Here’s what’s happening.
Georgia election rules set up a runoff between the top two vote-getters if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote. There’s a special election Senate race that was already certain to go to a runoff. It will feature the incumbent, appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R), and Democrat and first-time candidate and pastor Raphael Warnock.
Georgia’s original 2020 Senate election with Sen. David Perdue (R) trying for a second term has suddenly come back online for Democrats. Perdue had more than 50 percent of the vote after initial votes were counted, but that’s steadily and slowly narrowed as Georgia finishes counting its ballots. With 99 percent of the vote in, Perdue has 49.8 percent. Democrat Jon Ossoff is exactly two points behind, 47.8 percent.
Which means Ossoff and Warnock will get another chance to unseat these two Senate Republicans in a little under two months.
But if you look at the data from November’s election, you’d rather be the Republicans than Democrats in this next round of races.
Let’s start with the special election. Warnock actually got the plurality of the vote of any candidate, winning with nearly 33 percent to Loeffler’s 26 percent. But Loeffler wasn’t the only major Republican in this crowded race; she beat Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R). When you add in Collins’s votes into the general Republican tally, you get 46 percent voting for a Republican senator, a full 13 points more than Warnock.
That’s not to say Loeffler is that far ahead of Warnock right now — there hasn’t been any polling yet post-election. But in this race, there were just more people willing to vote for a Republican senator than a Democrat. (Republicans also point out that another, much lesser known Democrat on the ballot got a relatively strong showing of 6.6 percent of the vote, rather than people voting for Warnock.)
Both sides say that the electorate in January will be smaller and much more focused on base voters. Georgia is certainly proving itself to be a purple swing state, but that’s a relatively new phenomenon. So the question for Democrats is whether there are more of their base motivated to vote than Republicans.
Perdue is in a similar situation to Loeffler, where the raw vote data should make him feel like he has the upper hand. He looks set to finish November’s race with 98,000 more votes than Ossoff. And that’s after Ossoff received the most votes of any statewide Democratic candidate in Georgia, ever. That includes 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the governor’s race and showed the nation that Georgia could be competitive for Democrats.
“Georgia is a state that wants Republican senators,” said a Republican strategist who works on Senate races in Georgia. “That’s the message we got here. We’re just going to have to work a little harder to make sure that happens.”
Here’s why Democrats feel like they have a shot to win these races: Georgia is rapidly changing. Democrats harnessed those demographic changes to perform remarkably well in the suburbs and outer suburbs. They had record turnout in counties outside Atlanta, and they managed to get a lot of people to successfully vote by mail.
“There is a demographic change happening in Georgia that is only accelerating every year,” said a Democratic strategist who has worked on Senate races in Georgia. “The state is diversifying and urbanizing at an incredible clip.”
Democrats also think that Perdue and Loeffler, both of whom have tied themselves extremely closely to the president, are weaker without him. If Perdue’s votes track almost exactly to Trump’s, then where will he be without Trump on the ballot? (Republicans counter that they think it was Democrat Joe Biden who pulled Perdue to his record votes.)
The open question is what happens when these two races become nationalized, even more than they were before. There won’t be a presidential race alongside them. But millions will be spent on both sides to get voters the message that the Senate majority hangs in the balance.
Democrats will message to their voters that they need a governing majority in Washington to improve health care, the climate, pass coronavirus relief and any other number of issues.
Republicans will message to their voters that it’s just them standing between one-party control of Washington (since Democrats already have the House majority and could win the White House).
And especially given that these two races will largely be run over the holidays, with voters tired of ads and being told to vote, it will probably narrow the base even more to each side’s hardcore supporters.
“This isn’t about persuasion anymore,” said the Republican strategist. ”… It’s just a matter of who wants it more.”