Five burning questions for Georgia’s Senate runoffs

There are a few certainties about the all-important runoffs in Georgia: The Jan. 5 contests will decide control of the U.S. Senate, set soaring spending records, attract the shiniest stars from both parties and put Georgia at the center of the political universe.

But much remains up in the air about the races between Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and their Democratic rivals Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Here are five questions The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s politics team will be following over the next few weeks:

What role will Trump play?

Georgia has been on the top of President Donald Trump’s mind lately.

He’s repeatedly leveled unfounded allegations of widespread fraud and irregularities. He’s blasted Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp — two fellow Republicans he endorsed in 2018 — suggesting he could back primary challengers in 2022 if they stay on his bad side.

President Donald Trump has devoted a great deal of his attention to Georgia, slamming Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over what he says were irregularities in the state's voting, even though allegations have proved, so far, to be unfounded. It's not certain, however, whether Trump will campaign in the state for Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in advance of the Jan. 5 runoffs. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
President Donald Trump has devoted a great deal of his attention to Georgia, slamming Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over what he says were irregularities in the state's voting, even though allegations have proved, so far, to be unfounded. It's not certain, however, whether Trump will campaign in the state for Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in advance of the Jan. 5 runoffs. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

And he announced on Thanksgiving that he’s headlining a runoff rally for the two Republicans on Dec. 5, news that came at the same press conference where he labeled Raffensperger an “enemy of the state.”

The Republican incumbents have pined for the visit, and Loeffler’s spokesman heralded the news as a “Thanksgiving miracle.” They’re racing to reinvigorate the conservative base in Georgia, and no one can do that better than Trump.

ExploreTrump's runoff rally forces the question: How much will he help the Senate Republicans?

But it underscores the challenges the incumbents face trying to balance the president’s repeated false claims of a “rigged” election with their all-out efforts to drive up turnout. And their refusal to acknowledge Biden’s victory robs themselves of a key argument in the runoffs: that a Republican-controlled Senate can act as a check on a Democratic White House.

Can Democrats break their runoff losing streak?

Georgia Democrats have a terrible record in statewide runoffs. They’ve lost all eight overtime battles that have taken place since 1992, including two U.S. Senate contests. That’s because they’ve had problems turning out their voters, particularly young people and voters of color, without a presidential or gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ticket to drive excitement.

Not only do they have the weight of history on their shoulders, but Democrats must rile up voters exhausted by politics — and the nonstop advertising Georgians can expect to see through the winter holidays. Republicans, of course, face the same challenge, but historically the runoff electorate tends to be older and whiter — factors that play to their advantage.

U.S. Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff face a history of disappointment for Democrats in Georgia's runoffs. But Democrats think this year could be different, partly because the state's electorate is now younger and more diverse than in the past. But Warnock and Ossoff still face challenges. ERIK LESSER / EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
U.S. Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff face a history of disappointment for Democrats in Georgia's runoffs. But Democrats think this year could be different, partly because the state's electorate is now younger and more diverse than in the past. But Warnock and Ossoff still face challenges. ERIK LESSER / EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Credit: EPA

Credit: EPA

Democrats believe this year will be different — and not just because the stakes are sky-high.

For one, Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992, narrowly defeating Trump by energizing the party’s base — a coalition rooted in Black and minority voters — and carving a blue streak through the Atlanta suburbs.

The electorate is larger, younger and more diverse than it was in 2008, when the Democratic candidate was clobbered in the last Senate runoff. Turnout will be far higher than the last statewide runoffs two years ago, when Raffensperger and another Republican won by about 4 percentage points. And, perhaps most significantly, Democrats are banking on Warnock to energize turnout among Black voters, which historically lags in these overtime contests.

There are plenty of reasons, too, for Democrats to be squeamish. After skating by largely untouched during the first round of voting, Warnock is facing attacks from Republicans over his past sermons and stances. And Biden amassed about 100,000 votes more than Ossoff, a sign of the challenge confronting him in consolidating the Democratic coalition.

Squabbles with the Georgia Republican Party threaten to hurt the party's chances in the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs. U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins fought bitterly while they were both running in Georgia's special election for her seat, although Collins endorsed her election night. Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have faced numerous attacks over the election, including tweets from President Donald Trump. Loeffler and U.S. Sen. David Perdue even called on Raffensperger to resign. Some Republicans worry that all could deter GOP voters from turning out for the runoffs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Squabbles with the Georgia Republican Party threaten to hurt the party's chances in the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs. U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins fought bitterly while they were both running in Georgia's special election for her seat, although Collins endorsed her election night. Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have faced numerous attacks over the election, including tweets from President Donald Trump. Loeffler and U.S. Sen. David Perdue even called on Raffensperger to resign. Some Republicans worry that all could deter GOP voters from turning out for the runoffs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Can Republicans unify amid a civil war?

Republicans were divided for much of 2020 as U.S. Rep. Doug Collins and Loeffler pummeled each other during the special election. But the lingering effects of that now-settled feud — Collins endorsed Loeffler on election night — are minor compared to the all-out Republican infighting over Trump’s defeat.

ExploreA GOP civil war rattles Georgia Republicans at an inconvenient time

Trump has amped up the friction with social media messages targeting Kemp and Raffensperger, and regular protests at the Capitol demand that Georgia officials illegally block the 16 Democratic electors from casting their votes for Biden in December.

Kemp has tried to lower the temperature, reminding Republicans that he was upholding state law by verifying the electors hours after Raffensperger certified the vote.

But the vicious back-and-forth couldn’t be happening at a worse time for the Georgia GOP. Resurgent Democrats won the state for the first time in a presidential election since 1992, and party leaders are united behind Ossoff and Warnock.

In an interview, Kemp predicted the infighting would abate as the runoffs drew closer.

“Republicans have always done a good job of fighting each other hard and beating each other up and then coming back together,” he said. “We’ll unite not only for Republicans in Georgia but for Republicans around the country.”

Can the candidates effectively team up?

Before the November election, about the only time the public saw Loeffler and Perdue together was on the U.S. Senate floor and at Trump’s campaign rallies. Now, the two are running as a packaged deal.

So are Ossoff and Warnock, who campaigned together a few times before November but are now routinely staging joint rallies and coordinating messaging during the runoffs.

U.S. Sens. David Perdue, left, and Kelly Loeffler, shown campaigning with Vice President Mike Pence, will team up more for the runoffs than they did for the general election. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will likely do the same.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
U.S. Sens. David Perdue, left, and Kelly Loeffler, shown campaigning with Vice President Mike Pence, will team up more for the runoffs than they did for the general election. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will likely do the same. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The two-for-one nature of the twin runoffs makes political sense. The campaigns can pool resources, marshal fundraising dollars and push get-out-the-vote efforts in tandem. Besides, one Senate win for Democrats won’t do them any good — they need to flip both seats to gain control of the Senate.

This poses problems, too, for the rival tickets. Democrats have tried to saddle both Republicans with the “corrupt” label by targeting their stock transactions as the pandemic worsened. And though Ossoff has largely been defined over the years, he is now also tied to Warnock, who is facing a barrage of GOP attacks resurfacing his past sermons.

Will false claims of widespread fraud dampen turnout?

Trump had been laying the groundwork for years to falsely claim the election was rigged against him, even though there’s no evidence of systemic voting fraud and judges have dismissed his campaign’s many legal challenges. There’s a chance those rash falsehoods could come back to haunt them.

Worried about alienating the president, the Republican incumbents have echoed parts of Trump’s false narrative about fraudulent voting — but are simultaneously urging their supporters to trust a system that the president says is corrupted. Many Republican officials worry the mixed messaging could dampen voter enthusiasm.

And some Trump loyalists have encouraged the party faithful to write-in Trump’s name or sit out the vote altogether -- much to the delight of Georgia Democrats.

With the pandemic worsening, Democrats are once again heavily promoting absentee voting and Republicans are more aggressively urging supporters to vote early by mail. But Trump hasn’t made that task easy for them: Raffensperger said the president authored his own defeat in Georgia by sowing doubts about mail-in votes throughout the campaign.

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