After November, Georgia will be the center of the political universe

The state, potentially holding two Senate elections in January, may determine which party controls the upper chamber in the next Congress.

The Rev. Raphael Warnock greeting supporters at the state Capitol in Atlanta on Friday, March 6
AP Photo/Benjamin Nadler
Sept. 15, 2020, 8 p.m.

Anyone who expects politics to calm down a bit after the November election hasn’t been paying attention to this year’s unique election cycle in Georgia. The state, a top battleground in this year’s presidential campaign, could end up holding two concurrent Senate elections that would determine which party holds the Senate majority.

First, Sen. David Perdue faces a tougher-than-expected reelection campaign against Democrat Jon Ossoff. The presence of a Libertarian candidate (Shane Hazel) on the ballot raises the odds that neither candidate will win the more than 50 percent required to avoid a Jan. 5 runoff. The leading Republican Senate super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, is spending more money in this race than any other, in hopes of ensuring that there’s no pathway to an outright November victory for Ossoff—even if Joe Biden scores a surprising victory in the Peach State.

Second, there’s the special election for the seat of appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler. In November, she faces 20 candidates from different parties on the same ballot. Assuming no one wins an outright majority, the top two finishers face off in January—the same day that a runoff would be held for the regularly scheduled race. With Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins dividing the Republican vote, and eight candidates splitting the Democratic vote, it nearly guarantees a high-stakes showdown next year. The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic Party-backed candidate, is favored to head into the runoff.

Adding more significance to these races is the debate over Georgia’s evolving political identity. Democrats have long been convinced that the booming population in the diverse Atlanta suburbs, along with energized African American turnout across the state, will make Georgia winnable for them in the future. But Republicans have managed to win contested elections in recent years—from Perdue’s first victory in 2014 to Gov. Brian Kemp’s 2018 victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams—by turning out their own base of rural conservative voters and winning just enough white suburbanites.

Abrams, in particular, has a lot at stake on the outcome of these races. A progressive activist, she’s argued that Democrats need to spend more effort energizing the African American base over wooing persuadable white moderates. A close ally of Warnock, she encouraged him to enter the Senate race, believing that he is an ideal messenger for her strategic vision.

The challenge for Georgia Democrats in postelection runoffs is that Black turnout typically drops off significantly after the November election. But the consequential nature of the potential contests and the likelihood of a charismatic African American contender in the special election change the dynamic a bit. If Biden wins the election, it’s plausible that President Trump’s base will be demoralized, with Democrats energized to seek full control of power in Washington.

“Part of the message has to be if you want to help Biden be successful, you really have to have the majority in the Senate as well,” said Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan, who represents a swing Atlanta-area legislative district. “All the money that’s going to get pumped into the state on both sides is going to be jaw-dropping."

If Democrats can’t win in this election cycle with a politically wounded Trump leading the Republican Party, it would raise questions about whether prioritizing their base is the right tactic in what remains a conservative-minded state. Georgia would become more of a symbol of missed Democratic opportunities than an emerging battleground.

Democrats believe they have landed on a narrative in both Georgia races that resonates across the ideological spectrum—that the state’s two GOP senators, among the wealthiest lawmakers in Congress, aren’t “using their power to help ordinary people,” in the words of a senior Democratic official. Ossoff and allied Democratic groups have already spent millions on ads hitting Perdue for well-timed stock trades. Loeffler, who has an estimated $800 million personal fortune with her husband, faces that same political vulnerability if she’s the GOP candidate in the runoff. (She was cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee of any improprieties.)

Republicans, meanwhile, need to determine whether rallying their own base will be enough to win in a demographically changing state. Loeffler has revitalized her once-flagging campaign by focusing on law-and-order issues, attacking radical elements of the Black Lives Matter movement to build support with the conservative voters she needs to win. But Perdue, who needs to woo swing voters to win in November, has portrayed himself as a bipartisan problem solver, even calling for police reform in one campaign advertisement. While both Loeffler and Collins congratulated right-wing QAnon conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene for winning a congressional primary, Perdue remained silent.

Georgia will be the center of the political world after the presidential race is decided. The winner of the state’s Senate races won’t just tip the balance of power in Congress—they will offer a signal of our national political future.

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