Senate runoffs are being held today in Georgia, due to a peculiar state law which says that if no candidate gets over 50 per cent of the vote (as neither seat did in November), the top two go on to a second round. It's the first time ever that two Senate runoffs are being held on the same day – and the first time a runoff will decide which party controls the Senate. Polls close at 7pm local time (midnight in the UK), with results coming in the following hours, though the large volume of mail-in votes, as in November, could mean a close race remains uncalled for days.
Both seats seem too close to call – but it wasn't meant to be like this. Joe Biden has been the President Elect for almost two months. In any normal universe, a Republican Senate campaign in the tightest of swing states would focus squarely on the need to check the more liberal instincts of the incoming administration, especially now the Senate majority is at stake. This message is simple, easy and has worked in the past. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the Republican Senate candidates, should be heading back to Washington with a wind in their sails.
In 2008, when Barack Obama entered the White House for the first time, the incumbent Republican Georgian senator, Saxby Chambliss, only just failed to win outright in the November election. While Democrats had already won a huge Senate majority, a victory in the runoff would have given Obama’s party the magic 60 seats needed to break a legislative filibuster and pass his agenda unchecked. Chambliss, appealing to the voters’ wish not to hand over a blank cheque, expanded his 3 point lead on General Election day to 15 points in the runoff.
The playbook was there for the Republicans to use in this race. However, as I suggested a few days after the November election, this message inherently required the recognition of Joe Biden’s victory: you can’t put a check on someone who isn’t going to be President – and Donald Trump was never going to allow that narrative to take hold.
Instead, the news in Georgia and across the nation has been dominated by wild accusations of voter fraud – in what was likely the most transparent and well-run Presidential election in the state’s history – and a GOP civil war between Team Trump (cheered on by the state party and their Senate candidates) and Georgia’s GOP administration, specifically Governor Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
This came to a head dramatically two days ago with the release of the recording of an hour-long call between the President and Secretary of State, in which the latter was pressed to simply magic up 11,780 votes. ‘You have a big election coming up’ Trump reminded Raffensperger – a loyal conservative who seems to have assumed Resting Exasperation Face – ‘a lot of people aren’t going out to vote, and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative, because they hate what you did to the President. Okay? They hate it.’
The idea the Presidential election was stolen has been propagated for months by the more deranged elements of the online far-Right – who have called on voters to boycott the runoffs and for the arrest of the Governor and Senate candidates.
You always expect a turnout drop between a General Election and a runoff, especially in a Presidential year – many voters are fatigued and simply care less about down-ballot races. In 2008, 43 per cent fewer voters participated in the runoff. The Democrats saw their vote fall by 48 per cent, compared to just 34 per cent for Republicans. It’s worth noting that the runoff process was introduced in Georgia in 1964, when Georgia was a one-party Democratic state, still controlled by segregationists. Their goal was to limit the growing power of African American voters, especially in primaries, allowing white voters to coalesce around a single candidate in a runoff. While it has historically served to shut out Georgia’s Black candidates, the realignment of Southern white voters towards the Republicans means it is also the GOP who are now advantaged: no Democrat has ever won a state-wide runoff in Georgia.
But this may all change tonight. Georgia not only allows mail-in voting, but offers three weeks of in-person early voting, the statistics for which are updated continuously. It’s clear it’s rural Republican areas that are lagging most in the early vote – seeing big falls from their November totals – especially in the north western corner of the state, where President Trump rallied last night, alongside QAnon conspiracy theorist-turned-Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. In order to offer some red meat to loyal Trump supporters, candidate Kelly Loeffler told the rally that she would be among those objecting to the election results in Congress. The difficulty for Loeffler and Perdue is that pandering to the whims of the President turns off those in the affluent north Atlanta suburbs, in communities like Buckhead, who consider themselves Republican but can’t stand Trump.
Conversely, Democrats have run an almost picture-perfect campaign. While Jon Ossoff, a 33-year-old documentary maker, and Rev Raphael Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church (Martin Luther King’s former congregation), lack experience and became candidates when few in the party thought the races winnable, they have proven a formidable team.
In a turnout game, it’s useful to have candidates almost tailor-made for the two key components of a Democratic electorate, allowing them to fish for votes in separate ponds: while Ossoff can drag out millennials, Warnock can focus on African Americans, especially those of faith. Early voting data suggests turnout among young voters with a college degree and African Americans is extremely high, in a state that gets more diverse and metropolitan by the day.
The Democrats have also been helped by events in Washington, and the refusal of the Republican senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to hold a vote on a $2,000 coronavirus relief cheque. While both Georgia Republican candidates voiced support for the measure, the GOP blocking this financial support has played strongly into Ossoff and Warnock’s anti-establishment narrative. Nowhere is this more true than in the ‘Black Belt’, a band of small town and rural counties, with large, culturally conservative African American communities, which have been hit hard both by the pandemic and long-term economic decline. Ossoff and Warnock have invested large amounts of time, money and people in these communities, where Democratic fortunes have been ebbing for a generation, hoping to reverse the tide.
These elections are almost impossible to predict and everything will depend on the size of Election Day turnout, which will benefit Republicans. But the series of unforced errors that has led the GOP’s Senate majority, so celebrated back in November, teetering on a precipice, is extraordinary to see. The consequences – from public healthcare to climate change and judicial appointments – could not be more immense.