Georgia will be the center of the political universe on Tuesday, when voters head to the polls to cast ballots in two runoff elections that will determine which party holds the Senate majority.
Republicans are scrambling to defend Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) and David Perdue (R) — and consequently their hold on the Senate — against challenges from Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. A pair of Democratic wins on Tuesday would create an evenly divided Senate in which Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be able to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Both races are expected to be close. Ossoff currently leads Perdue by a scant 1.4 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average of the race, while Warnock carries a 2-point lead over Loeffler.
Here are five things to watch for in Tuesday’s Senate runoffs:
Can Democrats replicate their turnout from November?
Record turnout among young voters and nonwhite voters in November helped make President-elect Joe Biden the first Democratic presidential candidate in nearly three decades to carry Georgia and its 16 electoral votes.
Now, Democrats are hoping to replicate that same coalition of voters in their bid to flip Georgia’s two Senate seats on Tuesday.
There are encouraging signs for Democrats so far. By the time early voting ended last week, more ballots had been cast in areas and by groups that tend to favor Democrats, including Black voters, who have so far outperformed their share of the vote in the presidential election.
Young voters are also outpacing their rate of early turnout from the November general election. So far, more than 222,000 18- to 24-year-olds have already voted in the runoff elections and nearly 308,000 25- to 34-year-olds have cast their ballots, according to the U.S. Elections Project, which tracks early voting data.
But Democrats will still need strong turnout on Jan. 5 itself, and Republican voters are typically more likely to show up on Election Day.
Will Trump’s election rhetoric hurt Loeffler and Perdue?
President Trump has spent the two months since the Nov. 3 elections alleging without evidence that widespread voter fraud and systemic irregularities in Georgia and other battleground states marred the outcome of the presidential race.
The president’s grievances, combined with his repeated attacks on top GOP officials in Georgia, have raised concerns among some Republicans that Trump could dampen turnout among his conservative base of voters. Many of them have backed the president’s assertion that the election was “rigged” despite pushback from Republican officials and multiple failed legal attempts by the Trump campaign to challenge the election results.
Trump added fuel to those fears over the weekend. In a recorded phone call on Saturday, the president pleaded with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to “find” nearly 12,000 ballots needed to give him the state’s 16 electoral votes.
At the same time, the president’s rhetoric on the presidential election has served as something of a driving force for Democrats, who have called on voters to hand resounding victories to Ossoff and Warnock on Tuesday so as to avoid any uncertainty in the runoff results.
Still, with the Senate majority on the line, Republicans insist their voters will turn out. Whether those predictions materialize is one of the big questions heading into Tuesday.
How long will it take to count the votes?
Tuesday may be the last day to vote in the runoff elections, but it could be days before the winners are declared.
Unlike some other states that allow vote counting to begin days or weeks before Election Day, election workers in Georgia won’t be able to begin tallying ballots until polls close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. If the runoff results are close — and they’re very much expected to be — it could take days to determine the outcomes.
A drawn-out ballot-counting process, however, could lead to a repeat of November, when mail ballots counted after Election Day helped Biden overtake Trump in a handful of critical battleground states.
Trump and his allies seized on the days-long counting processes to support their claims of election malfeasance, and some Democrats fear that Republicans could use a similar tactic if the runoffs don’t pan out in their favor.
What will Trump do?
Trump has offered dueling messages in the lead-up to the runoffs in Georgia, alternating between claims that his own election was rigged and encouraging Republicans to vote for Loeffler and Perdue on Jan. 5.
Loeffler and Perdue are hoping that the president’s last-minute visit to Georgia on Monday night will give them a boost.
But Trump has also made his own failed reelection a central issue in the runoff campaign and has often snapped between supporting Loeffler and Perdue and complaining about what he insists was an unfair process rife with fraud.
Trump’s focus on his own political fortunes in Georgia and elsewhere have raised concerns that his conservative base may stay home on Tuesday and in future elections, a scenario that the president himself alluded to in his Saturday phone call with Raffensperger.
“You’re going to have people just not voting,” Trump said. “They don’t want to vote, they hate the state, they hate the governor and they hate the secretary of state. I will tell you that right now.”
Will voters trust the results?
Trump has spent the two months since his loss to Biden casting doubt on the electoral process, and many of his supporters have echoed his claims of voter fraud and widespread irregularities.
Whether those doubts in the democratic process continue to gain traction after the Senate runoffs, however, is an open question. If Loeffler and Perdue win their respective races on Tuesday, Republicans will likely be put in the position of acknowledging the efficacy of Georgia’s elections system after spending months attacking it.
But if the runoffs end in losses for one or both of Georgia’s Republican senators, it could feed into the growing sense among conservatives that the state’s elections system is tainted.
And while Democrats have celebrated Biden’s win in Georgia and expressed optimism in growing their political power in the state, many remain wary of potential voter suppression, an issue that has a long and fraught history in the state.