Two Senate races, two runoffs? Double-overtime a growing prospect in Georgia

Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue exits his bus at a campaign event Saturday in Marietta. Polling in his race against Democrat Jon Ossoff is so close, with neither candidate topping 50%, that it raises the possibility that a January runoff will be needed to settle the contest.   STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue exits his bus at a campaign event Saturday in Marietta. Polling in his race against Democrat Jon Ossoff is so close, with neither candidate topping 50%, that it raises the possibility that a January runoff will be needed to settle the contest. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The wild special election for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s seat was always destined to head to a runoff. But there’s a growing possibility the state’s other Senate contest could also go into overtime, making Georgia home to twin January showdowns that could determine control of the Senate.

Almost no major public poll in the past three months has shown either U.S. Sen. David Perdue or Democrat Jon Ossoff with a majority of the vote needed to avoid a Jan. 5 runoff, and some political strategists and activists are quietly bracing for an extended race.

A doubleheader would bring even more attention to Georgia, where a 20-candidate free-for-all for Loeffler’s seat is expected to require another round. Polls show Democrat Raphael Warnock favored to win one of the two slots, with Loeffler and fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins in a tight race for the other.

But the race between Ossoff and Perdue, a first-term Republican, has remained unexpectedly close, and neither has been able to pull ahead despite more than $125 million in combined spending on TV airtime by their campaigns and allies.

Poll after poll shows Perdue deadlocked with Ossoff — with Libertarian Shane Hazel drawing enough of the vote to potentially deprive either the majority needed to escape a head-to-head showdown.

As November nears, Libertarian candidates tend to fall in Georgia polls. But with the outcome of the Perdue race up in the air, even negligible support for Hazel could force a runoff.

“It’s a good possibility we see a double runoff,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist who has co-authored a book on those types of elections. “The polls show a neck-and-neck race, and if they hold, it pretty much guarantees it.”

That’s what happened in 2018, when the races for secretary of state and a Public Service Commission seat were so tight that both contests were forced into runoffs when Libertarian contenders drew less than 3% of the vote. Republicans carried both seats a few weeks later.

That’s par for the course in Georgia, where Republicans have won every statewide runoff vote in state history, an unbroken string that started in 1992 when Republican challenger Paul Coverdell notched a narrow win over Democratic U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler.

Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain attended a campaign rally in Atlanta for U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss on Nov. 13, 2008, just days after he lost to Barack Obama in that year's presidential race. Chambliss was unable to win a majority of the vote that November, but the Republican went on to win reelection in a runoff the next month. (Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images)

Credit: Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images

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Credit: Photo by Dave Martin/Getty Images

The next big test came during a 2008 race for the U.S. Senate between incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin. But the surge of Democratic voters who cast ballots that November during Barack Obama’s first presidential election dried up before December’s runoff, and Chambliss obliterated Martin in a lower-turnout contest.

And two years ago, the suburban wave that nearly swept Stacey Abrams into Georgia’s highest office all but evaporated, as Republicans temporarily erased some of the Democrats' gains across metro Atlanta to win two statewide races, Brad Raffensperger as secretary of state and Chuck Eaton to seat on the Public Service Commission.

But that conventional wisdom could be tossed aside in January, when waves of outside spending and intense national attention will shape the contests. Even if control of the Senate isn’t at stake, the races are certain to be framed nationally as a referendum on the winner of the race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

“If Joe Biden does win the presidency, are Democrats still energized to turn out?” asked Jessica Taylor, the Senate specialist with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which recently rated both Senate races toss-ups. “Would Trump voters be demoralized or reinvigorated?”

Even higher stakes

The Perdue contest could still break either way in the final weeks. Count Mark Rountree, a veteran pollster and operative with Republican-leaning Landmark Communications, among those who give the GOP the edge.

“I’ve been watching that possibility more and more,” he said of the chance of twin runoffs. “Usually Republicans start to gain strength in early October. That’s when their financial strength begins to matter more.”

Backers of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff, shown posing for a photograph at a rally this month at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, say his fundraising abilities could carry him to a victory in November. So far, the combined campaign spending by Ossoff, his opponent, Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, and their outside supporters has totaled more than $125 million.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Ossoff’s backers note that he’s got formidable financial firepower, in part thanks to a massive donor list he built during his failed bid in a 2017 special election that shattered fundraising records. They raise the possibility that he can pull off an outright victory in a statewide race — a feat no Georgia Democrat has accomplished in a dozen years.

“He’s proven that he has the ability to rise above expectations and prove doubters wrong,” said Michael Owens, a former Cobb County Democratic chair and congressional candidate. “The key to Ossoff avoiding a runoff will most likely be linked to voters who want to see President Trump gone and are willing to send Perdue packing with him.”

Hazel, for his part, has played into the possibility of a runoff by reminding voters at Monday’s first televised debate that they can vote for him in the first round and still have an opportunity to side with a major-party candidate in January.

“To see politicians making gross accusations, flip-flopping day in and day out about what is going on in the current political environment is absolutely gross and neglectful of the American people and their lives,” said Hazel, a military veteran and former GOP congressional candidate.

Either way, the specter of a January showdown means the candidates must make contingency plans for an extended duel. Bullock, the UGA political scientist, said a potential doubleheader will also raise the stakes for Georgia voters.

“Republicans have won every general election runoff that’s been held — because Democrats haven’t been doing a good job getting back to the polls,” he said.

“If Democrats win control of the Senate, there might be great despondency among Republicans, who may not come back in great numbers," Bullock said. "And if Trump gets re-elected, Democrats could look for any way to get some kind of revenge.”