Apair of runoffs in Georgia in 50 days, on Jan. 5, will determine whether the 117th Congress will feature a divided legislative branch, with Democrats holding their narrowest House majority in most of our lifetimes and a Senate with a one- or two- seat Republican majority; or if Democrats will hold onto both chambers by their fingernails.
With such high stakes resting on a double-or-nothing play, it seems almost a shame that the pair of races that will decide it all aren’t in Nevada, the gambling capital of the world. Nevertheless, the election cycle that seems to never end will finally, after a billion dollars in spending, come down to this.
As of Monday Democrats have been called the winners in 218 House races, literally the narrowest possible majority. In the Senate, Republicans entered the cycle with 53 seats. The Nov. 3 results guarantee that the GOP will hold at least 50 seats in the next Congress. Should they win at least one of the Georgia seats, Mitch McConnell will remain Senate majority leader. Only if Democrats win both, pushing the Senate to a 50-50 tie broken by the new vice president, Kamala Harris, would they take over control of the chamber. Under those circumstances, Harris had best not be looking forward to using Air Force Two much on days when the Senate will be in session.
Under any of these scenarios, we should probably use the word “majority” instead of “control.” There probably will not be a lot of controlling going on, whether it is Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer holding the title of majority leader.
Don’t expect much ticket splitting in the Peachtree State. Putting the Georgia races aside, in every Senate race this year, save the one in Maine, voters chose the same party for president and Senate. In 2016, every single Senate and presidential contest went the same way.
Simply put, anyone voting for Republican incumbent David Perdue in the race for the full-term, regularly scheduled Senate race is almost certainly going to vote for the appointed Senate incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, in the special-election runoff, and vice versa. Anyone voting for Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff in the regular-seat contest is also likely to vote for Raphael Warnock in the special, and vice versa. These two pairs are package deals.
And the races are going to be very, very close.
On Nov. 3, with 4.9 million votes cast, Perdue pulled 49.7 percent of the vote, Ossoff 48 percent, and Libertarian Shane Hazel 2.3 percent. Warnock, the pastor at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church (where both Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr. preached), pulled 32.9 percent of the vote, and seven other Democrats pulled 15.5 percent, bringing the Democratic total to 48.4 percent. Loeffler won 25.9 percent of the vote, Rep. Doug Collins another 19.9 percent, and four other GOP contenders pulled 3.5 points for a GOP total of 49.3 percent—nine-tenths of a point more.
Factor in Joe Biden’s 14,000-vote win (pending the recount) in the state, and toss in the 1.4-point margin between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams in the gubernatorial race two years ago, and a good case can be made that Georgia is the most evenly divided state in the country.
Many will point to the last two times that Georgia Senate races went to runoffs in years that a Democrat had just been elected to the White House. In 1992, Bill Clinton had just won the presidency when appointed Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler came in first in the November balloting but lost to Republican Paul Coverdell in the runoff. In 2008, after Barack Obama’s win, GOP incumbent Saxby Chambliss narrowly missed a November majority but went on to beat little-known former state Rep. Jim Martin in the runoff. We might as well be talking about when dinosaurs roamed around the Peachtree State, because the demographics and partisan split in Georgia today bears little resemblance to 12 years ago, much less 28 years ago.
More important is the psyche in both parties coming out of Nov. 3. Will Trump supporters be mad as hell, looking for vengeance as they turn out in big numbers, or demoralized that their guy lost? Conversely, will Democratic voters be satisfied having slain their nemesis and stay home, or will their big win atop the ticket make them want more?
The truth is that we don’t know. I just expect a very, very close race, with virtually no votes separating the support levels of either Republican incumbent or the two Democratic challengers. Double or nothing—no splits!
This article was originally published for the National Journal on November 17, 2020.
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