Weary Georgians looking for a reprieve following a divisive and emotionally exhausting campaign season won’t be getting one anytime soon.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s finish Tuesday ahead of archrival Doug Collins sets up what will be the third Senate general election runoff in modern Georgia history when she faces Democrat Raphael Warnock on Jan. 5. And Georgia will have a parallel overtime Senate battle after Republican David Perdue fell just shy of capturing a majority of votes against Democrat Jon Ossoff and Libertarian Shane Hazel.
In other words, get ready for nine more weeks of nasty campaign rhetoric, nonstop political advertising and even more visits from political VIPs now that control of the U.S. Senate is at stake.
“The runoff(s) will be about whether Georgia voters want the president-elect, whether it’s Trump or Biden, to achieve their goals or not,” said Jim Martin, the Democrat who lost Georgia’s most recent U.S. Senate runoff in 2008.
The Georgia GOP is feeling bullish about its chances in January. Republicans have dominated every overtime battle since 1992, when Republican Paul Coverdell upset Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler.
“The party infrastructure is in place and ready to roll this morning,” David Shafer, the state Republican chairman, said early Wednesday. Shafer said the party would retain the 150-member field staff it assembled for the November election to work on January runoffs.
Georgia is one of only two states that require federal candidates to receive a majority vote to win a general election, though several other Southern states hold primary runoffs.
Such contests can be unpredictable, since they attract only a fraction of the electorate. And they tend to get ugly, expensive and nationalized, since they’re often the country’s last outstanding political races following the November elections.
“I was accused of favoring drunk drivers, selling drugs to children, child prostitution and domestic violence," Martin said. “That’s not a winning ticket for a human being, much less a politician."
The Loeffler-Warnock and Perdue-Ossoff races have already shattered records for political spending: $200 million was spent on ads ahead of the general election.
The January contests will be Georgia’s first Senate runoffs since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United ruling allowed for virtually unlimited outside political spending in campaigns. It’s possible outside groups could seek to boost or hit candidates in both races at once, seeing the twin Senate contests as a two-for-one opportunity.
Republicans may have carried recent statewide contests, but the runoff system is a relic from when Democrats held an iron grip on Georgia politics. Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist who wrote a book about runoff elections, said the majority requirement helped sideline splinter candidates.
“By requiring a majority in a second round, you encourage the candidates to broaden their message, moderate some of the things they’ve said ... and then somebody can say ‘I was the choice of most voters,’ ” Bullock said.
The state’s first two Senate general election runoffs attracted boatloads of outside attention following presidential races in which Democrats captured the White House from Republicans.
After President-elect Bill Clinton carried Georgia in November 1992, Republicans rallied to oust the first-term Fowler, who had fallen just short of winning outright in the first round of voting. Democrats at the time were still in control of the General Assembly, Governor’s Mansion and other statewide offices, but Coverdell received an outpouring of help from both inside and outside the state.
“You had all of these Republicans who were just deflated because we lost the presidency after one term, and everyone then turned to Georgia,” said Eric Tanenblatt, who was Coverdell’s political director in 1992. “It was sort of like the bright light after a really dark night.”
Sixteen years later, incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss was able to capitalize on Republican discontent with President-elect Barack Obama to win a second Senate term over Martin. (Unlike Clinton, Obama won the White House without Georgia’s electoral votes.)
The contest prompted a deluge of out-of-state money, since it was one of two outstanding Senate contests that could have given Obama a filibuster-proof majority. The campaigns were bombarded with new volunteers and offers of help from Washington-based professional campaigners, as well as gobs of cash — Chambliss even hired extra staff because his campaign couldn’t deposit checks fast enough. A-list surrogates, including former GOP presidential candidate John McCain and his onetime running mate Sarah Palin, flew to Georgia to rally for Chambliss.
Clinton stumped for Martin, but the former president’s support was not enough to help the Democrat turn out Black voters who had supported Obama in droves. Martin lost to Chambliss by nearly 15 percentage points in the runoff after finishing only 3 points behind him in the general election.
Chambliss credits his victory in part on campaigning to be the decisive vote for a Senate GOP firewall against Obama’s agenda.
“I would be No. 41,” Chambliss said, referring to the final senator needed to filibuster a bill in the upper chamber. “That was huge. That really contributed to the turnout in the runoff.”
There’s been scattered talk over the years about whether to ditch or update the state’s runoff process. In the 1980s, then-state Rep. Tyrone Brooks was the lead plaintiff in a federal suit that claimed the system prevented minority candidates from being elected to office.
After the Coverdell victory, Democrats changed state law so a candidate only had to win 45% of the vote to avoid a general election runoff. But Republicans reinstated the old majority requirement after gaining control of the Legislature in 2005 — they were still smarting over Democrat Max Cleland’s narrow Senate win over Guy Millner a decade earlier — a change that set the table for the Chambliss-Martin race.
‘When the long knives come’
January’s contests will be more than twice as long as Georgia’s previous runoffs due to a 2012 federal ruling that required additional time to receive ballots cast by members of the U.S. military. So be prepared for Thanksgiving and Christmastime political ads that offer little by way of holiday cheer.
Runoffs, Bullock said, are “when the long knives come out."
An early challenge for the candidates will be unifying their parties after a crowded and bitter first round of campaigning. Loeffler will need to quickly patch the rift that grew from her rivalry with Collins, while Warnock and Ossoff must hustle to keep Democrats — who tend to turn out less when a presidential race is not on the ballot — engaged.
“One thing that Republicans have historically done well in Georgia is unite once all the fighting and slandering has ended,” said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who advised Joe Biden in Georgia. “We’ve got to truly organize, bring every single Democratic operative, organization, voter and candidate together to start building that consensus and that coalition."
Warnock sought to get ahead of the coming storm on Thursday, posting a tongue-in-cheek “attack ad” on social media in which the narrator claimed the Democrat eats pizza with a fork and knife and hates puppies.
“Kelly Loeffler doesn’t want to talk about why she’s for getting rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic, so she’s going to try and scare you with lies about me," Warnock stated in the ad.
“And by the way,” he added, “I love puppies.”
Loeffler quickly fired back on Twitter: “We aren’t going to talk about pizza and puppies. Everyone loves those, including me! We ARE going to talk about your own words," pointing to past comments Warnock made about taxes and the police.
The voter registration deadline for the January runoff, which applies only to voters who are not already registered, is Dec. 7.
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