Control of the United States Senate appears likely to hinge on two heated contests in the state of Georgia, where election runoffs are scheduled for early January.
The result in the southern US state would also determine how much a Joe Biden presidency would be able to achieve after the Democrat won the race for the White House on Saturday.
The stakes are high for a post-election cliffhanger that could determine the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in Washington, as neither party appears to have secured a Senate majority.
So far, the tally for the next Senate is 48 Republicans and 46 Democrats – plus two independents aligned with Democrats – after Tuesday’s election. Seats in North Carolina and Alaska are still too early to call and the two seats in Georgia are headed to runoffs on January 5.
The state is closely divided, with Democrats making gains on Republicans in the 2020 elections, fuelled by a surge of new voters. But no Georgian Democrat has been elected senator in some 20 years. As much as $500 million could be spent on the two races, one strategist said.
“Now we take Georgia, and then we change America,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told a crowd celebrating Biden’s victory on Saturday on the streets of Brooklyn.
Republicans have been working to retain their majority, but even if they secure the final two races where ballots are still being counted in North Carolina and Alaska, they would still fall short of the 51 seats needed.
In North Carolina, Senator Thom Tillis is trying to fend off Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in a tight race that is too early to call. Alaska GOP Senator Dan Sullivan is favoured for another term against Al Gross, an independent running as a Democrat.
The political arithmetic problem for Republicans is that the vice president of the party holding the White House casts the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Next year that would be Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. That means 50 seats for Democrats would result in control over the chamber. But Republicans would need 51 seats to cement their hold on power.
That would put Georgia centre stage, as many expect is about to happen.
Republican Senator David Perdue was up for re-election and is now in a tight contest against Democrat Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist and media executive.
Each fell short of the 50 percent plus one vote threshold, with Perdue getting 49.8 percent of the vote and Ossoff 47.9 percent, and they will face each other in a runoff.
Georgia’s other senator, Republican Kelly Loeffler, was appointed in 2019 to succeed Johnny Isakson, who retired. Her seat was up for grabs in a special election that drew 21 candidates, including Republican US Representative Doug Collins.
Democrat Raphael Warnock emerged with the greatest share of the vote, at 32.7 percent, with Loeffler drawing 26 percent and Collins 20.1 percent. The winner of the runoff election in that race will serve only two years, filling out the remainder of the six-year term that Isakson had been elected to in 2016.
“Now more than ever, we NEED to keep the Senate in Republican hands,” tweeted Loeffler. She said Saturday that she and Perdue are “the last line of defense against the radical left”.
Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who narrowly lost a gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018 and has been widely credited for mobilising African American voters in the state, has urged voters to support the two Democratic candidates in the runoff.
Georgia, thank you. Together, we have changed the course of our state for the better. But our work is not done.
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) November 7, 2020
Ossoff said on Saturday morning that a Joe Biden victory in the presidential race in Georgia would have a significant effect “on momentum and energy” for Democrats.
The Associated Press news agency has not yet called Georgia for Biden or President Donald Trump, saying the race remains too close to call. State election officials have signalled that a recount appears likely.
“First of all, it appears that Joe Biden is going to win in Georgia. It is impossible to overstate the significance of that, the impact on momentum and energy. Georgia Democrats have been organising and working and working in tough battles – some won, some lost – for a decade now,” Ossoff told MSNBC.
“And now to see JB poised to win this state, gives us a huge head of steam heading into these runoffs,” he said.
Ossoff’s campaign aired a new advertisement, detailing a “path to recovery” from the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. He calls for following the advice of medical experts to deal with the virus and a substantial infrastructure plan to create jobs.
“We need leaders who bring us together to get this done,” Ossoff says in the ad.
Biden had been mum on the Senate balance as he awaited the results in his own election, but he offered a preview last month.
“I can’t tell you how important it is that we flip the United States Senate. There’s no state more consequential than Georgia in that fight,” Biden declared at an Atlanta rally on October 27, when he campaigned alongside Ossoff and Warnock.
Republicans agree. “It’s all on the line in Georgia,” said Steven Law, the president of Senate Leadership Fund, an outside group aligned with the Republican US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that spent big trying to keep Senate control.