When the dust settles next month and all the ballots are counted, Americans still may not know until January which party will control the United States Senate for the next two years, thanks to an unusual confluence of events in Georgia.
Two Senate seats in that state are up for grabs at the same time, and if no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, state law forces a runoff election on January 5 – two days after the rest of Congress is sworn in.
Some 10 Senate races are rated competitive this year, giving Democrats a chance of erasing the Republicans’ 53-47 majority. That could lead to a bitter post-November 3 political fight in a largely Republican state with a growing Democratic electorate.
Why there are two Senate seats up for election in Georgia
Republican Senator David Perdue is up for re-election, according to the regular six-year US Senate election cycle. First elected in 2014, he is now in a tight contest against Democrat Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist and media executive.
Georgia’s other Republican senator, Kelly Loeffler, was appointed in 2019 to succeed former Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired. Her seat is now up for grabs in a special election that has drawn 21 candidates, including Republican US Representative Doug Collins and Democrats Raphael Warnock and Matt Lieberman.
How common are runoffs in US elections?
Several US states including Georgia require runoff elections for primary contests that produce no clear winner.
But Georgia became one of the few states to apply runoffs to general elections after a gubernatorial race in 1966 failed to produce a clear winner and a state legislature dominated by Democrats chose their own candidate over a Republican who had won a slightly larger plurality of voters.
How both elections could end in runoffs
The special election for Loeffler’s seat is an open “jungle primary” contest in which all candidates compete, regardless of party. The sheer number of candidates makes it unlikely that anyone will cross the 50 percent threshold. A recent poll showed Warnock leading the pack, but with only 31 percent.
In the Perdue-Ossoff matchup, neither candidate has reached the 50 percent mark in polling since July and recent data shows the race within a single percentage point. Libertarian Party Senate candidate Shane Hazel could also force a runoff by capturing a small percentage of the vote.
Why runoffs could affect Senate control
Republicans currently hold a majority of majority 53 seats in the 100-seat Senate. Democrats are slightly favoured to take control of the chamber in November, which would require them to net three Republican seats if Democratic candidate Joe Biden won the White House, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to serve as Senate tie-breaker.
Ten Senate seats are highly competitive – eight Republican and two Democratic. But political analysts say the single most likely outcome is a 50-50 split, raising the possibility that Georgia could prove to be a January nail-biter.