The attack ads have aired, the rallies are over, and the ballots are cast. Now that polls have closed, the nation is set to find out just how blue the once-reliably Republican state of Georgia has become.
After Joe Biden narrowly pulled out a victory in the state in November — putting Georgia in the Democratic column for the first time in a presidential race since 1992 — Democrats have been eager to flex their muscles in Tuesday’s two all-important U.S. Senate races.
Republicans, on the other hand, hope to show that reports of their loosening grip on state power are premature.
The two races, which will determine control of the U.S. Senate for at least the next two years, pit Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. The Republicans need to win one of the two contests to maintain Senate control, and to serve as a check on Biden and the Democrats who hold a narrow edge in the House of Representatives.
If Ossoff and Warnock both win, there will be a 50–50 tie in the Senate, which would give Democrats control with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote. Democrats would control all elected power in the nation’s capital.
With so much riding on the outcome, the Georgia races have drawn intense national attention and loads of money. They now are the most expensive congressional elections ever, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the race pitting Perdue against Ossoff, the candidates and outside groups have spent almost $470 million through Monday, while the race between Loeffler and Warnock has cost about $363 million.
The races also have been acrimonious. The Republicans have painted their Democratic opponents as radicals who want to impose socialism on the country, defund police departments, and implement the Green New Deal. The Republicans say they are running to save America.
The Loeffler campaign has pointed at sermons and statements in which Warnock has defended socialism as simply “things we have in common”; called gun-rights legislation dumb; declared that “nobody can serve God and the military”; likened Israeli tactics to those used by “apartheid South Africa“; and compared police officers to gangsters, thugs, and bullies. The Perdue camp has questioned Ossoff’s ties to the Communist Chinese government.
“The future of the country is on the ballot,” Loeffler told supporters at a campaign stop last week. “The entire country is counting on us.”
The Democrats have cast Republicans as out of touch executives who’ve used their positions of power mostly to enrich themselves. They’ve accused both Republicans of engaging in insider trading at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, though a Justice Department investigation was closed with no charges filed. Ossoff has called Perdue a “crook” and falsely accused Loeffler of campaigning with a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Georgia has been trending toward the Democrats for years, as the Atlanta metro area is booming with affluent and college-educated voters. But despite Biden’s breakthrough in November, there was still evidence that the runoffs should be the Republicans’ to lose.
The Democrats in both Senate races underperformed Biden in November by about 100,000 votes each. That may be a sign that many Georgians were more interested in defeating President Donald Trump than they were in handing Senate control to the Democrats.
Perdue, 71, a corporate turnaround specialist, ran slightly ahead of Trump in November, and received almost 90,000 more votes than Ossoff, 33, the head of a London-based documentary film company. Perdue was only about 13,000 votes shy of winning a majority of votes needed to avoid the runoff altogether.
There were 20 candidates running in the second Senate race in November, a special election to fill Republican senator Johnny Isakson’s seat after he stepped down for health reasons. Loeffler, 50, an Atlanta businesswoman who was appointed to fill the seat in December 2019, was one of six Republicans in that race. Together, they received about 50,000 more votes than the eight Democrats. Warnock, 51, the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church — Martin Luther King Jr.’s church — was the top vote-getter in November, followed by Loeffler.
Heading into the runoffs, the Republicans had the advantage of a proven and built up ground game that they deployed during the general election to maintain control of the state’s general assembly. Republicans also have an unblemished history of winning statewide runoffs.
While the Republicans outperformed the Democrats in the November Senate elections, they’ve struggled ahead of the runoffs to energize their party, which has been dispirited by baseless accusations made by Trump and his allies that November’s election was stolen from him.
“The risk for Republicans is they’re not nearly as united as the Democrats are,” said Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Atlanta-area attorney L. Lin Wood, an alleged Trump ally with a history of supporting Democrats, urged Trump supporters to boycott the runoffs. While Trump has told Georgians to ignore people like Wood trying to get them to sit out the election, he has repeatedly amplified allegations that November’s election was “rigged.” Republican strategists worry that talk such as this could cause too many of their voters to stay home, either because they believe the runoffs will be rigged or to simply punish the state’s Republican establishment.
Trump, who held a rally with Perdue and Loeffler Monday night, likely didn’t help matters when audio surfaced over the weekend from a phone call where he told Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger that he wanted to “find” more than 11,000 votes to reverse his loss in the state. The Washington Post first reported the phone call.
“The Democrats are trying to steal the White House,” Trump said at Monday’s rally. “You can’t let them steal the U.S. Senate.”
“David and Kelly are running against the most extreme liberal candidates in the history of your state,” Trump added.
Perdue and Loeffler have had to walk a fine line, standing with the president while trying not to turn off moderate voters in the Atlanta suburbs. They’ve called on Raffensperger to resign for his handling of the November election — Raffensperger has repeatedly defended the integrity of the election and his handling of it. On Monday, Loeffler announced that she would object to the certification of the Electoral College results on Wednesday.
— Kelly Loeffler (@KLoeffler) January 4, 2021
Republicans in northeast Georgia who spoke with National Review last week overwhelmingly agreed that November’s election was at the very least questionable, if not entirely fraudulent. But all of them said they intended to vote in the runoffs.
As of Monday, more than 3 million people had already cast early ballots in the races, down from more than 4 million who voted early in November, but still enough to shatter the turnout record for a Georgia runoff.