A Democratic staffer cheers at a rally in Jonesboro, Georgia, November 19, 2020 (Robin Rayne/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News).

The 2020 election season has further confirmed that, contrary to the old saying, all politics is now national. Hence the importance of, and attention to, Georgia’s upcoming Senate runoffs in January. With none of the candidates in either of November’s two races securing the required 50 percent of the vote to win outright, the two top vote-getters in each race will now square off against each other: Republican incumbent David Perdue against Democrat Jon Ossoff in one, and Republican Kelly Loeffler against Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock in the other. The results will determine which party controls the Senate. Anything but a Democratic sweep would make it difficult, if not impossible, for a Biden administration to realize any of its legislative agenda.

Georgia’s runoff rules are a vestige of its Jim Crow–era efforts to keep Black candidates with a plurality but not a majority of votes from winning elections. In the race involving Warnock, the current pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church, the system worked exactly as originally intended. Warnock won 33 percent of the vote, while Loeffler and Doug Collins, also a Republican, earned 26 percent and 20 percent. Republicans hope that Collins’s voters will consolidate behind Loeffler and thus outnumber Warnock’s. But this same system could also work to the benefit of Ossoff, who lost by such a tight margin in November that he has a fresh chance of beating Perdue in January. With the stakes so high, money is pouring into both races, from both parties and various PACs. But money alone may not be enough to guarantee victory, especially for the Democrats. Loeffler has been tacking ever further to the right in her effort to pick up those who voted for Trump-endorsed Collins, while Perdue has always been one of Trump’s staunchest allies in the Senate. Both have followed the president’s lead in making unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in order to energize their base, even calling on Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to resign.

What gives Democrats hope are the massive shifts in Georgia’s demographics and voter engagement in the past several years.

What gives Democrats hope are the massive shifts in Georgia’s demographics and voter engagement in the past several years—changes they’ve been able to leverage to their advantage. The state’s population is becoming more diverse, with the nonwhite portion of the electorate jumping 10 percent since 2004. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s northern suburbs, once Republican strongholds, are also trending blue. The passage of automatic voter registration in 2016 helped add millions of Georgians to the rolls, while organizations like Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight and The New Georgia Project, The People’s Agenda, and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) not only registered voters but also built infrastructure to increase engagement and turnout. Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia would likely not have been possible without these efforts.

But they will need to be redoubled before the January runoff. If either of the Republican incumbents wins, the GOP will keep its Senate majority and likely resort to the same obstructionism that hampered President Obama in his second term. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will aim to deny Democrats a legislative win at any cost, leaving the nation in another extended period of government gridlock. He may leave vacancies in federal courts unfilled rather than approve Biden’s nominations, and may very well block the new president’s cabinet appointments. If both Warnock and Ossoff win, the Senate would be split fifty-fifty, and Vice President Harris would hold the tie-breaking vote. There’s a reason all eyes are on Georgia. What happens there in January could impact all Americans for a long time to come. 

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the December 2020 issue: View Contents
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