As the dust settles from the presidential race, the eyes of the political world have already shifted to Georgia, where two runoff elections set for early January will almost certainly determine which party has control of the Senate.
The outcome of the contests, which will play out two weeks before presumptive President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, will either swing the majority to Democrats, handing the new president broad power to carry out his policy agenda and push through nominations as he sees fit, or leave Republicans in charge, allowing them to influence his plans.
In the weeks ahead, tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash are expected to pour into the state to fund a marathon of political advertising, while party leaders and interest groups on both sides train their attention on the races.
Here’s how it will work.
What is a runoff election?
A runoff election is essentially a rematch that is held when none of the candidates meet the criteria for winning. Under Georgia law, candidates must receive a majority of the vote to win an election. If no candidate breaks 50%, the top two vote-getters then face off again in a runoff election to determine the winner.
Georgia’s runoff law was created in the 1960s as a way to preserve white political power in a majority-white state and diminish the influence of Black politicians who could more easily win in a multicandidate race with a plurality of the vote, according to an Interior Department report.
Since the 1990s, Democrats have won only one of seven statewide runoffs in general or special elections, according to Inside Elections, the nonpartisan political newsletter.
Why does Georgia have two?
While Senate elections are staggered so that a state’s two seats are not up for reelection at the same time, this was an unusual year for Georgia.
Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, was facing a normal reelection race for the seat he won in 2014. In addition, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, another Republican appointed last year to succeed Sen. Johnny Isakson after he retired because of health issues, was facing a special election to serve out the remainder of his term until 2022.
Both of their races went to runoffs because neither they nor their challengers garnered at least 50% of the vote.
After a prolonged count that ended on Friday night, Perdue fell just short of the majority he would have needed to win reelection against Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, sending both of them to a runoff. In 2017, Ossoff lost in a runoff election for seat in the House.
It has been clear since Tuesday that Loeffler’s race would be decided in a runoff, after the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and Loeffler emerged as the top two finishers in a crowded field competing to replace Isakson.
When are the runoffs and how do people participate?
Georgia’s law says the runoffs are to take place on the Tuesday of the ninth week after the election. That puts them on Jan. 5. Voters must be registered to participate by Dec. 7.
The state will hold three weeks of early voting. Registered voters may vote by mail if they request an absentee ballot.
How are runoffs different than elections on Election Day?
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It is traditionally more difficult for candidates to convince voters to turn out for elections that do not feature the presidential contest on the ballot, and this special election will come shortly after New Year’s with the country still in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the past, Democrats have struggled in such races, with Republicans dominating the format in conservative-learning Georgia.
But both parties are expected to dump ample resources into turning out their voters for the runoffs, and since there are no other races happening around the country, enormous national attention will be focused on Georgia.
The stakes will be high. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority, but after elections this week, they were tied 48-48 with Democrats. While Senate races in Alaska and North Carolina have yet to be called, Republicans are expected to prevail in those states, which would put the party in control of 50 seats.
If Republican leads in those states hold, Democrats would need to capture both of the seats in Georgia to secure a 50-50 tie in the Senate. Then, presumptive Vice President-elect Kamala Harris could cast tiebreaking votes to carry out the Democratic agenda. If they were to lose one, Republicans would maintain their majority, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
With judicial nominees, a stimulus deal, infrastructure and health care measures, and tax and spending policies all on the line, the Senate races in Georgia are likely to take on an intensity that mirrors the presidential race that just ended.
And with President Donald Trump refusing to concede and making baseless accusations that the election was stolen from him, Republicans are likely to try to use their grievances about the presidential race to galvanize their voters to turn out in Georgia and deny Biden the Senate he would need to get things done.