Georgia voters will determine which party controls the US Senate on January 5, and thus decide the fate of President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda.
There are not one but two runoff Senate elections in Georgia early next year. They have similar dynamics, with Democratic challengers going up against Republican incumbents. One race features a matchup between Sen. David Perdue (R) and Democrat Jon Ossoff, and the other involves Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) and Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Absentee ballots were mailed to voters who requested them starting on November 18, while in-person early voting starts on December 14 and continues until Election Day on January 5.
At first glance, Democrats appear to be the underdogs. Georgia is historically Republican, and Democrats haven’t had a good track record in past Senate runoffs, losing the most recent one in 2008. At the same time, Democrats insist several things are different this year: Their party’s presidential nominee won the state for the first time in almost 30 years, they have two candidates, and the fate of the Senate hangs in the balance.
Enthusiasm against President Trump ultimately aided Biden in the presidential election, and Democrats are clearly hoping for a repeat on that front. But the big unknown factor is how Trump’s continued refusal to concede will play into all of this.
“Trump is not on the ballot, but are we in a post-Trump era where our people are motivated to show up?” a Democratic pollster told Vox. “That is the big question.”
Georgia’s runoff system is unusual in American politics, and the dynamics this year are also unusual. The results of these races will potentially have an outsize influence on the next four years.
We’ve broken down the essential questions here.
1) What’s at stake here?
There’s a huge amount at stake for both Republicans and Democrats in Georgia. The state will decide which party controls the US Senate — and, by extension, whether there will be divided or unified government in Washington, DC.
“Democrats are going to be very excited in Georgia but also nationally,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock recently told Vox. “Ossoff and Warnock, any kind of resource or help they need, they’re going to get.”
Republicans are equally energized to keep the Senate in GOP hands so they can have a definitive say in the agenda of President-elect Biden. The ambitiousness of Biden’s agenda as president hangs in the balance, as does his ability to select Cabinet members and judicial nominees — all of whom are confirmed by the Senate. The only problem: Many Republicans cannot publicly admit that Biden has officially won without angering Trump. Being hamstrung hampers their argument on this front.
“We’re assuming that we’re going to be standing out here alone,” Perdue said on a recent private donor call obtained by the Washington Post. “And that means that we have to get the vote out, no matter what the outcome of that adjudication is on the recount in two states and some lawsuits, and others. Kelly and I can’t wait for that.”
To be clear, winning both seats won’t give Democrats license to pass a raft of leftist legislation. Democrats’ best-case scenario right now is a 50-50 split Senate with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as a tie-breaking vote for a simple majority.
But Democrats still have a number of conservative members in their caucus like Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), who will likely temper their ambition and prioritize bipartisan cooperation with Republicans. They’ll also likely have to deal with the Senate filibuster, needing 60 votes to pass major bills.
Certainly, the biggest thing at stake for Biden and Democrats is whether Senate Majority Mitch McConnell remains in his current role. McConnell has the power to hold up virtually any appointment of Biden’s — whether it’s to the judiciary or his Cabinet — making the real stakes more about whether the federal government can function.
Hopes of bipartisan legislation might be something of a long shot with McConnell in charge. Last year, the majority leader vowed to be the “grim reaper” for Democratic legislation in the House, and he famously stonewalled President Barack Obama’s judicial and Cabinet picks as minority leader in 2009 and 2010, until then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blew up the Senate filibuster.
McConnell and Biden have a long history together in the Senate, and McConnell is so far keeping his powder dry on how he intends to work with (or against) Biden, depending on the outcome in Georgia. But McConnell is a savvy operator, and he could be the biggest roadblock to even incremental progress if he keeps control of the Senate.
2) Why does Georgia have runoffs?
Unlike the winner-takes-all system most states use, Georgia operates a bit differently. If a candidate doesn’t hit the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright, they and their opponent both head to a runoff election.
Georgia is one of 10 states with a system of runoff elections. These states are primarily in the South, although Vermont also uses runoffs. It’s not necessarily a coincidence that Southern states use runoffs, which are a relic of one-party dominance, and a means to suppress Black votes, historians recently told Vox’s Jerusalem Demsas.
As Demsas detailed in a recent explainer, Georgia’s runoff system effectively started in 1962. It was helmed by then-state Rep. Denmark Groover, a “staunch segregationist” who had lost one of his elections in the ’50s due to the strength of the Black vote in his district. As a 2007 Interior Department report explained:
Groover soon devised a way to challenge growing black political strength. Elected to the House again in 1962, he led the fight to enact a majority vote, runoff rule for all county and state contests in both primary and general elections. Until 1963, plurality voting was widely used in Georgia county elections...
In the 1990s, the US Department of Justice even sued to overturn the state’s runoff system, alleging it had “a demonstrably chilling effect on the ability of blacks to become candidates for public office” and calling the requirement “an electoral steroid for white candidates.” Some political scientists have said it’s tough to know for certain if runoffs have had the intended effect of suppressing the political power of Black voters and candidates.
Even so, this system has persisted in Georgia for decades.
3) Who is running?
In the first race, there’s a matchup between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. Perdue was first elected to the Senate in 2014 and is the former CEO of companies including Reebok and Dollar General. He’s also the cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (the current US secretary of agriculture).
Perdue is a strong Trump ally, and was an early Senate endorser of the president’s 2016 campaign. In a 2016 op-ed, Perdue wrote that he and Trump had a similar backstory, which he characterized as outsider businessmen underestimated by establishment Republicans. “Through my own experience, I probably understand the Trump phenomenon and the new reality of this electorate better than most,” Perdue wrote.
He’s running against Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist who ran for Congress in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District in 2017, narrowly losing to Republican Karen Handel in a runoff. In 2018, Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath flipped the district — which in an earlier iteration belonged to former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. McBath held the district again in 2020, while Democrats also picked up the neighboring Seventh Congressional District. Even though Ossoff narrowly lost in 2017, many Democrats in the Atlanta metro area credit his campaign with galvanizing and organizing a cohort of white suburban women, in particular.
“It was almost like it turned on a light in the state where you could see you weren’t the only Democrat,” state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat, told Vox. “Jon runs for this congressional [seat] and all of a sudden you see these women in the Atlanta suburbs coming out in droves to support him and work for him.”
In the other race, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler faces Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock. A former CEO of Bakkt and co-owner of Georgia’s WNBA team, Loeffler is less of a known entity than Perdue in Georgia politics; she was appointed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in 2019 to replace retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson.
Loeffler was appointed largely to stem the bleeding of suburban women from the Georgia Republican party, the logic being that a Republican woman candidate would appeal to these women. But her 2020 race was in large part defined her tacking hard to the right, in large part due to a primary challenge from Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump loyalist. Loeffler sought and won the endorsement of Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, who espouses the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon.
Warnock is the senior pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached in the 1960s. Like his Republican competitor, Warnock is also relatively new to politics. He’s a prominent figure in Atlanta’s Black community, and delivered the eulogy for Rayshard Brooks, who was fatally shot by Atlanta police this summer.
Even though these are distinct races, the Democratic and Republican campaigns are running in a unified way. Ossoff and Warnock have appeared together for joint events, and Perdue’s campaign has spent time attacking Warnock in recent press releases, calling Ossoff Warnock’s “running mate.”
Perdue and Loeffler are running a similar strategy, having “fully integrated our teams,” Perdue said on the call obtained by the Post.
4) Who is likely to win in each race?
If conventional wisdom is to be believed, Perdue and Loeffler are the likely favorites to win. Georgia leans Republican, and its voters haven’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years.
Even though Biden narrowly won Georgia in the presidential election, this isn’t necessarily a good indication of Democratic strength in the Senate races. The data we have shows that Perdue ran slightly ahead of Trump by about 780 votes. Ossoff, on the other hand, ran close to 100,000 votes short of Biden. (It’s tough to make the same comparison with Loeffler and Warnock because they were running in a field of 20 candidates.)
These numbers mean that Biden’s strength at the top of the ticket didn’t necessarily translate to down-ballot races. It helped force a runoff, but there’s no guarantee Democrats will do well the second time around.
“In pre-Trump-era runoffs, there’s no way a Democrat is going to win,” a Democratic pollster told Vox. “I don’t care how quickly the state is moving with a growing [bloc of] white college-educated voters. You need to have anti-Trump enthusiasm at the same levels as we saw throughout his presidency.”
It’s an open question for Democrats whether the same number of voters who wanted Trump out will come back to the polls on January 5 — or if they will stay home, now satisfied with getting Trump out of the White House. If more of these Biden voters stay home, or ultimately decide to vote for Perdue and Loeffler, it’s likely over for the Democratic candidates. But if Trump is still unwilling to concede the election, and Perdue and Loeffler back him, that could energize these voters again.
Recent polls show a tight race. A November 17 InsiderAdvantage/Fox 5 Atlanta Poll found both races essentially tied, with Warnock one point ahead of Loeffler, 49 to 48 percent, and Ossoff and Perdue tied at 49 percent. Another recent poll by a Republican firm found Loeffler and Warnock statistically tied, and Perdue with a small advantage over Warnock — 50 to 46 percent.
Of course, there’s a caveat about not putting too much stock in polls. Many 2020 Senate race polls were off, underestimating Republicans’ advantage. Polls in Georgia proved to be more accurate than many other states, but the numbers should be considered a snapshot in time and will likely change.
Bottom line: While Democrats are still considered the underdogs, they have a chance in a state growing more competitive.
5) Are there actually voters who will vote for both a Democrat and a Republican in this runoff?
While there were likely a small number of split-ticket voters in Georgia’s November election who cast a ballot for Biden and Republican candidates down the ballot, this may not necessarily translate to success for Democrats in the Senate races.
Biden running so far ahead of Ossoff and Perdue running slightly ahead of Trump suggests that some moderate Republicans may have checked the box for Biden at the top of the ticket before voting for Republicans down-ballot as well.
“I don’t think voters appreciate the amount of ticket-splitting that went on,” Buzz Brockway, a Republican and former Georgia state House member, said. “There was a section of voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Trump but voted for Republicans the rest of the ticket.”
It’s important to distinguish between ticket-splitting during the presidential election and ticket-splitting during the Senate runoff race, where ticket splitters would vote for one Democratic candidate as well as one Republican. It certainly could happen, but two runoff races mean Republicans and Democrats are ostensibly campaigning as a team.
Ticket-splitting in this year’s presidential election was more about Trump than anything else. It helps explain Trump’s loss combined with Republicans simultaneously having a better year than expected. A lot of these voters live in suburban areas and identify as moderate. They typically have higher incomes, and they dislike Trump, according to a recent nationwide analysis by Navigator Survey.
Analysis of voters who say they voted for Biden, but a Republican down ballot, via @NavigatorSurvey— Will Jordan (@williamjordann) November 19, 2020
- R+21 in identification
- 55% moderate
- 55% suburban
- 65% income >50k
- 71% very unfav to DJT
- relatively progressive on key policy debates pic.twitter.com/shzqWVBTlr
While these voters played a role in Georgia’s presidential race, they probably will settle on either voting straight Democrat or straight Republican in the runoffs. Remember, a runoff election is primarily about base mobilization.
6) Georgia seems historically Republican. Why is the state competitive for Democrats this year, and what do they need to do to win?
Fresh off a massive win by flipping Georgia in a presidential election for the first time since 1992, Democrats could face a steeper climb with the Senate race.
“The [Atlanta] suburbs are the key to how this plays out, but the tricky thing for runoffs is it’s more about motivation than persuasion,” Georgia Democratic operative Stefan Turkheimer told Vox. In other words, turning out the base matters more in runoff elections than trying to persuade swing voters.
Democrats are trying to thread a tough needle. They need both high Black turnout and suburban white voters to back their candidates. Recent New York Times data shows that the relative proportion of Black turnout actually fell slightly in the 2020 presidential election compared to 2016 (though the raw numbers were up) and was much lower than the 2012 election. The data also showed that affluent, older, and college-educated white suburban voters, primarily in the Atlanta suburbs, propelled Biden to his narrow win in the state.
But these white suburbanites may need more persuasion to vote for Democrats — unless Trump continues to refuse to concede his election.
Now that these white suburbanites have successfully ousted Trump, it’s far less certain they’ll vote for two Democratic Senate candidates. Black voters still make up the core base of the Georgia Democratic Party, but the biggest question mark is hovering around these more moderate whites. Is Biden the extent of their Democratic voting?
“I think they’re the wild card for this Senate race,” Georgia Republican consultant Brian Robinson told Vox. “How many of them voted for Perdue and Loeffler? How many of them voted straight-ticket Democrat?”
We know that Perdue ran slightly ahead of Trump in 2020, but some Democrats think that you need to look at the bigger picture in Georgia, like the incredibly close 2018 governor’s race between current Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and Democrat Stacey Abrams.
“I’m not saying these suburban women are staying with us forever, but they’ve stayed with us for two cycles, with two very different candidates,” veteran Democratic pollster John Anzalone told Vox. “I’m not sure I’m buying the ‘Romney Republican’ now that they’ve almost become reasonable Democrats.”
Much like the 2020 election, it could all come down to Trump.
7) What is Trump’s role in this race?
The GOP’s message that keeping Georgia is the only thing standing in the way of unified Democratic control of the US Senate could get complicated by Trump.
Trump is unhappy about losing the presidency in general — but seems particularly aggrieved about the results in Georgia. The president is still refusing to concede the election to Biden, and has spent the past couple of weeks fighting very publicly with Republican Georgia state officials, including Gov. Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Trump recently called Raffensperger “an enemy of the people” and said he was “ashamed” that he endorsed Kemp in his 2018 governor’s race.
Raffensperger has remained steadfast as a Georgia recount takes place, even as Loeffler and Perdue signed a letter calling on him to resign as they try to curry favor with Trump. Loeffler and Perdue’s calculation here is clear: They can’t afford to alienate Trump or his base in the state. Even though Democrats surpassed turnout expectations in 2020, so did Republicans — driven by the fact that Trump himself was on the ballot.
“He’s still critically important,” said Brockway, the former Republican state representative. “Trump, sort of like Barack Obama, brought people into the political process. Their first exposure to politics is Trump, and they don’t necessarily view themselves as longtime loyal Republicans. They’re Trump Republicans, and when their guy gets rejected, that’s hard to take.”
That infighting taking top billing in the press has some Georgia Republicans worried that Trump’s continued baseless claims about a rigged election and fixed voting machines in the state could cause his supporters to stay home. Even as he recently encouraged his supporters to vote for Perdue and Loeffler in the January runoffs, Trump continued to claim baseless voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Republicans have another fear too. Remembering that Trump motivated Democrats and independent-minded voters to come out in droves in November, the fact that the president is still refusing to concede to Biden could keep Democrats energized longer than under normal circumstances. Of course, we don’t know if Trump will keep this up all the way until January — but he’s showing no signs of accepting defeat in the shorter term.
“When there are warring factions within the Republican Party casting blame saying that we should not concede, with the president taking to Twitter and calling people out ... all that does, I think, is fire the Democratic base up,” said Jason Downey, a Republican and the vice chair of the Georgia state Board of Education.
8) What other issues are driving the race?
The defining issue of the Georgia runoffs is control of the US Senate.
These races have just two outcomes: divided government in Washington split between a Democratic White House and US House, and a Republican-controlled Senate; and unified Democratic control in Washington. With the incoming Biden administration, the stakes are high.
Both sides in Georgia are framing the race around these outcomes. Republicans are attacking Ossoff and Warnock as “radical” and “socialist.” (Neither candidate identifies as socialist.) GOP mailers frame the Georgia race being “America’s last line of defense from a socialist takeover.” Republicans have especially been playing up comments Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has made about flipping Georgia, where he said, “Now we take Georgia, then we change America!”
“Anybody would agree that Chuck Schumer is a savvy political mind, but he was playing to his audience in New York and he handed Georgia Republicans a huge gift with that clip,” Robinson said. He added he believes Republicans and independents are “scared of a Democratic Senate joining Pelosi and Biden. Fear will motivate much more strongly than any other emotion in the runoff.”
Democrats have also emphasized the stakes of Georgia, but they’ve been framing the races more around a commonsense agenda to pass more Covid-19 relief, economic stimulus, and a jobs bill — legislation that is much less likely to come to fruition if Republicans keep the Senate.
Democrats argue that winning Georgia will give them a shot at governing and passing basic bills. Even if Democrats win 50 seats in the Senate, they will have to forge bipartisan compromise on big bills. There certainly will be no Medicare-for-all or Green New Deal passed even if Democrats manage to flip Georgia.
Ossoff and Warnock also have spent a lot of time talking about their Republican opponents’ financial past, particularly stock trades the two made after they received classified briefings on the Covid-19 pandemic while they were in office. Perdue sold stocks in a casino company and invested in the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, while Loeffler’s financial advisers sold stock in a company called Intercontinental Exchange, which operates global exchanges for financial and commodity markets and saw its stock drop during the pandemic. Both have denied the allegations of wrongdoing, and say that the trades were made by outside advisers, without their knowledge.
The stock trading issue hasn’t gone away, particularly for Perdue. The Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey recently reported Perdue invested in a company that manufactured Navy submarine parts called BWX Technologies right around the time he became head of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower. Perdue’s office told the Daily Beast that Perdue’s stock investments are managed by outside financial advisers and done without his prior approval.
Over the summer, Ossoff told Vox that if he’s elected, anti-corruption reforms — including a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, a corporate PAC ban, and a ban on stock trading by sitting senators — will be his first priority in the Senate. That focus on anti-corruption is not a coincidence.
9) Is it really possible to move to Georgia and cast a ballot there before their deadline?
If it’s before the December 7 registration deadline, then technically yes. But those who want to move to a state just to vote in an election need to be comfortable with the idea of staying there for a while.
Otherwise, it’s against Georgia’s laws.
The deadline to register as a voter ahead of the runoffs is December 7, and Georgia law allows anyone with a legal primary residence in the state to register. However, the secretary of state’s office has been very clear that moving to the state with the sole purpose of voting and then moving away could carry a felony sentence.
Georgia state law requires that those who register be “a resident of this state and of the county or municipality in which he or she seeks to vote.” The law adds that “the residence of any person shall be held to be in that place in which such person’s habitation is fixed, without any present intention of removing therefrom.”
In a recent press release, the Georgia secretary of state’s office confirmed that “this would include individuals who move to Georgia solely for the sake of casting a ballot in an election with no intention of remaining in the state.”
False registration — or registering to vote knowing they don’t qualify in Georgia — is a state felony and carries a pretty stiff punishment: between one and 10 years in prison, and/or up to a $100,000 fine.
In other words, if you were already planning a move to Georgia or just got a job in the state and would like to vote there in the January election, it’s totally legal to do so. But if you’re registered and live elsewhere and are planning to vote and leave immediately after, it’s legally dubious.