Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff are headed to a Georgia Senate runoff after both candidates failed to clear the state’s 50 percent vote threshold to win outright.
Georgia now has two Senate runoffs, both to be decided on January 5, 2021. Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock in the runoff for Georgia’s special election Senate race.
These runoffs underscore just how competitive the traditionally Republican state has become for both parties.
“When I got in this race over a year ago, I said Georgia is the most competitive state in the country, and there were some that doubted that,” Ossoff told a crowd of supporters Friday morning. “People are now seeing change is coming to Georgia and Georgia is part of the change that’s come to America.”
The races also could represent Democrats’ last remaining path to securing a Senate majority. Democrats had a disappointing result for congressional races during the general election, losing some seats in the House as well as key Senate races including Maine. The result in the North Carolina Senate race has not yet been called, as election officials there are still counting ballots, potentially into next week.
The runoff could become difficult for Democrats; the party’s strategy involved harnessing the large voter turnout that typically accompanies presidential elections. It could be hard for the candidates to muster the same level of enthusiasm for these runoff elections, which has often given Republicans the edge in past years.
“Perdue will finish this election in first place with substantially more votes than his Democrat opponent,” Perdue campaign manager Ben Fry said in a statement Thursday. “Currently, Perdue’s lead is double the margin of defeat that Stacey Abrams faced for governor just two years ago.”
Perdue, the millionaire former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, entered the cycle viewed as one of the safer GOP senators up for reelection. The race tightened in large part due to President Donald Trump’s lagging poll numbers and Georgia’s diversifying electorate. Georgia’s Black voter turnout was higher than in 2016, and Democratic strength came from the booming Atlanta suburbs.
Still, it’s clear Trump was popular with a large segment of Georgia voters; the state split pretty evenly for the president and Biden — Biden leads by a little over 1,500 votes as of Friday afternoon. With Trump losing the presidency and potentially losing Georgia, it’s unclear how much effort he will put into campaigning for Perdue and Loeffler there over the next few months.
On a Friday morning call with reporters, Ossoff campaign manager Ellen Foster reiterated that Democrats harnessing the political power of a changing electorate is what made the state competitive.
“Let me be clear, the changing nature of Georgia is what made this possible,” Foster said, adding the electorate is “very different” from 2008, the last time there was a Senate runoff in Georgia in which Democrats did not prevail.
“We feel good about the electorate going into the runoff,” Foster told Vox.
Throughout the Senate campaign, Democrats primarily tried to cast Perdue as an out-of-touch elitist who had failed over his term to stay connected to regular voters. The Ossoff campaign centered anti-corruption reforms — including a ban on stock trading by lobbyists — as the candidate’s top priority.
“We are confident that Jon Ossoff’s historic performance in Georgia has forced Senator David Perdue to continue defending his indefensible record of unemployment, disease, and corruption,” Foster said Thursday afternoon, before the race was called.
Both Perdue and Loeffler have taken heat for stock trades made after they received classified briefings on the Covid-19 pandemic while they were in office. Both have denied allegations of wrongdoing, and say that the trades were made by outside advisers, without their knowledge.
“The necessity of anti-corruption reforms also cuts through the partisan divide because everyone recognizes the political system is corrupt,” Ossoff said in a recent Vox interview. “Everyone recognizes that it’s a systemic issue more than it’s a partisan issue.”
Democrats had good reason to invest in Georgia. Perdue broadcast his concerns about his race on an off-the-record April call obtained by CNN. On it, the senator issued a warning to Republican activists: “Here’s the reality: The state of Georgia is in play. The Democrats have made it that way.” The senator also highlighted the demographic trends that made the political environment friendlier to Democrats.
As the New York Times reported, “white residents now make up fewer than three in five voters in Georgia, and a wave of migration to the Atlanta area over the past decade has added roughly three quarters of a million people to the state’s major Democratic stronghold.”
Voter enthusiasm in Georgia was high this year. Long lines reported during the early voting period were a sign of both voter excitement and longstanding disinvestment in election infrastructure, particularly in predominantly Black neighborhoods. As of October, the state had hit record registration levels, with about 7.6 million registered voters. At least 1 million Black voters cast ballots in 2020, an increase from 712,000 in 2016.
“Georgia has by far the largest percentage of Black voters of any battleground state,” said 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, also the founder of the voting rights group Fair Fight, in an email the week before the election. “We’ve already had half a million more Georgians cast their ballots than did for the entire early voting period of 2016.”
Trump’s lagging statewide poll numbers did not help Perdue. In 2016, Trump won Georgia by 5 points. That lead evaporated in the runup to the 2020 election. Early polls this year showed Trump leading former Vice President Joe Biden by nearly 4 points in Georgia. In the final week before Election Day, the two candidates were in a statistical tie. And as final ballots were counted, it appeared the winner’s margin of victory could be as small as a few thousand votes.
As the battle for two Georgia Senate seats continues, Democrats and Republicans alike are likely to pour heavy resources into these races — two that could make or break a Senate majority. But both parties will have to wait a little longer to know the final outcomes.
Update, November 6: This piece has been updated with statements from the Perdue and Ossoff campaigns.