Control Of The Senate Now Appears To Hang On The Georgia Runoffs

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 02: Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Raphael Warnock speaks at a Drive-in Mobilization Rally to get out the vote on November 2, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
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November 5, 2020 2:38 p.m.

Hopeful Democrats, stunned by likely losses in the North Carolina and Maine Senate races, have turned their eyes to Georgia where two January runoffs represent their only chance at retaking Senate control.

Democrat Jon Ossoff, with an assist from the third party candidates, dragged Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) under 50 percent as the final votes were tallied mostly from the state’s metro areas Thursday afternoon. Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock had secured his place in the runoff on Tuesday, though his path was easier with Republican support split between Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA). Loeffler ultimately got the Republican bid after a vicious intra-party battle.

With Sen. Doug Jones’ (D-AL) loss, Democrats needed four more seats to get to 50. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the White House, that would leave Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) free to cast the tie-breaking vote. Democrats successfully toppled incumbents in Arizona and Colorado, leaving them two seats short.

This election has shown Georgia to be a true swing state for the first time. At the time of publishing, former Vice President Biden and President Donald Trump were neck and neck as the final votes were tallied. Early indications seem to point to demographic change, the increasingly Democratic suburbs and enormous organizing efforts, including by the likes of Stacey Abrams, as factors contributing to the shift. 

But despite the purpling of Georgia, Democrats are still the likely underdogs in a runoff.

“I tend to be pretty skeptical of Democrats’ chances in Georgia,” Jeffrey Lewis Lazarus, a political science professor at Georgia State University, told TPM. “Since 2000 this state has been the Lucy’s football of politics for Democrats — they keep getting 47%, 48% in statewide races, and every time they think the next time they’re going to get over the top. And it keeps not happening.”

Lazarus said that he thinks a Georgia statewide victory is possible for Democrats only in a blue-wave election — something that has not materialized this time. 

“Democrats have spent 20 years trying to get those last two points and have gained very little ground,” he said. “I’m not sure this is the year they get over the hump, even if Biden does eke out a win over Trump.”

Another factor adding uncertainty to the runoffs is the lack of a top of the ticket. Whichever way the presidential election goes, neither Biden nor Trump will be providing any coattails in January. 

A potential Biden victory would give an edge to the GOP, according to Dan Judy, Vice President of North Star Opinion Research, a consultancy for Republican candidates. Republicans who don’t like Trump will be freed up to vote for a Republican candidate without him on the ballot or in the White House, Judy posited. 

“I’d say that both Democratic candidates certainly have a chance in the runoffs, but the Republicans will be favored,” Judy said. “Partisans on both sides will be very fired up, but I believe the prospect of divided government will be very attractive to a lot of independents in the state.”

One thing is for certain: the races will be flooded with gobs and gobs of money.

During the 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, Ossoff was running against Republican Karen Handel. Ossoff dominated the first round of voting, but fell short of 50 percent, and Handel ultimately won the runoff. That race — for just one seat in the House — gobbled up $55 million from the candidates and outside groups. 

This time, it’s two races in the Senate, which are more expensive to begin with, and would determine control of the chamber. The totals could be staggering. 

“I really can’t imagine an upper limit to how much money is going to flow into Georgia,” Lazarus said. “Certainly it’ll be several hundred million dollars, maybe even an outside shot of breaking a billion when it’s all said and done.”

“I don’t want to speculate on exactly how much money will be spent, but it is likely to dwarf anything the state has ever seen,” Judy added.

Ultimately, if Ossoff and Warnock do pull off wins, the Senate will be split right down the middle. 

The last time that happened was in 2000, after the excruciatingly close election between President George W. Bush and Al Gore. To deal with a tied Senate, which hadn’t happened since 1953, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) struck a power-sharing deal with Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MI). 

They agreed to fill committees with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, and both parties got the same staff resources. Republicans, who had the edge when Bush got to the White House, kept the chairmanships and power to convene the committees for hearings and markups. 

The arrangement, which worked reasonably well, only ended up holding for about five months, until Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont became an independent and started caucusing with the Democrats, making Daschle the majority leader.

It’s hard to imagine Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) coming to such an agreement, though these are largely uncharted waters. An evenly split Senate is rare in U.S. history, and has only happened three times before.

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