Election Day 2014 is just eight days away, but control of the Senate might not be known for two more months.
Observers and pundits on both sides expect Louisiana's Senate race to go to a December runoff between Democratic Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Landrieu oil is changing the world and Washington Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm Republican announces bid for Vitter’s seat MORE and GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy.
However, less attention is being paid to Amanda Swafford, the Georgia Libertarian who could deny Senate candidates in her state a required 50 percent majority on Election Day.
The runoffs pose challenges for both parties, not just coordinating logistics and new spending, but motivating volunteers and voters all over again, along with crafting an effective message and strategy under untested and unusual circumstances.
The uncertainty, however, is a nightmare scenario that could throw the Senate into chaos and cause continued gridlock at a time when Congress must again pass a government funding bill to pick up when the current stopgap measure expires on Dec. 11.
With Landrieu failing to break 50 percent in every public poll of the race, Democrats have been forced to confront reality and recently placed a $2.1 million ad buy for after the midterms. Major Democratic groups, like Senate Majority PAC, EMILY’s List and the SEIU, are all expected to play in the runoff as well.
Republicans, meanwhile have laid down at least $10.5 million in runoff airtime reservations. The National Republican Senatorial Committee reserved $3.4 million for the runoff, and a number of major GOP spending groups have put down reservations as well, including the National Rifle Association, which reserved over $1 million; Ending Spending, which has $2.5 million for the runoff; Crossroads GPS, with another $2.1 million reserved and Freedom Partners, which made another $1.5 million reservation.
Landrieu’s best bet in the runoff is if Democrats hold the Senate without her.
“If the Senate is going to be in Democratic hands regardless, then she's got a case to make — Do you want to fire the chair of the Energy Committee?” said Bob Mann, a Louisiana State University political analyst and former Senate staffer.
But if her party has already lost control, that question — central in Landrieu’s pitch to voters — would ring hollow.
If Louisiana is the deciding vote, Republicans say it would become even easier to make the race about President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidAbortion ruling roils race for the White House, Senate Dem senator urges support for House Puerto Rico bill Reid: McConnell silence on Trump 'speaks volumes' MORE (D-Nev.), an outcome Landrieu’s long been trying to avoid.
“She wants this race not to be nationalized, about her clout for Louisiana, not the national climate,” said Louisiana Republican Party Executive Director Jason Dore.
Both parties in Georgia say they're aiming for an outright win, though Republicans feel better than Democrats about what would happen in a runoff.
“It was difficult to win a runoff in Georgia for a Democrat. It’s even worse now because the runoff period has become so extended,” former Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox (D) told The Hill on Thursday, saying there was “no question” that Nunn has a better shot winning on Nov. 4 than she would on Jan. 6.
Strategists in both parties also expect Libertarian Amanda Swafford's share of the vote to shrink to between 2 percent and 3 percent by Election Day, which Republicans say benefits them.
"The Libertarian's going to poll some votes. But I know this: I've been on the statewide ballot four times, been in four statewide races, the last two for the Senate, where 2.4 or 2.5 percent of the vote was Libertarian and the rest was Democrat and Republican," Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonGOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' Amateur theatrics: An insult to Africa Dem senator blocks push to tie 'gun ban' to spending bill MORE (R-Ga.) told The Hill on Friday.
"The Libertarian vote tends to compress, as it gets closer to the election. As that happens, it's going to be which way people break. And more often than not, they break to the more conservative side rather than to the liberal side,” the senator argued.
But if the margin separating Nunn and Perdue is slimmer than the margin of votes Swafford draws — which is what every poll out last week showed — the top two will meet again three months after Election Day.
Unlike Louisiana, neither party has begun serious preparations for a runoff in Georgia.
"We are focused on Nov. 4, we are doing everything we can to win," said Nunn spokesman Nathan Click. "All of our energy is focused on Nov. 4."
Both parties have said they’ll keep their ground operations and volunteer armies in place for however long it takes. Georgia Republican Party spokesman Ryan Mahoney said their 17 field offices and 1,000 grassroots leaders throughout the state will remain up and running
“When they signed up, they knew it was victory at all costs,” he said.
But Republicans are somewhat less confident of a runoff victory in Georgia than they are in Louisiana.
Past precedent favors Perdue in the runoff — Republicans tend to expand their margin significantly in the second round of voting in the Peach State.
But Democrats note that Perdue has been his own worst enemy in the race, making multiple gaffes about his business career that have contributed to his drop in popularity. They believe three more months on the campaign trail only offers more opportunity for missteps and more time for them to educate Georgians on Perdue’s background.
“We’d happily welcome three more months to tell voters about how proud David Perdue is of his career spent outsourcing jobs and laying off workers,” one Georgia Democratic operative said.
Republicans admit while their supporters are more enthusiastic than Democrats, turning them out to the polls during an oddly scheduled runoff election might be more of a challenge.
Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissWyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying Cruz is a liability Inside Paul Ryan’s brain trust MORE’s (R-Ga.) 2008 runoff, noted Democratic voters are typically consolidated around urban centers, but Republicans are scattered throughout the state’s rural areas.
“It's probably easier if you're a Democrat to round up the voters than it is for Republicans,” he said.
That’s where enthusiasm for Republicans, in both states, becomes paramount. O’Connell noted that, in 2002 Chambliss brought in high-powered surrogates to draw attention to his candidacy, a tactic that becomes even more important when the fight is drawn out over three months.
No matter what happens on Nov. 4, however, both parties will keep up a fierce fight for the remaining one or two seats.
Even if they’ve already lost the majority, Democrats will still want to narrow any GOP gains to make their path back to control easier in two years. Republicans, meanwhile, are already looking toward the 2016 Senate fight, when presidential-level turnout and a tougher map make it possible they'd lose control of the Senate just one cycle after they won it back.
“If you look going forward in 2016, the map is very different,” Dore said. “From everything I've been told, [national Republicans] are committed to winning regardless of what the opportunity is for Senate control.”
— Cameron Joseph contributed reporting from Atlanta, Ga.