The key questions for Georgia’s pivotal U.S. Senate runoff races

Emory professor breaks down early runoff voting demographics

Emory professor breaks down early runoff voting demographics

Here we go again. Nine weeks after Georgia became one of the most watched battlegrounds in the nation, the state gets a starring turn in the spotlight with the U.S. Senate at stake.

Not since a smiling peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter announced a campaign to move to Washington has Georgia received such intense political focus.

The twin runoffs pitting Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue against Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have attracted record-setting spending, legions of volunteers and visits by just about every major political figure.

At stake is control of the U.S. Senate, which is now tilting to a narrow 50-48 Republican advantage. Democrats need to sweep both seats to flip the chamber, thanks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Republicans need only win one of the seats to maintain control.

Here’s what to watch on Tuesday’s pivotal runoff day:

Will President Donald Trump’s loyalists vote in a ‘rigged’ election?

In the nine weeks since the November election, Trump has pushed a nonstop campaign to discredit and overturn the election in Georgia, which President-elect Joe Biden won by about 12,000 votes. He has falsely called the elections in Georgia “rigged,” “illegal” and invalid.” He has raged against Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, including tweets pressing the governor to resign.

On Saturday, Trump escalated his efforts to reverse his defeat by demanding that Raffensperger “find” him enough votes to win the state. Some of his followers worry Tuesday’s election could be “cheated” as well.

1/4/21 - Dalton, GA - President Donald Trump holds a rally in Dalton, GA, to campaign for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on the eve of the special election which will determine control of the U.S. Senate.   (Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton /

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Credit: Curtis Compton /

“President Trump is our president now, and he will be for the next four years,” said Mary Marlboro, who attended an event for Loeffler in Henry County on Monday. “I believe they are going to find out all of the fraud in Georgia.”

Marlboro had already voted for Loeffler and Perdue, but Democrats and Republicans are asking the same question: Will enough other conservative voters cast ballots in an election they think is “rigged?”

An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that the most conservative portions of the state, including the Dalton area that Trump visited Monday, lagged behind in early voting compared with their own performance at the same point in the November election. Republicans need a turnout surge Tuesday to make up the difference.

Will Democrats hit 30-30 in a runoff?

No, it’s not a reference to the vaunted baseball standard of hitting 30 home runs and swiping 30 bases. For Georgia Democrats, it’s another important metric.

Since Republicans began their rise to power in Georgia two decades ago, Democrats have longed to reach a dual threshold: capturing 30% of the white vote and achieving a Black participation rate of 30% of the overall turnout.

In 2016, they didn’t come too close. Exit polls showed Hillary Clinton won about 21% of white voters while Black turnout hit 28%. But Biden more or less hit the 30-30 goal in November.

Exit polls suggest Biden won 30% of white voters. And an analysis by the Democratic firm TargetSmart showed Black voters made up roughly 29% of the vote. TargetSmart also found that the proportion of white voters decreased from roughly 66% in 2016 to 63% in 2020.

“Biden got close enough to that target to win,” said Trey Hood, a University of Georgia political scientist and pollster. “But this time, they might need higher levels of Black participation than they got in November to turn the tide.”

Re-creating that coalition won’t be easy for Georgia Democrats, particularly since African American voters are typically less likely to cast ballots in statewide runoffs. And without Trump on the ballot, Democrats may be less energized to turn out in droves.

Still, Ossoff and Warnock have reason to be optimistic. An AJC analysis of the more than 3 million ballots already cast shows that Black voters made up a higher portion of voters so far than in the presidential election.

Carl Cavalli, a University of North Georgia political scientist, said they’ve been fueled by a strategy that many past Democratic contenders gladly avoided: Embracing liberal ideals and national Democratic figures, following a path Stacey Abrams charted during her 2018 run for governor.

“The Abrams coalition is much more progressive than the center-right coalition of old,” said Cavalli, who noted that party leaders were often considered a liability to Democrats over the last three decades. “In 2020, however, national Democrats like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are considered an asset.”

Who wins the turnout game?

From the onset of the race, the campaigns made it clear: The race for the runoffs would go exactly as the presidential contest ended, with an intense and relentless push to motivate each party’s core supporters rather than preach to the undecided.

For the Republican incumbents, that meant tying themselves inextricably to Trump, echoing his falsehoods about widespread fraud and ditching their reticence over supporting his demand for $2,000 stimulus checks.

For the Democrats, it meant pushing a liberal platform that includes gun control measures and criminal justice overhauls while also embracing national figures whom past statewide candidates kept at arm’s length.

Each of the joint tickets — because that’s effectively what they are — raced to tap back into pools of roughly 2.5 million voters apiece who cast ballots for Trump and Biden two months ago.

Republicans have much ground to make up. Turnout lagged in rural, conservative congressional districts, particularly in deeply conservative North Georgia. Some of the heaviest turnout came in parts of metro Atlanta where Democrats aggressively pushed early and absentee voting.

“We already know that early runoff turnout has favored the Atlanta area,” said Cavalli. “The question is whether Election Day in-person turnout in rural areas like Lumpkin County – which will almost certainly favor Perdue and Loeffler – will erase that Democratic early voting advantage.”

Adding to the intrigue is the question of whether some Biden voters, particularly in the moderate Atlanta suburbs, turn out again without the battle for the White House at stake.

That means the two incumbents have plenty of reliably Republican votes still outstanding while Democrats have a relatively smaller pool of voters left to energize.

It’s why Trump’s trip to North Georgia was an important moment for the incumbents — and Biden’s visit to downtown Atlanta to drive out last-minute turnout could change the Democratic dynamic.

“I don’t know how big of the hole they need to fill, but Republicans are under the gun,” Hood said. “It’s going to be up to the Republicans to turn out Tuesday to close the gap.”

How long will it take to figure out the outcome?

Ballot counting can’t begin until the polls close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. That’s also the deadline for most absentee ballots to be received; military and overseas ballots received by Friday will be counted so long as they’re postmarked by Tuesday.

In November’s general election, Georgia’s vote counting stretched for days as troves of absentee ballots were tabulated by counties, a drawn-out process that fueled false conspiracy theories. It’s highly likely that tight margins in the races mean another days-long process before a winner can be determined.

Gabriel Sterling talks with the press at the State Capitol Monday, January 4, 2021.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Expect the margins to shift as the ballots are tallied. Like in November, Republicans are expected to have a stronger election day turnout, and those tallies typically are released first. Plus, smaller conservative-leaning counties typically report their returns quicker than denser urban and suburban areas.

Still, a rule change could speed up the process. A new State Election Board decision required county elections staffers to begin processing absentee ballots last week by requiring them to verify signatures on the envelope of mail-in ballots and scanning them in.

Will anyone actually concede?

Once the votes are counted, the most important question in Georgia won’t just be who won the election, but also who will admit they lost?

After 2018′s bitter governor’s race, Stacey Abrams never conceded, but she did acknowledge she would not be the next governor.

In 2020, Trump went many steps further — refusing to concede, denying that Biden will be the next president and launching an unprecedented campaign to overthrow Georgia’s November election results. All of that despite a full machine recount, a hand recount and a signature audit in Cobb County to answer the president’s charges of election fraud.

Those same claims that elections in Georgia are not to be trusted have now created the space for every candidate after him to refuse to accept the results, too.

This week will tell us whether the ritual of conceding elections in Georgia will remain an important part of unifying the electorate or whether admitting defeat, no matter how painful, has become a relic of the past.

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