This year, both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats were on the ballot, but the Nov. 3, 2020, election did not determine the winner in either race. Here’s why:
Georgia Code § 21-2-501 stipulates that to win office, a candidate must get the majority of the votes cast. If no one wins a majority in the general election, the top two vote-getters have a runoff election nine weeks later.
When first-term U.S. Senator David Perdue (R) ran for re-election, he won 49.73% of the vote. Jon Ossoff (D) won 47.95% and Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel won 2.32%. Since no one won over 50% of the vote, Perdue and Ossoff have a runoff election on Jan. 5.
When Senator Johnny Isakson (R) retired in 2019, Kelly Loeffler (R) was appointed to fill Isakson’s seat until a special election could be held. Twenty-one candidates competed in that special election on Nov. 3, but none of them won the absolute majority needed to win the seat outright. The top vote getters were Raphael Warnock (D) with 32.9% and incumbent Loeffler with 25.9%, so they will compete in the Jan. 5 runoff to determine who will finish the last two years of Isakson’s term. The seat will be up for election again in 2022.
The fate of the Senate hangs in the balance in the Georgia runoffs, which will determine whether or not Senator Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party retain control of the upper chamber for the next two years. While any Georgia victory for the Republicans would give them at least a 51-49 majority, a sweep for the Democrats would result in a 50-50 tie and a deciding vote for incoming Vice President Kamala Harris. During the first month post-election, donors contributed some $250 million to the races. But despite the best efforts of super PACs and big name endorsements, only time will tell whether either party will be able to replicate the excitement and turnout from the presidential election.
The results of the runoff will have significant implications for the Biden presidency. The Georgia Democrats are facing a steep uphill battle to pull off a sweep of the two contests. Ossoff lost in November. While Warnock seemingly won by a healthy margin, the Republican vote was split among a large number of candidates, and these voters are likely to consolidate around Loeffler. The last time a Georgia Senate race went to a runoff, Democrat Jim Martin lost by 3 points in the November election, only to be beat by 15 points two months later. The circumstances are different 12 years later — Martin was buoyed in November by enthusiasm for Barack Obama, and the runoff did not have the same national implications of this year’s — but history doesn’t bode well for Ossoff or Warnock.
Considering this more likely outcome — at least one Republican victory in January — Joe Biden will face stiff opposition from Mitch McConnell when he takes office. Biden will have to walk back many of the more progressive promises he made on the campaign trail. This would not necessarily result in gridlock. Biden ran partly on a message of political reconciliation and being a president for all Americans, so he is expected to try to make serious inroads with his Republican colleagues. He is also known for his longtime personal friendships with many across the aisle, notably McConnell himself.
At the same time, the American people are not as strictly divided as it appears. In states across the nation, Americans voted for proposals and measures that did not align politically with the presidential victor in that state. Illinois, which went to Biden, voted against a progressive income tax; Florida, which went to Trump, passed a measure raising the minimum wage; California, which went heavily to Biden, voted down a progressive proposition allowing for affirmative action. If anything, these results show that there are foundations for bipartisan coalitions that Biden can build on.
On the other hand, an Ossoff and Warnock double-victory would give Biden a level of political leeway in Washington. He might be able to implement parts of the progressive Democratic platform. But the incredibly slim Democratic Senate majority (with the Vice President breaking the tie), coupled with the diminished Democratic House majority, would give outsized political influence to moderates who will look to temper the party’s progressive wing. One of the more notable of these moderates is Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin, a Democrat who has collaborated with Republicans in the past, has also distanced himself from the left wing of his party.
Ultimately, it is likely that Biden will be the only Democrat to enter the Oval Office with a first term Republican-controlled Senate since Grover Cleveland in 1885. This doesn’t, however, guarantee gridlock. Many in Washington, and many, many more across the country, are tired of the vitriolic partisan bickering that has characterized politics for a generation. A Democratic president with a Republican-dominated Senate provides an opportunity for moderates to exercise influence over which bills hit the Senate floor. And based on his campaign message and announced cabinet picks, Joe Biden appears to be willing to compromise across party lines. The last thing he wants is to be perceived as the president that couldn’t get anything done during a global pandemic.
Loeffler vs. Warnock
Kelly Loeffler is a wealthy businesswoman who, prior to entering politics in 2019, was communication director at the Fortune 500 financial company Intercontinental Exchange. Initially thought to be a political moderate, since taking office Loeffler has aligned herself closely with President Trump. She and Senator David Perdue called for the resignation of Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, because of alleged fraud in the presidential election (a claim that no court validated). Marketing herself as the most conservative Republican senator, Loeffler espoused conservative views on LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, economic regulations and the Second Amendment. She has attacked Warnock as a Marxist radical, alleging that he wants to abolish the police and highlighting his support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which she claims is violent.
Raphael Warnock is the senior pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor. Warnock has been honored numerous times for his leadership in the African American community in Georgia. His views place him on the left side of the Democratic Party, and he supports abortion rights, gay marriage and the Black Lives Matter movement. He advocates expanding the Affordable Care Act, which Loeffler wants to repeal.
Perdue vs. Ossoff
David Perdue (R) served as the CEO of Pillowtex, Reebok and Dollar General before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014. One of the wealthiest members of the Senate, Perdue campaigned as a businessman, job creator and advocate for the working class. Perdue is a social conservative and strong Trump supporter who focused his run for reelection on economic issues. He co-sponsored the RAISE act, which would reduce legal immigration to the United States. During the 2020 election, Perdue made false accusations that Ossoff was endorsed by the Communist Party and also made several derogatory, anti-Semitic references towards Ossoff.
Jon Ossoff worked as an investigative journalist before getting into politics. Ossoff was the national security staffer to Congressman Hank Johnson before running unsuccessfully in the 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. Ossoff sought to avoid the leftist label, yet he supports progressive policies on climate change, the Affordable Care Act and women’s reproductive rights. He has been a vocal opponent of the Trump administration.
Center for the Study of American Democracy student associates Max Ohnesorge ’21, Rose Fisher ’22 and James Henderson ’23 collaborated on this analysis.