With United States President Donald Trump’s election loss becoming more official by the day, attention and political dollars have turned to two January 5 runoff elections in the southern state of Georgia, where the outcome will determine which party controls the US Senate.
Election results have shown President-elect Joe Biden and the Democrats will run the White House and have a narrow majority in the US House of Representatives, but with only 98 of the 100 seats in the US Senate set – the Republicans currently hold a 50-48 lead – the result of the Georgia runoffs will choose whether Biden’s party controls all of Congress, or will have to contend with Republican opposition in the Senate.
“This is going to be the nastiest, most expensive set of Senate races in US history,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “Because there is no other race and the stakes are so high.”
Candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock – both Democrats – will both need to win their races against Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to give the Democrats Senate control. Two Democratic victories would even the number of Republicans and Democrats at 50-50, giving tie-breaking authority to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris after she is sworn in with Biden on January 20.
The high stakes have set off a spending blitz from both parties, with funding pouring in from across the country.
The amount of money expected to be spent on these races by January 5 is staggering. Before the runoff, Republican candidates and outside groups unloaded more than $107m and Democrats and their outside groups spent nearly $99m on television ads alone, according to data compiled by AdImpact. The group’s ad tracking shows Loeffler’s campaign on pace to spend $40.8m, with $34.2m slated for Warnock, $41.6m for Ossoff, and $30.1m for Perdue for the runoffs.
All four campaigns will also have backing from outside groups. American Crossroads and the Senate Leadership Fund, Republican super PACs, announced last week that they were prepared to spend $70m on ads for the two Republican candidates on top of $10m already spent. Republican outside spending–so far–appears to be dwarfing that of Democrats.
In key areas of Georgia, political ads are on television nearly around the clock, thanks to all the money available.
“The sky is the limit,” said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
Due to the races’ nationwide impacts, donations have poured in from outside the state, including from American celebrities. Donors to the Democratic cause include actors Will Smith, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joaquin Phoenix, and Mark Ruffalo, among others.
— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) November 24, 2020
Help – and distractions – from outside Georgia
High-profile political figures from both parties are campaigning in the state.
For Republicans, Vice President Mike Pence headlined rallies for Loeffler and Perdue last week near Atlanta, and Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have made appearances.
For Democrats, Biden is expected to pay an in-person visit to Georgia. And with his future presidency all but secured, Biden’s campaign has moved some staff to help with fieldwork in the state. “We’re going to do everything we can to help,” Ron Klain, Biden’s new chief of staff, told US political show ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
The wild card in the race has been President Trump himself, who appears to have been so focused on his personal efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election that he has not committed to travelling to Georgia to help his party’s candidates there.
Although Georgia already certified election results, Trump continues to challenge them by calling for another recount, an effort Perdue and Loeffler both support. They have also called for the resignation of Georgia’s top voting official, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican and Trump backer, on Trump’s behalf.
Meanwhile, Sidney Powell, an attorney who had been working on Trump’s legal team, outlined on Saturday a bizarre conspiracy theory that accused Raffensperger and Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp of taking bribes from Venezuelans who were set on disrupting US elections. The attorney’s statements were so out of step that Trump’s legal team disavowed her involvement in his recount efforts.
Trump’s questioning of the integrity of the vote in Georgia, combined with his squabbling with Republican state officials, could risk harming the party’s chances in the runoff. It is yet to be seen how Trump’s influence – or lack of it – will have an impact on the election. Despite his narrow loss to Biden in Georgia in November, Trump enjoys support from a strong base in the state.
But some Democrats see Trump’s absence as an advantage. This not being a presidential race – and it not having Trump on the ballot – is “a huge help,” said one Democratic strategist working for Ossoff’s campaign. “Donald Trump brought in unique non-Republican, pro-Trump voters to the polls. Trump brings a unique kind of voter to the polls. Somebody who doesn’t show up for David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.”
Republicans’ success in past runoffs
If the past is any guide, Democrats face an uphill battle.
Republicans have won all but one of Georgia’s statewide general election runoffs since 1988, despite Democrats leading in three of those races.
“What does that tell us? It tells us that Republicans do a better job of coming back for that second election than Democrats do,” said Bullock.
In the 1960s, Georgia implemented its runoff system, which kicks in when one candidate does not receive 50 percent of the vote in the general election. This year, both Perdue and Warnock topped the fields in their respective races, but neither reached the 50-percent threshold, resulting in January’s runoffs.
According to a historical study conducted by the US Department of the Interior in 2007, runoffs in Georgia started as a way to increase the power of white voters, who were more likely to return for a second election than Black voters. The runoff scheme “devised a way to challenge growing black political strength,” the study found.
After years of losses, Democrats have had recent success in Georgia’s general elections by tapping into the state’s increasingly diverse population, particularly in urban and rapidly growing suburban areas. Led in large part by Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the race for governor in 2018, the Georgia Democrats have registered hundreds of thousands of new voters over the past two years.
A New York Times analysis found that Democrats in 2020 turned out a higher number of Black voters in Georgia than four years ago, but Black voters comprised a lower percentage of the overall vote than in 2016 and 2012. The Times analysis pointed to the massive increase in voter participation in the highly populated Atlanta suburbs as a reason for Black voters making up a smaller piece of the pie.
Both parties face the question of whether they can turn out their base of voters again after such a long and gruelling general election.
“This election is going to be different,” said Gillespie. “Now that we know there are roughly equal numbers of Republican and Democratic voters in the state, we can expect that both parties are going to do everything they can to get those people who showed up to vote [on Election Day] and before [in early voting] – out to vote in the runoff election.”