With Senate at stake, Georgia is on all our minds

Greg Nash

Ray Charles’s soulful rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” concludes with: “I said Georgia, oh Georgia, no peace I find …”

There’s not going to be much peace found by voters in the Peach State over the next three weeks. While they pause for the holidays they’re being bombarded by a barrage of television and digital ads, door knocks, direct mail, robocalls and other outreach as two U.S. Senate runoff elections approach their Jan. 5 culmination.

Those two Georgia runoff elections will determine not only who represents the state in the United States Senate, but also the political control of that body — and with it, the course of the nation for the next two years.

The Georgia situation is unusual for several reasons. First, there’s the runoff. Most states permit the election of senators based on winning just a plurality of votes cast. Georgia law requires that, in order to be elected, a candidate must receive an absolute majority. If a candidate fails to get 50 percent of the vote, a runoff is held between the top two finishers in the General Election.

Georgia’s election laws have produced some unusual results through the years, including the 1966 gubernatorial election of segregationist Democrat Lester Maddox, who didn’t even win the election. 

First, Maddox lost the Democratic primary, finishing a distant second but ahead of a state senator named Jimmy Carter. Because no candidate got the required 50 percent, a runoff primary was held. Maddox prevailed in a shenanigans-filled contest, winning the right to face Republican Howard “Bo” Callaway in the General Election.

That November, Calloway beat Maddox but again failed to get the absolute majority necessary. Under Georgia’s law, the election was cast into the Democratic-controlled Georgia House of Representatives, which overwhelmingly elected Maddox.

Callaway went on to be the Secretary of the Army. Carter did pretty well politically, too.

Beyond the runoff, there is another anomaly. That’s the fact that there are two Senate seats up for election in the state in the same year. Ordinarily, U.S. senators run for staggered six-year terms, thus eliminating the possibility of two seats being up for election at the same time.  

A brief historical note is in order, though. As unusual as it seems, two Senate seats up at the same time is more common that might appear at first glance. It occurred just two years ago in Minnesota and Mississippi. Additionally, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and the man who prays the Georgia runoffs will make him majority leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) all ran in the same year as their Senate counterparts.

Through the years, Stromberg Thurmond managed to do it both as a Republican in 1966 and as a Democrat 10 years previous. The father and son Harry F. Byrd Sr. and Jr. of Virginia did so, as did the immortal Sam Ervin.

One of the Georgia seats is a special election runoff, being held to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican who resigned his seat for health reasons. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler to take the seat.

The other seat is up for election in ordinary course and features the reelection effort of Republican Sen. David Perdue.

In the Nov. 3 election, Perdue came within a whisker of attaining the majority, taking 49.7 percent of the vote and besting Democrat Jon Osoff by almost 90,000 votes. A third-party candidate held Perdue just below the magic number. 

The special election held the same day was almost bound to produce a runoff — 20 candidates appeared on the ballot, each taking a slice of the vote. Loeffler did well, besting conservative stalwart Doug Collins, but still finished far from the mark necessary to avoid a runoff. 

If you’ve followed this so far you know that the situation is unusual. What makes the stakes extraordinarily high is the fact that control of the Senate — and the future of the nation — may hang in the balance. It’s a trifecta of unusual circumstances with more at stake than ever before. 

On Jan. 4, Republicans will hold 50 seats in the Senate and Democrats, 48. If Republicans win just one of the Georgia seats the next day, they will retain control of the Senate and the ability to block extreme proposals from an increasingly left-leaning House majority. They’d also have control over the confirmation of administration officials, federal judges and Supreme Court justices. 

If Democrats manage to take both the Georgia seats, the Senate’s political leanings would be tied — and the vice president breaks most ties. If Kamala Harris ends up filling that role, the results will be felt for generations.

A Democratic-controlled Congress with a Democratic White House would bring the prospect of court-packing, open immigration, defunding police, the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All” and a host of other really bad ideas.

Generally, not many minds are changed during runoff elections. Voters have made their preferences known. Runoff elections typically are won by those who work best on the ground, doing the essential blocking and tackling of winning campaigns. That hasn’t stopped tens of millions of dollars from pouring into the state.

Republicans have one big advantage. Despite trending more blue recently, Georgia is still nowhere near as far to the left as the two Democratic candidates.

Jon Osoff, who famously lost the nationally watched and enormously expensive special election for the state’s 6th Congressional District seat in 2017 (that race also was decided in a runoff), has welcomed the support of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic candidate for the other seat, is even farther to the left. He has endorsed the Green New Deal, defended the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Semitic rants, said that police have a “gangster and thug mentality,” and told America’s armed services that “you cannot serve God and the military.” By most reckoning, those are far left of “Georgia values.” 

The song — now the official state song — hasn’t yet played out, but with so much at stake, Jan. 5 will find many with Georgia on their minds.

Charlie Gerow, first vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, has held national leadership positions in several Republican presidential campaigns. A nationally recognized expert in strategic communications, he is CEO of Quantum Communications, a Pennsylvania-based media relations and issue advocacy firm. Follow him on Twitter @Charlie_Gerow.

Tags 2020 election Bernie Sanders Brian Kemp Chuck Schumer David Perdue Doug Collins James Lankford Jimmy Carter John Barrasso Johnny Isakson Kelly Loeffler Kirsten Gillibrand Lindsey Graham Mike Enzi Republican Party Tim Scott United States Senate election in Georgia

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