No matter whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden winds up carrying the state of Georgia in the 2020 presidential race, the Peach State is already guaranteed to be the center of the political universe come early 2021.
With virtually all of the votes counted in the state, it now seems entirely possible that Georgia could host not one but two(!) Senate runoffs in January, races that, if numbers in the rest of the country hold, will be positioned to decide which party controls the world’s greatest deliberative body for the next two years.
How did we get here? Well, Georgia has a state law that if no candidate receives a simple majority of the votes in the November election, the top two vote-getters advance to a January 5 runoff. Which is exactly what appears to have happened in both of the state’s Senate seats.
Appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) came in second behind Democrat Raphael Warnock in the first race, a special election to fill the seat of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) until 2022. Neither candidate came close to 50% – there were several other serious candidates in the all-party primary – and will face off in January.
In the other Senate race, incumbent Republican David Perdue appeared for the first 36 hours after polls closed to potentially have avoided a runoff against Democrat Jon Ossoff, as his vote share hovered slightly above 50%. But as the urban core around Atlanta (DeKalb County) began reporting its vote in larger number on Thursday afternoon, Perdue was hovering near 50% – making a run-off look more likely.
Now consider the broader Senate math.
At the moment, Democrats have netted just one seat in the 2020 elections. Democratic challengers won in Colorado and Arizona, but Sen. Doug Jones (D) lost his seat in Alabama. Seats considered potential Democratic flips like Maine and Iowa didn’t materialize. And in North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis (R) continues to hold a narrow but stable edge over Democrat Cal Cunningham, although the race has yet to be called.
If Biden winds up winning the presidency – as looks more likely than not at this point – Democrats would need a net gain of three seats to win the majority. Which, if the map stayed as it is right now, would mean that if Democrats won both Georgia runoffs, they would retake Senate control.
Could that happen? Of course, it could. Is it the most likely outcome? As of today, given what we saw in terms of the unexpected strength of Republican candidates in Senate races, it is not.
But make no mistake: Partisans (and donors) in both parties can do the math we just did.
Which means they, too, know the massively high stakes for the Senate (and the country) at work in Georgia over these next few months. Which means that millions upon millions of dollars will pour into both of these races and they will both get covered like mini-presidential races by the state and national media, since there will be no other elections out there.
Handicapping the two potential runoffs is virtually impossible at the moment because of the level of uncertainty in the presidential race – and in Georgia in particular. If Biden winds up winning the state, and that’s certainly at least a possibility as of this moment, then Democrats may well be energized heading into the runoffs.
Or maybe Republicans, who have long taken the state’s conservative bent for granted, will see the two likely Senate runoffs as a chance to reassert their state’s ideological lean. Plus, with the amount of money and national media attention (and scrutiny) that will land on all four of these candidates, it’s hard to know who will blossom and who will wither.
What we do know for certain is that the 2020 election – and the battle for the Senate majority – is far from over. And Georgia is the next battleground.