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Republican Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock advance to Georgia Senate runoff

After a close matchup, neither candidate garnered more than 50 percent of the vote.

Kelly Loeffler and Rev. Raphael Warnock are headed to a Senate runoff in Georgia.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Georgia’s special Senate election is headed to a runoff, after Reverend Raphael Warnock did not clear Georgia’s 50 percent threshold for victory in his bid to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Loeffler has not had an easy time the past few months thanks to the state’s “jungle primary” system, where candidates from all parties compete in an initial round, and if no candidate wins a majority, the top two head to a runoff. Rather than focusing on her main Democratic opponent, she had to fend off a conservative challenge from Rep. Doug Collins, a staunch Trump ally who kept the incumbent from moderating her message.

An October 20 New York Times/Siena College poll showed Warnock leading both Republicans at 32 percent, with Loeffler getting 23 percent of Republican support compared to 17 percent for Collins.

“[Warnock] is opening a lead over either of the Republicans,” University of Georgia political science professor George Bullock previously told Vox, largely because Loeffler and Collins were splitting the Republican vote: “If you add the vote for those two together, it comes close to equalling the vote for Perdue and the vote for Trump.”

For their part, Democrats tried to persuade Matt Lieberman (the son of Joe Lieberman) to drop out of the race. But even as he’s polled in the low single-digits, Lieberman refused.

Loeffler’s gamble that running to the right would fend off Collins’s challenge without letting Democrats clear the threshold for outright victory has paid off. Now that Loeffler has beaten Collins, she’s free to face Warnock on potentially more favorable turf. A January runoff could make it difficult for Democrats to replicate the historically high turnout of a presidential election.

But Loeffler may not be able to pivot as cleanly as she might like to. Appointed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in 2019, Loeffler was chosen to help Republicans turn the tide of suburban women running away from the GOP. This year, desperately trying to hold on to her seat, she abandoned that moderate mantel, seeking the endorsement of presumptive conservative Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is best known for espousing QAnon conspiracy theories.

Two and a half weeks before the election, Greene endorsed Loeffler, highlighting the senator’s criticism of Black Lives Matter which the incumbent has called a “Marxist effort” and praising her as “the most conservative Republican in the race.”

Warnock’s candidacy, meanwhile, struck a national chord this summer as Black Lives Matter protests brought his work as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church to the forefront. This is the same church where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor in the 1960s.

Issues of racial justice are not just “theoretical” to him, Warnock told Vox. One of his early ads was about his experience at age 12 of being dragged out of a store and accused of shoplifting, simply for having his hands in his pockets.

“All these years later, while we have made considerable progress, we’re still fighting voter suppression and police brutality,” Warnock said. “What I’m most inspired by is the appropriate restlessness of the yell. I think that they’re justified in their discontent.”

It’s not clear what issues will dominate the special election cycle, as Georgians will vote with the results of the presidential and many other key races decided. Whatever the issues, it’s clear that both candidates will have extensive financial resources to get their messages across.

As the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported, ad spending on Georgia’s two US Senate races exceeded $150 million this cycle. Democrats and Republicans are likely to pour significant resources into this race as jockeying for another seat in the US Senate continues. But it will take another couple months to know the final result.