Georgia Senate Runoffs Head Toward a Dramatic Finish

Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are running as a team in Georgia. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Less than a week away from Georgia’s dual Senate general-election runoffs, it’s hard to overstate their potential importance. If Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both win, their party will gain a governing trifecta (albeit by vanishingly small margins in Congress) and prospects for a reasonably ambitious Biden legislative agenda will go up sharply. If either Republican, Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue, is reelected, then Mitch McConnell will retain control of the Senate, and the kind of plenary obstruction he posed to Barack Obama’s agenda after Republicans won the Senate in 2010 is likely to return.

So the Georgia vote is a big deal, which is certainly confirmed by voter interest (early voting is at a much higher level than in past stand-alone elections in Georgia), fundraising and campaign spending (the totals for both Senate races this cycle have already reached over a half-billion), and the impact these contests appear to be having on events in Washington (there may not have been any stimulus package, much less a last-minute effort to increase the value of stimulus checks, if Republicans weren’t worried about the issue damaging Loeffler and Perdue).

For those tuning back in after a well-deserved break from politics in recent days, here’s everything you need to know.

The Contenders

None of the four candidates have the sort of political-career-ladder backgrounds typical of U.S. senators; Warnock is making his first run for political office, as is Loeffler (who was appointed interim senator by Georgia governor Brian Kemp in December 2019). Ossoff and Perdue are both in their second electoral contests: The former ran for the U.S. House in a 2017 special election he narrowly lost after setting fundraising records, while the latter was a political novice when he was first elected to the Senate in the very good Republican year of 2014.

Until very recently, it was unusual for Georgia’s statewide elected officials to hail from metro Atlanta (Senator Wyche Fowler, who won a seat in 1986 and promptly lost it in 1992, was a rare exception). Reflecting the city’s rapidly increasing demographic and economic domination of Georgia, three of the four January 5 candidates (Loeffler, Ossoff, and Warnock) are from Atlanta, while Perdue has no real geographic base, having long ago left behind his middle-Georgia origins for the far frontiers of international business (he was a corporate “turnaround” expert beloved of shareholders but not so much workers). Perdue does have the backing of a political clan, though: His rise to statewide office was undoubtedly facilitated by the earlier election of his cousin Sonny Perdue (now Trump’s secretary of Agriculture) to two terms as Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. And Warnock holds the historic pulpit of Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Perdue has long been considered to be a close political ally of President Trump. And Loeffler has spent most of her brief Senate career snuggling up to the president and to ideological conservatives; her prize endorsement during the “jungle primary” she survived along with Warnock was from Congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon-touting extremist who is rarely seen without her AR-15 and who is strongly backing Trump’s effort to overturn Biden’s election win. Georgia Republicans are under pressure from unconditional Trump supporters who share the president’s disdain for Kemp and for Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, who have thwarted his efforts to reverse Biden’s win in the state. Loeffler and Perdue have condemned Raffensperger and demanded he resign but have stayed silent in the face of Trump’s attacks on Kemp.

Meanwhile, Ossoff and Warnock have campaigned as standard-brand national Democratic liberals, showing virtually none of the center-right “Blue Dog” defensive tendencies of past Georgia Democratic statewide candidates. This completed an evolution that 2018 candidate Stacey Abrams had significantly accelerated by achieving the best Democratic gubernatorial performance since 1998 while running on a relatively progressive message by Georgia standards.

The Fundamentals

For the most part, Republicans have improved their general-election performances in the sparse history of Georgia’s general-election runoffs (notably in Senate runoffs in 1992 and 2008), in which more affluent and better-educated Republicans were more likely to turn out for a wintry stand-alone election. But Georgia’s evolution into a genuine purple state has changed that assumption, as upscale suburbanites rapidly trended Democratic while intensive registration and mobilization efforts were deployed among minority voters.

The two parties in Georgia now represent relatively even coalitions of voters, as evidenced by Biden’s narrow win and the slight advantage Republicans had in the November Senate races (Perdue led Ossoff by 1.8 percent of the vote, while Loeffler and all the other Republicans led all the Democrats by 2.1 percent in the special election). Given the general prevalence of straight-ticket voting this year, and the greater likelihood that highly polarized partisans are the most likely to turn out, the January runoffs have generally been regarded as “mobilization” rather than “persuasion” affairs. The high likelihood of straight-ticket voting on January 5 has also led the two Democratic and two Republican candidates to campaign as partners.

The Campaign

While all four candidates and a host of national political and nonpolitical surrogates have been relentlessly active on the campaign trail, this runoff campaign has been most visible via an unprecedented wave of ads on every available medium. An early Republican ad advantage has faded, as CNN reported this week:

With just over a week left in the contests, ad spending is up to nearly $540 million overall for the consequential elections that will determine which party has control of the Senate. Republicans lead Democrats in total Georgia ad spending, including reservations since November 10 and through the runoff by about $281.7 million to $256.6 million.

The Democrats have raised money almost entirely through the strength of candidate advertising — Jon Ossoff has spent over $100 million in ads, while Rev. Raphael Warnock is at nearly $90 million, compared to about $53.7 million spent by Sen. Kelly Loeffler and $45.7 million for Sen. David Perdue, the Republican candidates. 

When it comes to spending by outside groups on behalf of the candidates for Senate themselves, Republicans lead Democrats by nearly 3-to-1 — $180.5 million to $63.1 million.

The Republican ads are heavily negative, full of alarming claims that Ossoff and Warnock will usher in an era of socialist Democratic governance. The anti-Warnock ads feast hungrily on out-of-context clips from many years of taped sermons by the minister, who has continued the King family’s Gospel-based social activism. Democratic ads have mostly sought to repel or mock the attacks, while self-consciously presenting a positive message focused on support for COVID-19 vaccine, relief, and stimulus measures in Congress.

Democrats have battened on conflict-of-interest suspicions raised by stock transactions executed by both Perdue and Loeffler. That issue has also made it easy for ad-makers to depict the two very wealthy Republican incumbents as out of touch with actual voters suffering from pandemic-related health and economic problems.

While over-the-radar ads (likely canceling each other out) are proceeding at supersaturation levels, both parties are devoting significant resources to individual voter contact in an effort to boost reliable partisan turnout. Republicans have lost their pre-general-election advantage in willingness to conduct door-to-door canvassing during a pandemic; now Democrats are hitting the streets as well, albeit with safety precautions in place.

Early Voting

All the noise and controversy surrounding the state’s mail-ballot procedures before and immediately after November 3 may have obscured the fact that in-person early voting has been a heavily favored voting method in Georgia in recent years, supplemented by relatively robust voting by mail. Careful tracking of early voting (Georgia doesn’t have party voter registration but does collect demographic data on voting patterns as part of its obligations under the Voting Rights Act) has dominated media coverage of the campaign and has indicated strong turnout with neither side holding a clear advantage. However, we do know that Black early voting is relatively higher than in the general election and early voting seems to be lagging in heavily pro-Trump rural and small town areas of the state. Overall, nearly twice as many early votes have been cast in person (1.5 million) as have been tabulated from mail ballots (800,000).

As FiveThirtyEight’s Nathanial Rakich observes, we are likely to see overall runoff turnout set records:

[A]t this point in the general election, 3,028,676 people had voted, which was about three-fifths of the final turnout, according to www.georgiavotes.com, an unofficial vote-tracking website that uses publicly available data from the secretary of state. If that pattern holds for the runoff (a big if, considering that the early-voting period was disrupted by Christmas), turnout in the runoff could be around 3.8 million. That’s more than half of eligible voters and more than three-quarters of general-election turnout — both of which would be record-shattering.

Democrats are counting on extending an early voting lead into the final results, while Republicans are counting on a big Election Day turnout in their base areas on January 5. It’s no accident that Donald Trump is holding a Runoff Eve rally in Dalton in northwest Georgia, a region that went heavily for Trump and other Republicans in November but where early voting has been off a bit. It’s also in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s congressional district. Don’t be surprised if she’s very visible alongside Trump as a boost to the QAnon vote.


There hasn’t been much high-quality polling of Georgia during the runoff campaign, partly because such stand-alone elections are hard to poll and partly because many national polling outfits don’t want to get the results wrong after receiving considerable criticism for getting the November election wrong (though polling of Georgia was pretty accurate).

The polling that has been done indicates two very close races. The RealClearPolitics polling averages have Ossoff leading Perdue by 0.8 percent, and Warnock leading Loeffler by 1.8 percent. It’s all on a knife’s edge, which is why both sides continue to spend on ads even though they are probably at a level beyond the point of diminishing returns, while intensifying direct voter contacts.

After what happened in November, it would be imprudent to predict when these contests will be resolved, though usually runoff votes are counted rapidly. If Loeffler and Perdue do win quickly, I’d guess they’ll both race to Washington to thank their lord and master Donald Trump for his help by voting to overturn the presidential-election results (assuming there is a vote on an electoral-vote challenge on January 6). But if Warnock and Ossoff win, their arrival in Washington will kick off a heady experiment in Democratic policy-making.

Georgia Senate Runoffs Head Toward a Dramatic Finish