry Big Stakes for Biden Agenda


The dual runoff elections for Georgia’s two Senate seats is an unprecedented all-or-nothing showdown to determine control of the chamber and the fate of President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda in Congress, drawing a record flood of money and top political names.

With the Senate on the line, both parties and allied groups are spending big on advertising and furious get-out-the-vote drives to sway the Jan. 5 vote. President Donald Trump held a nearly two-hour rally in Georgia on Saturday and Vice President Mike Pence campaigned there on Friday. For the Democrats, former President Barack Obama held a virtual rally and Biden may campaign there as well.

“It’s just one state, but mighty high stakes,” former Savannah-area U.S. Representative Jack Kingston, a Republican, said.

Georgia’s Dual Senate Runoffs Carry Big Stakes for Biden Agenda

The Senate is now split 52-48 in favor of Republicans with the Georgia runoffs determining the shape of the chamber in the next Congress. The GOP would need to win just one of the two Georgia seats, currently held by David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, to retain control and give Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the power to decide what parts of the Biden agenda get consideration. Democrats would need a sweep – with Jon Ossoff defeating Perdue and Raphael Warnock beating Loeffler. That would leave the Senate divided 50-50 come January, giving Democrats control by virtue of incoming Vice President Kamala Harris having the tie-breaking vote.

The two races have turned into nationalized campaigns and another test of Trump’s hold on the GOP. They are being conducted against the backdrop of Trump’s unfounded claims of vote fraud and corruption by Georgia election officials, which has pitted him and the two Republican candidates against the state’s GOP governor and secretary of state. It also reflects the gradual shift toward Democrats in Georgia’s booming suburban areas that helped Biden squeak out a narrow 12,000-vote win in the state.

As has been the case for the last four years, Trump remains an unpredictable factor in the race for both parties. At a packed Saturday rally in Valdosta, Georgia, Trump urged his supporters to vote for Perdue and Loeffler to prevent Democrats from gaining control of the Senate, but he spent much of his address airing his own grievances about the election and falsely claiming that he won. He also attacked Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, saying the governor, who he praised in the past, had been cowed by the “radical left” into refusing to overturn Biden’s victory in Georgia.

Trump continues to enjoy a fervent following among GOP voters, and some Republicans in Washington have expressed concerns that his baseless assaults on the election process might discourage his base from turning out for the special election.

Close Race

Darrell Galloway, the GOP chairman in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District said the majority of Republicans in the district understand the Senate is at stake and are eager to vote, though the margins are narrow enough that any drop-off is a concern.

“With a close election, if there’s just a handful of people that feel that way, it could make a difference,” he said after a Perdue rally earlier in the day. “The worst thing you can do is sit on the sidelines and basically waste a vote.”

The rhetoric surrounding both campaigns reflects the impact well beyond Georgia and this election.

“What’s at stake is whether the Senate will be a firewall between socialism and balance in Washington -- a firewall against DC statehood, and federal repeal of the Trump tax cuts, and the Green New Deal and packing the courts,” Kingston said.

Atlanta-area Democrat Representative Hank Johnson that if Democrats don’t win both Georgia seats, “we’re in for two years of gridlock and politicking so as to set the stage for Republicans to win the mid-term elections” in 2022.

The campaigns and their allies are already on a record-setting spending spree that could surpass $500 million, including amounts spent on the Nov. 3 election. Ossoff is leading Perdue in paid and reserved advertising time, $51.1 million to $33.6 million, according to ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics. In the other contest, Warnock leads in candidate spending with $56.3 million in paid and reserved spending to $40.2 million for Loeffler. Overall, though, Republican candidates and groups are outspending Democrats $183 million to $128.7 million.

Special Election

Senate terms are staggered, but the double campaign in Georgia resulted from the retirement of GOP Senator Senator Johnny Isakson in the middle of his term for health reasons. Loeffler was appointed late last year by Kemp to fill the seat, and her November race was a special election. Neither she nor Perdue, who was standing for re-election, were able to break the 50% threshold on Nov. 3 to avoid a runoff.

There’s been little public polling for the runoff, and voting patterns for such races can be difficult to gauge. But the results from November and the intensity of the campaigning suggest the outcome will be close. Perdue led Ossoff by only about 2 percentage points in the general election, which included a Libertarian candidate. And in the crowded special election for the seat now held by Loeffler, there was only about a 1 percentage point difference between the totals rung up by Warnock and all the other Democrats, and the totals of Loeffler and other Republicans who ran.

Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said there have been just 56 instances where both of a state’s senate seats were on the ballot in the same election since direct election of senators by voters was instituted in 1914. Twenty-four times both seats have gone to Republicans; 24 times both have gone to Democrats. The outcomes have split only eight times, the last time in South Carolina 54 years ago, according to Ostermeier. Georgia last had two simultaneous Senate races in 1932, when Democrats took both seats.

That history, and the increasing political polarization in the U.S. would favor one party or the other prevailing for both seats in Georgia. As things stand, only seven states have split Senate representation, according to Ostermeier, a product of a “nationalization of politics” that leaves little room for candidates to tailor themselves as “their own Democrat or Republican.” If the parties win a split decision in Georgia, the next Congress still would have the fewest split party state delegations in the Senate since the start of the direct-election era.

The national stakes and the campaigns may accentuate that tendency. Loeffler and Perdue and Ossoff and Warnock are essentially running as party tickets.

“The candidates in both camps are joined at the hip -- if one slips the other also slides,” Kingston said.

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