Next month’s Georgia Senate runoff elections kick into high gear this week as early voting locations open for the first time and President-elect Joe Biden plans to campaign in person for the Democratic candidates.
Biden, the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in Georgia since 1992, will campaign on Tuesday in Atlanta for Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The Democrats are challenging Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and the outcome of the January 5 races will determine control of the US Senate, making it a crucial part of the incoming president’s ambitions in January.
With Biden slated to move into the White House next year and the House of Representatives in Democratic hands, the Senate remains the only wild card. If Republicans hold the Senate, even Biden’s most routine moves as president would face a level of uncertainty. Republican senators have already hinted that they may oppose his Cabinet picks, one of the basic early steps of a new presidency. In 2017, Democrats, who were in the minority, voted to oppose most of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks.
“In many respects, it’s for all the marbles when it comes to the Biden administration,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former aide to retired Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“If they manage to pick up two seats, they’ve at least got a decent chance to move their legislative agenda. If they don’t, they may be stuck in gridlock having to negotiate everything with [Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell. And with McConnell, there’s no such thing as negotiating a good deal that at least benefits Democrats.”
Knowing how important these races are for the first years of his presidency, Biden and his team are pouring campaign resources into the state. Last week Biden unveiled a “Flip Georgia Fund” that will split donations between the campaigns and the Democratic Party. Both sides have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the races.
While Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have already visited Georgia to support the Republicans, Tuesday’s visit will be Biden’s first physical foray into the runoffs.
Polls suggest both races will be extremely close. In November’s presidential election in Georgia, Biden beat Trump by only about 12,000 votes.
“When it comes to rallying your base on either side, there’s no more important person to have than the President of the United States,” said J Miles Coleman, an elections analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which rates the races as “toss-ups”. “He’s going to have to make the case why they should give Ossoff and Warnock the same type of vote they gave him.”
Coleman added that predicting the outcome of the elections will not be an easy task given the timing of the runoff and the unpredictability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden’s public appearance with Warnock and Ossoff comes on the second day of early voting in the state, which began on Monday.
With the election scheduled for January 5 – a few days after the celebrations of Christmas and New Year’s Day – Republicans and Democrats are both urging supporters to vote early so that the election is not lost amid the holiday schedule. To encourage early voting, Warnock on Monday voted in person.
Fewer voting locations
At least four counties have announced they will reduce the number of polling places open for early voting from those available in November. In Cobb County, the state’s third-largest county, election officials announced in December a reduction of early voting locations by more than half, a move that raised alarms among civil rights groups concerned that it could impede voting access. While there were eleven early voting locations during the general election in Cobb County, near Atlanta, there are now only five in a county with a population of 760,000 people.
Several groups, including the Georgia NAACP and the ACLU Georgia, responded by sending a joint letter to the Cobb County Board of Commissioners urging them to maintain the same number of early voting locations that were available in November. The letter warned that the closure of voting stations could disproportionately reduce voting opportunities for minorities.
“Cobb County’s Black and Latinx voters will be harmed by the elimination of over half of Cobb County’s advance voting locations,” the letter, sent on December 7, read.
“Georgia’s Black and Latinx residents are more likely to live in poverty than other residents and will have more difficulty traveling long distances to access advance voting locations, especially because of the limited public transportation options in Cobb County. As a result, the elimination of advance voting locations will discourage or prevent many of Cobb County’s Black and Latinx voters from participating in the runoff election.”
The county has since agreed to add two additional locations, but only in the third week of early voting.
Janine Eveler, Cobb County’s top voting official, said she simply lacked the seasonal staff to run the same number of voting locations as during the general election.
“Between COVID, the workload, and the holidays, we have simply run out of people,” Eveler said in a statement. “Many workers told us they spent three weeks working 14- or 15-hour days and they will not do that again. We simply don’t have time to bring in and train up more workers to staff the number of locations we had for November.”
Turnout will be key
Turnout in places like Cobb County, a suburban area north of Atlanta, will be crucial for Democrats.
Republicans are making a play for the suburbs, where Biden had success in November, by using a playbook that worked for them in congressional races around the country last month: Paint the Democratic candidates as too “radical” for moderate Georgia.
I’m Kelly Loeffler.
I’m running against the most radical candidate in America — and he’s raising MILLIONS from liberals across the country.
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) December 11, 2020
The GOP is focusing directly on Loeffler’s opponent, Warnock, who has a long history making controversial public statements in his role as the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
For their part, Warnock, Ossoff and the Democrats are highlighting ethics controversies involving Perdue and Loeffler that have dogged both candidates, hoping to convince suburban voters that the Republicans are not fit to serve.
David Perdue opposes stimulus checks for Georgians because David Perdue doesn't care about Georgians.
For David to care about you, you have to buy a meeting.
A $7,500 corporate PAC check buys four — plus access to his home, and a retreat on a private island. pic.twitter.com/HMHAzaf88v
— Jon Ossoff (@ossoff) December 13, 2020
Biden’s victory in November largely hinged on suburban voters, and the party will need them to turn out again to win the runoffs, said Rob Silverstein, Democratic strategist.
“Democrats need to turn out the suburbs,” Silverstein said. “The suburbs have moved pretty quickly towards the Democrats. They were essential to Biden’s very small victory in Georgia.”