Following the November election, the country’s attention ― and donors’ money ― turned to Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, where Republicans are defending two seats and their razor-thin hold on power in the U.S. Senate. Which party controls the Senate will shape the course of Joe Biden’s presidency.
HuffPost has answers to all the most important questions about the two Georgia races gripping the country.
What are the Georgia Senate runoffs?
When no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the general election, the Peach State requires the two top vote-getters to compete in a runoff. Since neither of the state’s Republican senators ― Kelly Loeffler, 50, and David Perdue, 71 ― won an outright majority in November, they must run a second time against their leading challengers, Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock, 51, and Jon Ossoff, 33, on Tuesday, Jan. 5.
Why have runoffs at all?
Georgia is one of several Southern states that adopted runoff elections as a way of limiting Black political power. Racist politicians worried that if Black voters cast their ballots as a bloc, while white voters spread their ballots among many candidates, there would be more Black elected officials than white racists could tolerate. By forcing runoffs, the state aimed to ensure that conservative white voters would eventually rally behind a single white candidate.
Why are there two Senate seats in contention this year?
Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General, is up for reelection after serving his first six-year term.
Loeffler is running for her seat in a special election. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) had appointed the extremely wealthy financial executive and Republican donor to an open Senate seat in December 2019 (President Donald Trump had pushed him to name GOP Rep. Doug Collins instead). That seat became vacant when Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson retired for medical reasons just three years into his last term. After serving one year, Loeffler now faces the voters to finish out the term’s final two years.
Why do these elections matter so much?
The contests will determine control of the Senate for the next two years ― and, to a large extent, the fate of Biden’s presidency. If Ossoff and Warnock both win, the partisan breakdown of the Senate shifts to a 50-50 tie. Since Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast the tie-breaking vote in such a scenario, two Democratic wins in Georgia would effectively hand their party the Senate.
In this scenario, Democratic control would almost certainly not open the door to a flood of ambitious liberal policies. The vast majority of legislation would still be subject to the threat of a filibuster and thus require 60 votes to pass. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, made sure of that when he promised in November to vote down any proposal to abolish the filibuster, a move that would have enabled passage of key laws with a simple majority.
Instead, Democratic victories in Georgia will simply deprive Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of veto power over what gets a vote on the Senate floor. That includes legislation like the stand-alone bill to increase coronavirus relief payments to $2,000, which the Kentucky senator just blocked from passage.
“If Mitch McConnell keeps control of the U.S. Senate, he will try to do exactly to Joe and Kamala like he did to President Obama,” Ossoff warned at a December drive-in rally with Biden.
How much money is being spent in the race?
As of mid-December, Ossoff had raised a total of $138 million and spent nearly $121 million since the start of the election cycle. Warnock had raised $124 million and spent $102 million over the same period.
Perdue and Loeffler have raised serious money as well, but as of mid-December, they trailed their Democratic challengers. Perdue has raised $89 million and spent $73 million, while Loeffler has raised $92 million and spent $71 million.
The fundraising gap between the two parties has been especially stark in the final months of the campaign. From mid-October to mid-December, Ossoff and Warnock both raised more than $100 million, dwarfing the hauls of Loeffler and Perdue, who brought in $64 million and $68 million, respectively.
The two Republicans have benefited from a flood of outside spending on their behalf, however, that erases the Democratic campaigns’ fundraising advantages. The Republican Party and other conservative groups have spent $94 million more bolstering Perdue and attacking Ossoff than their Democratic and liberal counterparts have spent buoying Ossoff and attacking Perdue. Likewise, outside groups have spent $47 million more in support of Loeffler’s bid than similar groups have spent in support of Warnock’s bid.
When did voting begin?
Early voting began in Georgia on Dec. 14. Georgians are allowed to vote in person at a polling place or by completing an absentee ballot that they submit by mail or deposit in an official dropbox. The last day to vote is Election Day, Jan. 5.
When will we know the winners?
In the general election, Georgia’s local election authorities were permitted to “process” ― that is, open and scan ― early voting ballots as they arrived, but could not “tabulate” ― that is, count ― them until Election Day. For the runoff, the state is requiring local election authorities to process the early ballots as they arrive, potentially speeding up the vote counting that is set to begin on Jan. 5.
Given how tight the races now look, it is unlikely that the public will know the outcome on election night. If the presidential contest is any guide, it could take many days. The Associated Press called Georgia for Biden more than two weeks after Election Day, following a hand tally that confirmed Biden’s narrow win.
If either of the Democrats wins, when will they be sworn in?
It’s not clear when a theoretically victorious Warnock or Ossoff would be sworn in, especially given how fiercely recent close elections have been disputed. The Ossoff campaign told HuffPost that it doesn’t have a clear idea of a potential timeline. (The Warnock campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
But in the past, senators who can’t be sworn in at the start of a new Senate in early January have taken their oaths of office as soon as possible after their opponents have either conceded or exhausted all potential challenges to the outcome of the election. For example, after a prolonged legal battle, then-Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) conceded to Democrat Al Franken in late June 2009, more than seven months after Election Day. Franken was sworn in exactly a week later.
The long delay in Franken’s swearing-in deprived Democrats of a 60-vote supermajority for the first seven months of President Barack Obama’s first term.
Likewise, if Warnock and Ossoff both win but without clear enough margins to avoid challenges, Biden could begin his first term without Democratic control of the Senate.
Who is expected to win?
There is no clear front-runner in either contest. All of the publicly available polling has pointed to neck-and-neck races.
On its face, the conditions of the runoff are favorable to Republicans. Biden outperformed the Democratic candidates’ totals in both Senate races in November. That suggests some of the college-educated suburban voters who powered Biden’s victory in the state were eager to oust Trump but stuck with the Republican Party down-ballot.
And an election shortly after a Democrat has won the presidency could be exactly the kind of environment in which Republicans are more motivated to show up than Democrats.
Republicans prevailed in two earlier Georgia Senate runoff races under incoming Democratic presidents. Republican Paul Coverdell unseated Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler in a runoff in late November 1992, shortly after Bill Clinton won the presidency with help from Georgia’s voters. And Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss survived a challenge from Democrat Jim Martin in December 2008, shortly after Obama won the presidency.
But Democrats are hoping that recent changes in Georgia’s political and demographic landscape, as well as the heightened national attention and resources bearing down on the state, might turn conventional wisdom on its head. Georgia adopted automatic voter registration in 2016, is increasingly racially diverse and, thanks to former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, is home to a sophisticated Democratic voter mobilization operation.
There are some promising signs for Democrats in the early voting data. Black voters, who skew heavily Democratic, made up a smaller share of the Georgia electorate in November than they had since 2006, according to The New York Times. But an analysis of official voter data conducted by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, found that an increase in the Black share of the runoff electorate, relative to the general election, is contributing to an overall increase in the percentage of votes cast by Democrats.
Could Trump’s fight with Georgia’s election officials affect Republican turnout?
Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting and the validity of Georgia’s presidential election results (he lost to Biden) could benefit Democrats. A faction of fringe conservatives has been encouraging a boycott of the runoffs on the baseless allegation that the office of Georgia’s Republican secretary of state cooperated in this fake theft of the election for Biden.
But it’s unclear how significant this faction is in Georgia. Trump has taken pains to clarify that his criticism of Gov. Kemp and other Republican officials in the state does not mean that voters should stay home. He headlined a rally for Loeffler and Perdue in Georgia in December and is due to hold another rally on the eve of Election Day.
Loeffler and Perdue have stood by Trump in his attacks on Georgia’s presidential election, even though it has meant going against GOP officials in their own state.
What are the Republicans running on?
Loeffler and Perdue have cast themselves as defenders of Trump’s agenda and legacy, as well as a critical stopgap against what they claim is the threatened Democratic destruction of America’s fundamental character. They have framed the race as a referendum on every far-left caricature ― from imminent socialism to hatred of all police ― that keeps right-wing voters awake at night. To that end, both candidates have trained their fire on Warnock, a Black pastor who has sometimes delivered fiery liberal speeches from the pulpit of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church ― the congregation that Martin Luther King Jr. once led.
The election will test whether Republicans have succeeded in demonizing Warnock, a mainstream Democrat with no radical past to speak of. In their bid to turn him into a bogeyman, Republicans have selectively edited excerpts from his church sermons and seized on a 911 call that his ex-wife made during a marital dispute that turned nasty.
Warnock has responded with a TV ad playfully dismissing the attacks as dog excrement that Georgia voters will see through. He has also done his best to persuade Israel supporters and other centrist Democratic constituencies that he is on their side, while sticking to a light-touch populist pitch on the stump.
Ossoff, a young, white documentary filmmaker who jumped into politics as a teenage intern for civil rights legend and then-Rep. John Lewis, has spent so few years in public life that GOP opposition researchers have found less material to draw from. His biggest vulnerability during an unsuccessful special election run for a suburban Atlanta congressional seat in 2017 was not living in the district.
Perdue has made China an issue in his campaign, alleging that Ossoff has been endorsed by the Communist Party and funded by the Chinese government. Both claims are false. Meanwhile, Perdue has worked to hide his own experience working in Asia and helping U.S. companies outsource jobs there.
What are the Democrats running on?
Warnock and Ossoff are running on the promise of active collaboration with Biden. A key part of their pitch is emphasizing that their victories would dislodge McConnell from power. And both men support a standard array of liberal priorities, including infrastructure investment, police reform, immigration reform, climate action and a public health insurance option.
At the same time, both candidates have sought to court Georgia’s substantial population of moderate voters with promises to seek bipartisan cooperation whenever possible.
“As a pastor, I have a history of bringing people together,” Warnock told reporters after speaking at a Columbus, Georgia, church in mid-December. “What I hope to do is lift up those values of our mutual commitment to one another and compassion and justice, and that hopefully will be part of what breaks through the partisan gridlock,” he added.
How could Perdue and Loeffler’s financial scandals affect the race?
Loeffler, who is the wealthiest member of Congress, quieted conservative concerns about her appointment to the Senate a year ago by establishing a voting record that put her in sync with Trump almost all of the time.
But she has since been accused of insider trading over suspicious stock transactions. Some good-government groups filed formal complaints alleging that she and her husband, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, sold stock in companies due to be hit hard by the pandemic and bought shares in others following a January briefing on COVID-19 provided exclusively to senators. Loeffler has claimed that she had nothing to do with the transactions made by her broker; the Senate Ethics Committee dropped its investigation into her in June. The scandal still featured prominently in Rep. Collins’ unsuccessful conservative challenge to Loeffler in the November general election.
Warnock has also wielded that accusation of wrongdoing. Loeffler “profited from the pandemic,” he said in an MSNBC interview in October.
For his part, Perdue has attracted scrutiny for his financial transactions on the ground that he may have used his Senate post to profit personally. He made 2,596 trades of stocks, bonds and funds during his first Senate term, constituting nearly one-third of all senators’ trading during that six-year period. Those trades included 61 purchases and sales of stock in a cybersecurity company whose work Perdue has cited as a member of the Senate’s cybersecurity subcommittee. The Department of Justice also looked into Perdue’s sale of $1 million of stock in a financial company ahead of the founder’s departure as CEO, but the department dropped the investigation after determining that Perdue had not broken the law.
“Perhaps Senator Perdue would have been able to respond properly to the COVID-19 pandemic if you hadn’t been fending off multiple federal investigations for insider trading,” Ossoff charged during a late October debate.
Is it possible that the two parties will split the races?
It’s certainly possible. Loeffler is widely viewed as more vulnerable than Perdue. Among other things, she has never run in an election before.
In the current hyper-partisan environment, however, most observers expect one party’s candidates to win both races. And given the way the pairs of candidates have been campaigning together, they seem to think so as well.
Has COVID-19 become an issue in the race?
Both Democratic candidates have sought to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with Trump and Senate Republicans’ handling of the pandemic and the accompanying economic fallout. Ossoff, in particular, has taken to whacking Perdue for opposing the $1,200 checks to individual Americans that were included in the CARES Act, the first coronavirus relief bill. (Perdue nonetheless voted for the bill.)
On Thursday, the Perdue campaign said the senator was quarantining after coming into close contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.
How has the debate over possible $2,000 checks affected the race, and vice versa?
Democrats’ criticism of Perdue and Loeffler for failing to push for more COVID-19 relief has had an impact. After Trump insisted that the new relief bill include $2,000 payments, Ossoff and Warnock immediately jumped on board and called for their Republican opponents to follow suit. (Last weekend, Trump signed the relief bill unchanged.) This past Tuesday, Loeffler and Perdue announced that they supported higher checks as well.
Also on Tuesday, McConnell blocked passage of a stand-alone bill increasing the stimulus payments from $600 to $2,000. Warnock and Ossoff have shifted their strategy to blaming their opponents for failing to stand up to McConnell. More broadly, Democrats see an opportunity to turn the runoffs into a referendum on more generous relief payments.
McConnell may still bring the $2,000 payments up for a vote in the coming days, albeit paired with unrelated Trump priorities like the creation of an election fraud commission and the repeal of Section 230, a legal provision shielding internet companies from liability for user-posted content.
But time is running out for national Republicans to take the issue off the table ahead of the Jan. 5 election in Georgia.
“Senators Loeffler and Perdue are refusing to demand that Mitch McConnell hold a vote on the bipartisan, House-passed plan for $2,000 relief checks,” the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tweeted on Wednesday. “Georgians won’t be fooled by their empty political stunts.”