Two Georgia Senate races could head to January runoffs, leaving control of chamber in doubt

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer

Election experts have cautioned Americans that it could take days to get final results for the presidential race. The balance of the United States Senate, however, could take two months to decide.

The potential delay comes from Georgia, which features two Senate races this November. If no candidates reach 50 percent next month, one or both contests could go to a January runoff, meaning that control of the chamber could be in doubt into the new year. Both parties have already funneled tens of millions into the Peach State, which would see another surge in donations if it featured the only federal election (or two) remaining.

David Perdue, left, and Jon Ossoff
Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The first race is pretty clear-cut: Republican Sen. David Perdue’s six-year term is coming to an end and he’s in a race against Democrat Jon Ossoff, who rose to national prominence in 2017 when, at the age of 30, he narrowly lost a special election for the U.S. House. Ossoff raised nearly $30 million for that race, and his fundraising prowess has carried over into this one: In the third quarter he raised $21 million for his Senate race, a record in the state.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up, and the polling supports that view, with the average showing Perdue with a 1-point lead tightly within the margin for error. One factor potentially keeping the winner below 50 percent is the presence of Shane Hazel, a Libertarian Party candidate who has consistently been pulling a couple of percentage points in the polls.

The race garnered additional national attention last week when Perdue appeared at an event with President Trump and repeatedly mispronounced the first name of Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

“Kamala? Kamala? Kamala-mala-mala? I don’t know. Whatever,” Perdue said of the woman who’s been his Senate colleague for the last three and a half years, as the crowd laughed.

Ossoff tweeted a clip of Perdue’s remarks along with the comment “Senator Perdue never would have done this to a male colleague. Or a white colleague. And everyone knows it.” That version has been viewed more than 6 million times on Twitter, and the Ossoff campaign said it had raised nearly $2 million between Perdue’s comment Friday afternoon and Sunday evening.

Perdue spokesman John Burke said the senator “simply mispronounced Senator Harris’s name, and he didn’t mean anything by it,” but members of the Biden campaign called Perdue’s remarks “backhanded racism.”

Kelly Loeffler
Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga. (Dustin Chambers/Getty Images)

The second Senate race is more complicated. In January, Gov. Brian Kemp appointed businesswoman Kelly Loeffler to fill the seat of Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired for health reasons at the end of 2019. At the time, it looked like Loeffler might help the GOP among suburban women, who have been abandoning the party in droves in recent years.

Loeffler, however, has sprinted right as she faces more than a dozen challengers for her seat, including Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican who was among Trump’s staunchest defenders during the impeachment proceedings.

During a debate Monday, Loeffler said there was literally not a single thing about which she disagreed with Trump, calling herself the true conservative in the race. In her short time in the seat, Loeffler has already become embroiled in an insider trading controversy tied to the coronavirus pandemic and has been a vocal critic of the Black Lives Matter movement in a state that’s one-third Black.

Loeffler has also boasted that she would be more conservative than Attila the Hun and has promised to hold China accountable for Trump contracting COVID-19.

Last week, Loeffler held an event to announce she was being endorsed by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House and an outspoken supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory who has a history of making extremist remarks. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Collins also sought Greene’s endorsement. Trump has thus far not made an endorsement in the race.

Raphael Warnock
Democratic Senate candidate Raphael Warnock. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

That has opened up space for the top Democratic candidate, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Warnock, who is Black, earned the endorsement of former President Barack Obama and has topped 40 percent in some recent polls. Democrats in the state and nationally have urged Matt Lieberman, son of former Connecticut senator and vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, to drop out of the race to allow support to consolidate behind Warnock. Lieberman has consistently polled fourth, ranging between 3 percent and 12 percent. In head-to-head polls against both Loeffler and Collins, Warnock has shown slim leads.

Mocking the name of a Senate colleague and embracing the support of a candidate known for her right-wing conspiratorial beliefs might make sense in a state that was staunchly conservative, but Republicans are running right amid a constituency that’s looking more and more purple. Trump won Georgia by 5 points in 2016, down from Mitt Romney’s 8-point margin in 2012. Polling for 2020 shows it’s gotten even tighter, with the latest average giving Biden a lead of less than a single point. The forecast for Georgia on the data journalism website 538 currently gives Trump a 51 percent chance of winning the state.

If one or both of the races reach a runoff, it’s difficult to know what the composition of the electorate would look like come next year. Will voters who were motivated by either affection or animus toward Trump show up if he’s no longer on the ballot? Will one party feel more desperate or motivated than the other depending on Election Day results?

In 2008, a similar situation occurred after Sen. Saxby Chambliss won just under 50 percent in the general election but defeated Democrat Jim Martin by 15 points in the runoff after turnout was halved. The loss denied Democrats a 60-vote majority.

Early voting has already begun in Georgia, where more than a million ballots have been cast via either mail or in-person voting.


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