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Senate Control Likely Decided By Fate Of 2 Georgia Runoff Races

A voter casts a ballot on Election Day in Atlanta. Georgia could be ground zero for whether Congress will be divided again next year.
Brynn Anderson
A voter casts a ballot on Election Day in Atlanta. Georgia could be ground zero for whether Congress will be divided again next year.

Control of the Senate may hinge on Georgia's two runoff races in January as no candidate in either contest has reached a required 50% threshold in votes to win outright.

That means Georgia, which is also still counting ballots in a neck-and-neck presidential race expected to go to a recount, is shaping up to be ground zero for whether Congress will be divided again next year.

"All eyes will be on Georgia for the next two months," Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie said. "There will be record spending, unprecedented campaigning and tons of mudslinging in these races — more than what we're used to seeing."

Currently, Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the U.S. Senate. With several races undecided, Democrats have gained one new seat in the Senate but would need two more for a 50-50 split. Then, if Joe Biden wins the White House, Kamala Harris as vice president would cast tiebreaking votes in the chamber.

A narrowly divided Senate, regardless of who is in control, means whoever is president will need cross-party cooperation in many cases to move any significant legislative priorities forward. Democrats will retain their majority in the House of Representatives but have a smaller margin.

For now, final calls need to be made in two other pending Senate races in North Carolina and Alaska. Republicans in both cases said they are confident they will pull out wins, making a Democratic sweep of both Georgia races the only path left for Democrats to gain the majority.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he isn't sure if he'll keep his job, or if Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will move into that leadership slot. However, McConnell noted that Republicans outperformed pundits' expectations that the GOP would lose Senate control outright with the November elections.

Now, just like everyone else, he's in wait-and-see mode.

"I'm not certain I'm the majority leader yet — as you all may have noticed — that will be determined in Georgia," McConnell told reporters Friday in Kentucky. "So this is not yet decided in this overwhelmingly close national election."

Georgia has been a red stronghold in recent years, but the changing electorate has given Democrats hope in 2020, Gillespie said. Especially when compared to the last time the state saw a Senate runoff in 2008.

That year, Republican incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss beat Democrat Jim Martin by more than 300,000 votes.

"Democrats are in a stronger position than the last time there was a Senate runoff. Back then, all signs pointed to Republicans having a numerical advantage in the state," Gillespie said. "Recent close elections suggest that there are far more Democrats relative to Republicans in the state now."

The state hasn't had a Democratic senator since 2005 when Zell Miller finished out his term. Gillespie and other experts said the races will come down to turnout.

The first Georgia Senate race designated as a runoff will feature GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat earlier this year, against the Democratic challenger, Raphael Warnock, an African American pastor from Atlanta. The two are vying in a special election to fill the rest of the term for a seat vacated by retired Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson.

In the second race, Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue will face Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker. Perdue initially secured more than 50% of ballots in earlier counts, only to see that margin shrink below the required watermark as the counting continued.

Other Senate race calls pending

In North Carolina, the AP shows Tillis is ahead by nearly 100,000 votes out of 5 million, with 93% of the results in. Tillis, for his part, has claimed victory for a second term, but his opponent, Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, hasn't conceded.

"I did have a heavy burden on me, thinking that North Carolina could be the majority maker for the U.S. Senate," Tillis said in a speech late Tuesday.


Cunningham's camp has noted, however, that the State Board of Elections continues to count ballots and it's waiting for every last vote to be counted. However, Cunningham will have a steep deficit to overcome to turn around the current trajectory of ballots.

In Alaska, Sen. Dan Sullivan remains significantly ahead with about half of the votes counted.

"Tonight, we saw a handful of Democratic candidates, with an advantage of tens of millions dollars, fall flat when finally faced with the voters," Sullivan said on Twitter on Wednesday. "Money alone can't win these races — ideas and records do — and I'm confident that trend will continue in Alaska. "


His Democratic challenger, Al Gross, has argued that his campaign still sees a path to victory.

"We believe we will win once every vote has been counted in the state," Gross said in a tweet Thursday.

Kevin McLaughlin, executive director at National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Gross' claims were "delusional" and that the Democrat won't be able to catch up to Sullivan's lead.

The AP shows that Sullivan is at 62% of the vote tallied so far, or nearly 200,000 votes. Gross is at 32%, or more than 61,000 votes.

What issues and voters could matter in Georgia runoffs

Georgia's runoffs would put the state in the spotlight like never before, said Trey Hood, politics professor at the University of Georgia.

Hood said the races could come down to voters of color, especially African Americans, and whether Democrats can improve on past Democratic performances by candidates such as Hillary Clinton to boost their share of white voters.

"There's a very high base of minority voters in Georgia, especially African American voters, and so a lot of what happens in any election is based on African American turnout," Hood said. Also, "Biden was able to increase his white vote share, which is where Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates have been lacking."

In Georgia's special election runoff, Loeffler will have to revisit controversies that have plagued her first year in office.

She wasn't Trump's first choice to fill the seat — he had urged the appointment of GOP Rep. Doug Collins instead. And Loeffler, a business executive who is married to the CEO of the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange, was accused of dumping $20 million in stocks after a closed-door Senate briefing on the coronavirus in January. A review by federal regulators found no wrongdoing.

She has also held a stake in the WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream, and previously headed up a subsidiary under NYSE owner, Intercontinental Exchange. She also faced controversy from WNBA players concerned about her remarks regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the end, Loeffler thwarted a challenge from Collins, who ran as a key Trump defender during the House impeachment probe. Loeffler also built up her credentials as a loyal Trump supporter along the way.

In the midst of this intraparty fight, Warnock overcame competition from a long list of Democratic challengers.

In Georgia's other Senate race, Perdue is seeking a second term as senator against Ossoff, a former media executive.

In 2017, Ossoff set fundraising records in a special election for a suburban Atlanta House seat. But he was dealt a stinging defeat by Republican Karen Handel. The following year, Democrat Lucy McBath won the seat against Handel.

Perdue, who was elected in 2014, has been considered a key Trump ally. He drew criticism in October that he purposely mocked Sen. Harris' first name, Kamala.

Ossoff has also accused Perdue of running an ad targeting his Jewish heritage by showing him with an enlarged nose, calling it an "anti-Semitic trope."

Perdue is a cousin to Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. The senator won his first term by fewer than 8 percentage points.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
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