Control of the Senate is boiling down to Georgia, likely dragging the fight for the majority out until early January.
Democrats are pinning their hopes on being able to force a 50-50 Senate on a narrow, uphill path that requires them to win both seats in the typically red state. If Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the White House, a 50-50 margin would hand them the majority because Vice President Kamala Harris could break a tie.
Democrats know they will have a chance to win one race in a runoff on Jan. 5, when GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face Democratic nominee Raphael Warnock.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) on Thursday also fell below 50 percent of the vote in his contest against Democrat Jon Ossoff, the amount needed to win outright under Georgia’s election law. Officials on both sides expect a second run-off election for that seat that will keep Democrats’ Senate dreams alive.
“It’s about the maximum chaos,” said Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “We didn’t expect the stakes to be this high. ...There’s going to be enormous pressure on the Georgia Democratic Party to flip those seats.”
A Democratic strategist working on the Senate races warned that the next two months will be a “crazy ride.”
"All eyes are on Georgia,” the strategist added. “They're just going to barn burners. There's a ton at stake and it's a highly competitive state.”
The dual runoffs, with the Senate majority on the line, would set the stage for a nail-biting finish to an already chaotic, historic election year, with millions already set to pour into the state.
In a sign of the knife sharpening to come, campaigns for Perdue and Ossoff are trading blows ahead of an expected two-months slog that will turn the traditionally red state into the frontlines over the Senate majority battle.
“If overtime is required when all of the votes have been counted, we're ready, and we will win,” said Perdue’s campaign manager Ben Fry, while linking Ossoff to “Chuck Schumer's radical, socialist agenda.”
Ellen Foster, Ossoff’s campaign manager, fired back that “Georgians are sick and tired of the endless failure, incompetence, and corruption of Senator Perdue and Donald Trump,” and predicted that Ossoff would ultimately win the January run-off.
Warnock, who is hoping to unseat Loeffler in January, released an ad Wednesday tipping his hat to the coming onslaught of attack ads.
“Get ready Georgia. The negative ads against us are coming,” Warnock said in the ad, warning that Loeffler will “try and scare you with lies about me.”
The dynamic will put Georgia at the center of the political universe for roughly the next 60 days with two races that are already being nationalized. Multiple officials who will be involved in the race declined to put a price tag on the runoff, but one GOP official didn’t rule out that it could top $100 million.
“We'll be investing heavily in Georgia,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters during a conference call, asked how the influential group would try to advance its agenda with a GOP-controlled Senate.
The Democratic strategist downplayed concerns that donors won’t turnout for Ossoff and Warnock after spending big, but falling short, in other Senate races, adding that “we need those small dollar donors to continue.”
On the other side of the aisle, the Women Speak Out PAC, an ally of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, is planning to spend $4 million in support of Perdue and Loeffler that will include mail, digital ads, calls and texts to voters and door-to-door canvassing.
Democrats are poised to have 48 seats in January to 50 for Republicans if two GOP senators win their races that have yet to be called. In Alaska, Sen. Dan Sullivan is cruising to reelection. In North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis has a small but steady lead, making Republicans confident that he will hold and Democrat Cal Cunningham won’t overcome a nearly 96,700-vote-deficit.
Winning both Georgia Senate races if they go to runoffs will be tough.
Republicans and analysts believe the two races are likely to swing in the same direction, rather than Perdue winning and Loeffler losing or vice versa.
“Often these double barrel races will go to one party,” Coleman said.
Democrats are likely to make the stakes for control of the Senate a central message. If Democrats fail to force a 50-50 tie, GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will be the majority leader giving Republicans a perch from which to block key pieces of the Democratic agenda.
A GOP strategist, however, warned that an attempt by Democrats to nationalize the race could backfire.
“I think they will probably make this about ‘give us a Democratic Senate majority so we can help President Biden enact his agenda.’ But that’s a double-sided coin, we are also going to be able to say to our voters ‘make sure you turn out to prevent President Biden from doing some of the scarier things that his party wants to pursue,’” the strategist said.
Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) warned House Democrats, during a lengthy and raucous call on Thursday, against drifting to the left during the next two months, saying there could be blowback for the party’s chances to win the two Georgia seats.
If “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we're not going to win," Clyburn said on the call, according to Politico.
Democrats feel increasingly bullish about the inroads they are making in Georgia, where they’ve made gains among suburban voters and moderates in recent years. In 2018, Stacey Abrams came within 1.4 percentage points of winning the governor’s mansion, helping convince many that the state could be in play.
“Georgia is clearly now a purple battleground state, and Senator Perdue is a weak, scandal-plagued incumbent who can’t defend his record of outsourcing and corruption. We’re ready to help Jon flip this Senate seat,” said Scott Fairchild, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
Coleman noted generally that if Democrats are going to be able to win the seats, they will need to win over a higher percent of rural Black voters while leaning heavily also on suburban whites. The Democratic strategist added that the path for Democrats would rely heavily on high turnout in Atlanta and the suburbs.
But there are historical challenges for Democrats, a traditionally red state that President Trump won in 2016. Republicans hold the governor’s mansion and control both chambers of the state legislature.
Georgia hasn’t had a Democratic senator since 2005, when Zell Miller retired. The state hasn’t had two Democratic senators at the same time since 1993 when Wyche Fowler lost reelection.
In 2008 then-Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was forced to a runoff after winning only 49.8 percent of the vote initially. In the run-off election, he garnered 57.4 percent of the vote, beating his Democratic opponent by a nearly 15 percentage point margin.
“There’s the historical aspect,” the GOP strategist said, “of, you know, Democrats failing to perform well and turn out their voters in these January runoffs.”
But both sides acknowledge that the state has moved closer to Democrats since then, reflecting in the close White House fight, which sets up a competitive battle for control of the Senate.