ATLANTA — As vote counting began in Georgia on Tuesday night in two closely-fought Senate runoff elections, a few polling places remained open past the 7 p.m. closing time due to problems in some counties earlier in the day, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Control of the U.S. Senate and large parts of President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda hanging on the results.
Republicans only have to win one of the two seats in the runoffs to maintain majority control of the chamber. The races pit Republicans David Perdue, whose Senate term officially expired Jan. 3, and Sen. Kelly Loeffler against Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, respectively.
If Democrats win both races, the Senate would be tied 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote that would give Democrats control.
Republicans have controlled both of Georgia’s Senate seats for 15 years, but the state has become increasingly competitive, and Biden defeated President Donald Trump here by a narrow margin — just under 12,000 votes — in November.
In this campaign, Democrats appear to have outperformed the GOP among the nearly 3.1 million Georgians who voted early, leaving the Republicans hoping for a strong Election Day turnout to push their candidates over the top.
Going into the race, there was just one thing everyone seemed to agree on: the results would be close. Final results may not be known until later this week.
Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman from Georgia’s 1st District, credited Democrats’ massive get-out-the vote machine. Republicans sent out fliers to potential voters, he said, while Democrats sent out handwritten letters. They also mailed voters requests for absentee ballots and offered them rides to the polls.
“The Democrats have worked their tails off,” he said.
Among the most promising signs for Democrats: Their base of Black voters showed up in force early, representing 31% of the early vote as opposed to 28% in the general election. More than 123,000 early voters who did not vote in the 2020 general election were Black, Latino and Asian.
Republicans banked on strong turnout in rural counties to overtake the early Democratic lead. On Tuesday, Loeffler and Perdue sent out a joint statement urging their supporters to the polls. The two said they were “encouraged” by reports of high voter turnout in traditional GOP territory of north Georgia, but such last-minute appeals are not often a sign of confidence.
The two senators warned it would be a “very close election” that “could come down to the difference of just a few votes in a few precincts.”
“This generational election will be decided by the votes cast in the next few hours – no one should be sitting on the sidelines. Go vote!” they wrote.
The Republican campaign may have been hindered by an extraordinary level of internal fighting as Trump campaigned to reverse Biden’s victory in Georgia and attacked GOP officials for failing to do more to support his unsubstantiated claims of voting fraud in the state.
Many Republicans worried that Trump’s efforts would discourage supporters from turning out.
“Really, these last two months have just been painful,” said Allen Peake, a former Georgia state representative from Macon.
“To watch the president go down this rabbit hole, I’m like every other Republican, I cringe, I wonder what he’s going to say, what he’s going to do, what other embarrassment he’s going to bring upon himself, the party and the country.”
With the stakes so high, the two sides spent more than half a billion dollars on the two-month runoff campaign, and each race broke the record for spending in a Senate race. In both, the Democratic candidates raised considerably more money than the Republican incumbents, but spending by outside groups — mostly four super-PACs affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — gave the Republicans an overall advantage.
There were few snafus Tuesday as hundreds of thousands of voters across the state poured into polling stations on a chilly but bright, sunny day to cast their ballots.
Wait times across the state averaged about one minute, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Republicans had been favored early on to win the runoffs, which were needed because no candidate in either race got more than 50% of the vote in November. In past runoffs, GOP voters have turned out in more force, and the Republican candidates also performed slightly better than Democrats in the general election.
In November, Perdue received about 80,000 more votes than Ossoff, but fell short of the 50% threshold needed to win. In the other race, a special election that featured multiple candidates from each party, Warnock finished ahead of Loeffler with about a third of the vote, but Republican candidates overall were narrowly ahead of Democrats.
The race was made much more competitive as Democrats ran a well-financed, nationally driven campaign, and grassroots voter mobilization groups fanned out across the state to ramp up early voter turnout across Atlanta’s urban and suburban counties.
For Democrats, winning both seats would allow them to avert gridlock in Congress and give Biden a chance to enact his legislative agenda. The election is also a test of whether Biden’s victory against Trump here was just a one-off or represents a significant realignment of political power in this Southern battleground state.
As Stacey Abrams, the Democrats’ former candidate for governor, put it Monday at a rally: “Georgia, we have a chance tomorrow to prove what happened in November wasn’t a fluke, but the future.”
For weeks, Trump and the Republican candidates have warned that if the Democrats win both Senate seats, the party would have full control of both the White House and Congress, giving Biden a free hand to enact his agenda.
In reality, a 50-50 Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking ties would still leave Biden significantly constrained, able to move no further than the most moderate Democrat would allow. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, for example, has already publicly said he would block some goals sought by progressive Democrats, such as eliminating filibusters on legislation in the Senate.
“The control there is going to really be in the hands of the moderates,” said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University. “Several of these moderate Democrats from several swing states or red states are going to have a lot to say about what can be passed. ... Republicans’ warnings about radical socialism are complete nonsense.”
Still, having a majority in the Senate — even by the narrowest of margins — can make a huge difference.
By tradition, the majority leader sets the Senate’s agenda — a power that has expanded greatly in recent decades. The current leader, McConnell, has used that power to bottle up House-passed bills he opposes, and would no doubt continue that practice despite having generally friendly relations with Biden. Democrats’ bills on voting rights, government ethics and imposing limits on partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts are among those McConnell likely would block but which Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer of New York could be expected to advance if the Democrats win control.
Control of the Senate would also give Biden a clear path to filling vacancies in federal courts. McConnell blocked Senate confirmation of many judges chosen by President Barack Obama during his last two years in office. That created a large backlog that played a big role in Trump’s ability to appoint more than 220 federal judges, shifting the judiciary to the right. Biden could shift it back again, in part because a large number of older federal judges, mostly appointed by President Bill Clinton, have contemplated taking semi-retired senior status once Biden takes office. But if Republicans keep control of the Senate, McConnell could block any new appointments.
An even more immediate impact likely would come with Biden’s Cabinet picks. With a Democratic Senate, few if any of Biden’s picks would appear endangered. If Republicans keep the majority, several face tough opposition, including California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Biden’s pick for health and human services secretary, and Neera Tanden, his choice to head the Office of Management and Budget.
Whatever party ultimately wins, Georgia is likely to keep its battleground status.
“The new normal is that Georgia is more electorally competitive,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory.
“We are entering an era where Democrats can now have a reasonable expectation that, if they work hard to campaign, they can win elections,” she said. “But that doesn’t guarantee them victory.”