Walkin' Back to Georgia
A full breakdown of the Georgia Senate elections.
Phillip Chin | 1/5/21
Today is the day of voting for the Georgia Senate elections. At stake is control of government for the incoming Democratic president or at least two more years of gridlocked obstruction. Following Biden’s surprise win in November, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into the state, but many argue that the seeds for a Democratic victory were sown years earlier. Stacey Abrams and other activists have drawn praise for the work that they have done in turning a staunchly Republican state into a Democratic pathway to 270 or control of the Senate. Here’s all you need to know.
Jon Ossoff and David Perdue
In the 11/3 election, Perdue held a lead of about 1.7% over Ossoff, with the Libertarian candidate taking 2.3%. Perdue overperformed Trump by about 800 votes, suggesting that there may have been some ticket-splitting while Ossoff underperformed Biden by about 100,000 votes.
Ossoff was an investigative journalist and ran the most expensive race in House history against Karen Handel in 2017, which was one of the first tests of the Democratic resistance against Trump. Although he consolidated the Democratic vote in the primary — earning 48.12% against a divided Republican electorate — he lost the runoff by 3.57%, not a great sign for the new runoff that he’s facing.
Perdue was a wealthy businessman who became a Republican Senator in 2014. By one measure, he is considered the 14th most conservative Senator. The same day that the Senate held a classified briefing on the Coronavirus, Perdue bought shares in a PPE company. Meanwhile, Trump was downplaying the effects of Covid to the American people. The stock market crashed shortly after.
Raphael Warnock and Kelly Loeffler
In the 11/3 election, Warnock garnered 32.9% of the vote to Loeffler’s 25.9% in a jungle primary where nearly 20 candidates received votes. In sum, Democratic candidates garnered 48.4 percent of the vote, while Republicans won 49.3%, which is similar to the results in the other Senate election.
Warnock has been a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which Martin Luther King Jr. and his father presided over until 1968. In recent days, his sermons have been dug up and used to attack Warnock as anti-police and anti-military, which are dog whistles designed to excite the Trumpist base and drive away Biden-Republicans from him. Warnock has countered with advertisements implicitly defusing white voters’ stereotypes of Black people as extreme and threatening.
Loeffler was forced to run far to the right against her main primary challenger, Doug Collins, and has faced a wave of controversy. Although Brian Kemp likely picked her to succeed Johnny Isakson to appeal to suburban white women, her right-wing rhetoric may turn off the very voters she is supposed to thrive with. The WNBA team that she owns refused to say her name after Loeffler criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, saying “this Marxist group proudly… promotes violence and destruction across the country” in a Daily Caller opinion piece. She accepted an endorsement from the new QAnon congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene. Finally, Loeffler is the richest congressperson, with a net worth of around $500 million, and drew headlines when she dumped $20 million of stock after receiving the same briefing as Perdue.
We Have a Chance to Win Georgia???
Steady improvement by Democrats in Georgia — from Hillary Clinton to Stacey Abrams to Jon Ossoff’s special election to Lucy McBath and finally Joe Biden’s statewide win — has made the state hyper-competitive. Although Black turnout increased, other demographics’ turnout increased even more, so that the Black share of the electorate decreased, which means there is still room for improvement, and early voting signs are highly encouraging. Biden ran up the margins in the highly diverse suburbs in the Atlanta area, which houses nearly half of the population, especially among high-income, older people, and college graduates. These big gains, along with slight losses among 80% Black and majority Hispanic neighborhoods, are indicative of the nationwide changes in the Democratic coalition.
A memo released in 2019 by the Abrams team at Fair Fight outlined a new strategy for Georgia. First, Abrams worked to establish that Georgia deserved resources because it would be one of the most competitive states in upcoming elections and had two Senate seats at stake. Over the past few years, Stacey Abrams and several other grassroots organizations such as the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter, Fair Fight, and Georgia Stand-Up have largely eschewed persuasion and focus on registering as many new voters as possible. Democrats now rely on Black voters to get them close and then try to win 30% of white voters to push them over the top. However, only time will tell whether Georgia is blue or even a swing state. Two possible factors in Biden’s win — both his possibly unique appeal and anti-Trump negative polarization — will no longer be on the ballot.
Trump's Stench is On Everyone
Democrats have decided that Medicare and healthcare are winning issues based on the results of the 2018 midterms, which were likely more of a referendum on Trump (even though he was not on the ballot). What is more confusing is why they have not campaigned on other popular ideas — Bernie Sanders has posted on Instagram that if Democrats take control of the Senate, they will increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The nationalization of the race may lead Republicans who voted for Biden to back Loeffler or Perdue, especially to maintain a divided government. A strong message that highlights the deep rot and corruption of the Republican party, would likely resonate with Georgia voters. Finally, driving home the point that a divided government could result in a constitutional crisis if McConnell stonewalls Biden’s cabinet and that during the Coronavirus, these Republican Senators have had the chance to show that they deserve to be elected and have done little to help the people of Georgia.
Socialism, Socialism, Socialism
Republicans believe they’ve found a winning issue to attack in all down-ballot races: Democrats are scary socialists. In doing so, they’ve adopted the stance of nearly all right-wing parties in history: “sure, change might result in some life improvements, but it can also result in anarchy and people stealing your money.”
Effectively combating this message will rely on convincing voters that united Democratic governance isn’t so scary, and the other option is much worse. Even if Democrats win both seats, they will only have a narrow majority in the Senate and it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to pass the broad democratic changes that they want to. Joe Manchin wants to keep the filibuster (and his seat), and there are several other conservative Democrats that likely won’t vote for the bills that Republicans are so scared about. Ross Douthat also addresses Biden Republicans when he argues that a loss in Georgia will be a step towards proving that the Republican party is better off without Donald Trump and making his removal easier.
These Georgia runoffs will be the first test of Democrats’ and Republicans’ ability to win elections without the Energizer Bunny at the top of the ticket turbocharging turnout. To state the obvious, or perhaps not so obvious to some, Donald Trump lost the election — both in Georgia and nationwide.
As Trump refuses to concede, the Republican candidates are in a sort of limbo. They can’t yet fear-monger about a united congress, because according to their leader, Biden has not won yet (Perry Bacon Jr., FiveThirtyEight Podcast). Perhaps keeping Trump far, far away is beneficial to them, but more likely, they will want his ability to turn out Republican voters. Voter turnout for Republicans is of course made harder by a president that spews doubt over his election.
Who Wants It More!
If either the Democrats or the Republicans can come close to replicating their record-breaking turnout on 1/5/21, that party will win the election in a landslide. Both sides are mostly appealing to their base in an attempt to juice turn out. Meanwhile, Loeffler and Perdue, while retaining the advantage of a red-leaning race, have to walk a bit of a tightrope — loud support for Trump may turn off some white voters (especially those who crossover voted on 11/3), while not having Trump’s effusive endorsement may depress turnout among his biggest fans.
The Democratic record in Georgia runoffs is not amazing and there are several reasons for pessimism. First, most runoff voters are older and whiter, groups which mainly skew Republican. Second, without the excitement of the presidential race, the voters will usually revert to the status quo and the results tend to regress to the mean. Although Biden flipped Georgia this year, all historical evidence shows that despite demographic changes making the state bluer, it is still Republican.
Immediately after election night, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger came under attack from Republicans who urged him to resign. Just one year ago, Raffensperger was supported by Donald Trump and current Governor Brian Kemp, who defeated Stacey Abrams while overseeing his election as the current Secretary of State. His crime this election? — “allowing” a Democrat to win at the top of the ticket. Lindsey Graham called Raffensperger to “throw out the ballots from counties that had the highest frequency of error rates on signatures”(NPR), which is illegal. Although Raffensperger was content to carry out traditionally Republican procedures of fighting “voter fraud” through aggressive voter roll purges and strict voter ID laws, he has reached his breaking point — as long as election administrators and the politicians running are out of cahoots, a safe, fair election is more likely.
Most recently and worrying, Raffensperger recorded a call in which Trump alternatively cajoled, flattered, and threatened him to “find 11,780 votes.” Trump hinted that Raffensperger might face criminal charges if he refused, which he did. Instead, Trump could (and should) face legal charges for violating state and federal laws that prohibit election fraud.
So how will these voting right spats affect the race? It is possible that Trump’s opposition to mail-in ballots depressed his turnout slightly among voters who did not want to vote in-person because of health concerns and did not vote absentee because of “fraud.” Indeed, in an interview, Raffensperger pointedly remarked that “24,000 GOPs who voted absentee in primary did not vote in General”(Justin Gray, Twitter) — Trump lost the state by around 14,00 votes. And in one of the most extraordinary examples of self-foot-shooting in American politics, Pro-Trump attorney, Lin Wood, has said “Don’t you give [your vote] to [the Republicans]. Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election, for god’s sake”(Daily Beast). However, if Republicans feel that the election was stolen, they might wish to express their anger at the ballot box. In any event, it’s not a good look for Georgia Republicans to be engaged in very public, dysfunctional infighting.
What to Watch For
Don’t keep your eyes peeled for another debate between Ossoff and Perdue! After Perdue was eviscerated in an earlier debate — “Well, perhaps, Senator Perdue would have been able to respond properly to the Covid-19 pandemic, if you hadn’t been fending off multiple investigations for insider trading. It’s not just that you’re a crook, Senator, it’s that you’re attacking the health of the people that you represent”(Washington Post) — he canceled the remaining debate and has now pulled out of the December one. Given that Perdue defeated Ossoff by 1.7% on election day, he likely wants to perpetuate the status quo and ride Georgia’s slightly Republican lead to a run-off victory.
Keep an eye out for the Yang Gang! The former presidential candidate turned CNN pundit has moved to Georgia to help out in the presidential race. Just like Yang, hundreds of Democrats and hundreds of millions of dollars will descend on Georgia. The question is whether all this attention and the nationalization of the race will help or hurt Democrats. Do Georgians want New Yorkers moving en-masse to their state for a month?
Odds of Winning
I am not incredibly optimistic about Democrats' chances of winning. Polling shows a very tight race and although polling did not have the best election day, in Georgia it was pretty accurate. Currently, the FiveThirtyEight polling average has Ossoff up by 1.8% and Warnock up by 2.1%. Before the November election, FiveThirtyEight gave Ossoff a 43% chance of winning and Warnock a 57% chance. I expect that Loeffler’s favorables will rebound a bit now that she’s gotten over her intraparty fight and for her to gain ground against Warnock given the sermons that Republicans are attacking him with. In all, I think that Warnock has a slightly better chance than Ossoff of winning, given that he is the first black candidate at the top of the Georgia Senate ticket and that Democrats did slightly better in his race on 11/3. I believe Warnock has a 50% chance and Ossoff has a 40% chance, which means that the Democrats’ chances of winning the Senate stand at 20% by my approximation. These odds are likely correlated, but probably not to the usual degree, because voters may decide to split the ticket and elect Perdue and Warnock since Kelly “More Conservative Than Attila the Hun” Loeffler has taken a sharp right turn.