Georgia’s Senate runoffs are likely headed to nail-biting finishes Tuesday as both parties prepare to sprint down the homestretch of the two races that will decide who controls the Senate.
Considerable resources — including hundreds of millions of dollars in outside spending and the standard bearers of both parties — are descending on the Peach State to help boost their chosen candidates.
The contests pit GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler against Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock. The two races are heading to a runoff after no candidate garnered 50 percent or more of the vote in either of the race in November.
“[T]his is going to come down to I think a very, very close race between…the Republicans, who’ve been able to get their voters out there, and Democrats, who’ve been able to unlock the secrets of stringing together a coalition to win,” said Terrence Clark, the Warnock campaign’s communications director. “I think this is going to come down to a photo finish, and it’ll be on the margin.”
Polls show the runoffs could both be margin-of-error contests, with FiveThirtyEight’s survey tracker showing Ossoff up by just 0.9 percentage points and Warnock leading by 1.8 percentage points as of Dec. 31. That means control of the next Senate — where Republicans currently have a 50-48 margin — could come down to a couple of squeakers.
Republicans have long had the advantage in Georgia, particularly in runoff contests that are often sleepier affairs than general elections. The Peach State’s rural expanses for decades were more than enough to offset Democrats’ advantage in Atlanta, and Georgia’s conservative history has made the state reliably red.
But rapid demographic change, booming growth in suburban and metropolitan areas and years of organizing on the ground by figures like 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have transformed Georgia politics.
An early sign of trouble for the GOP came two years ago when Abrams narrowly lost the governor’s race against now-Gov. Brian Kemp (R).
And with enthusiasm among Democratic voters and support among swing voters in typically Republican-leaning suburban areas, President-elect Joe Biden was able to become the first Democrat to win Georgia since 1992.
“When you climb a big mountain, it’s easy to climb the first 80 or 90 percent of the mountain, it’s hard to climb the final 10 to 15 percent, and that’s kind of where the Democrats have been in Georgia for the last couple of cycles,” said veteran GOP strategist Chip Lake. “They’ve gotten very close, we’ve had a couple of very close statewide elections, and they finally got over the hump in the race for president where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 12,000 votes.”
The realization that Democrats could indeed win the Peach State with Biden’s wafer-thin victory set the stage for what have become the two most expensive Senate races in history.
Ossoff and Warnock raised $106.8 million and $103.4 million, respectively, from Oct. 15 through Dec. 16, while Perdue and Loeffler raised about $68 million and $64 million, respectively, over the same time period. All four candidates’ hauls shattered the national record for fundraising by a Senate candidate.
The campaigns and outside groups have scrambled to dig through their coffers to try to boost turnout in both early voting and on Election Day. Democrats and Republicans have launched negative ad blitzes to boost support among their bases and criticize their opponents.
Nearly half a billion dollars was spent on advertising since Nov. 4, according to tracking firm AdImpact.
Republicans have torn into Ossoff and Warnock as radical “leftists,” while Democrats have framed the incumbents as corrupt after questionable stock trades during the coronavirus pandemic which drew investigations.
“They want to radically change the country. You want to save the country,” Loeffler says in one ad. “Together we are going to stop socialism right here in its tracks.”
“[N]ow, new stock scandals, profiting from contracts for Navy submarines, and an FBI investigation into insider stock trading. Georgia needs a Senator who puts our country first, and that’s not David Perdue,” a veteran says in a December ad from progressive group VoteVets.
The state has also seen a record surge in early voting.
Over 3 million early votes have already been cast in the two races, breaking the record for the most total votes in a Georgia runoff election.
Early figures have proven promising for Democrats, with Black voters making up a larger percentage of the electorate than in the November races. Democratic congressional districts are also turning out in larger numbers compared with the early vote in the general, while early-vote turnout is down in GOP-held congressional districts.
“I think we’re encouraged by that,” said an Ossoff campaign spokesperson. “I think it’s good to see people are voting and voting early, and I think that Jon continues to call for people to, if they haven’t voted yet, to make a plan to vote as soon as they can.”
Still, Republicans are expecting their base to come out in force on Tuesday in the hopes that high GOP turnout on Election Day can more than offset any potential advantage Democrats hold in the early vote.
“Our unprecedented grassroots organization is the largest in Georgia’s history for any Republican candidate and has been working in every one of our 159 counties to get out the vote. Our massive voter contact program is reaching voters that our party has never targeted before – and its benefits will be clear on January 5,” said John Burke, the Perdue campaign’s communications director.
Both parties are launching full court presses to juice Tuesday’s turnout, with a whirlwind of campaign events making its way across Georgia in the leadup to the runoffs.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris campaigned in Georgia Sunday, and both Biden and President Trump are making appearances Monday. Biden will be in the Atlanta area, while Trump will be campaigning in rural Dalton.
Perdue has been taken off the campaign trail as he quarantines following contact with someone who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. But Republicans are hopeful that Trump’s visit to the state will help energize the base when they need it most.
“Runoffs are always about base turnout, and this election is no different. Whether you like Donald Trump or don’t like Donald Trump, one of the things that that he’s been very, very good at as president is getting his base out to vote in an election,” Lake told The Hill.
However, Trump’s visit may be a double-edged sword. The president has railed against his loss in Georgia, citing claims of voter fraud and hitting Republican state officials like Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R).
The blitz has raised concerns that if Trump focuses on airing his grievances during Monday’s rally instead of boosting Loeffler and Perdue, he risks turning off voters who may end up viewing the election system as fraudulent and stay home.
“Our biggest concern is that could depress turnout. And in a race that’s so competitive in a state that’s so competitive, we can’t afford to have any drop off whatsoever,” said Lake. “I mean, if 2 percent of the base believes that their votes won’t count or their votes were stolen, then that’s a big problem.”
Trump has not appeared too bothered about the concern. In a New Year’s tweet, Trump maintained that the presidential contest in Georgia is “illegal and invalid” – a claim he said includes “the two current Senatorial Elections.”