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Georgia on everyone’s mind: Control of the Senate could come down to January runoffs there

Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock at a campaign event last month. Democratic hopes for a Senate majority might rest on how each man does in a January runoff.
Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock at a campaign event last month. Democratic hopes for a Senate majority might rest on how each man does in a January runoff.Elijah Nouvelage/Getty

Not long after President Trump moved into the White House, furious Democrats poured their hopes, and the contents of their wallets, into a young political nobody named Jon Ossoff and his bid for the congressional seat once held by Newt Gingrich, desperate to turn their anger against Trump into an improbable special election victory.

Ossoff lost that 2017 race, but Democrats look increasingly likely to have the chance to pin their hopes on him once more. And this time there’s a much more critical prize — control of the Senate — potentially on the line.

In the latest twist in this wildest of election seasons, it appears entirely possible that Senate control could hinge on Georgia, long a ruby red bastion of conservatism, and two Jan. 5 runoff elections, including one in which Ossoff is the Democratic challenger.

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“People have looked at the South and said, ‘The South is red.’ I was like, the South is red, until it ain’t,” said LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Georgia-based Black Voters Matter Fund, a grass-roots voting rights group.

The outcome of Ossoff’s race against incumbent GOP Senator David Perdue remains unresolved and the numbers could change, but the latest vote count indicated the contest is likely to go to a runoff. Georgia law requires the second round between the top two finishers if no candidate reaches 50 percent of total votes cast.

The other Senate race, a special election, is already headed to a Jan. 5 runoff and will feature Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.'s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican who was appointed to fill the seat when former GOP senator Johnny Isakson retired.

Even as the vote counting continued Thursday, both sides were gearing up for the looming rematches.

“GEORGIA IS *THE* BATTLEGROUND STATE,” Ossoff tweeted Thursday afternoon, with a fund-raising link.

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But Republicans brushed off the idea of a brawl.

“There is one thing we know for sure: Senator David Perdue will be reelected to the US Senate and Republicans will defend the majority,” the Perdue campaign said in a statement, noting that Perdue will finish the November contest “with substantially more votes” than Ossoff.

The campaign also noted that Ossoff was trailing by a bigger margin than Democrat Stacey Abrams lost her 2018 gubernatorial bid, which electrified the state’s growing Democratic base.

“If overtime is required when all of the votes have been counted, we’re ready, and we will win,” the Perdue campaign said.

Warnock, meanwhile, quickly pivoted to his general election strategy, going up on air with a playful ad previewing the deluge of GOP attacks heading his way.

“Raphael Warnock eats pizza with a fork and knife,” a male narrator intones. “Raphael Warnock even hates puppies.”

Warnock, addressing the camera directly, says, “Kelly Loeffler doesn’t want to talk about why she’s for getting rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic so she’s going to try and scare you with lies about me.”

There’s no question both races will be ugly, analysts say, and tens of millions of dollars will pour in to the contest from both sides, given the stakes.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Mitch McConnell, which has already spent more than $40 million in Georgia, is expected to play a leading role on the Republican side. Perdue and Ossoff also spent more than $40 million, collectively, while the Warnock and Loeffler campaigns together spent a similar amount to date, too.

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Though Senate races in North Carolina and Alaska have not been called, Republicans are expected to be triumphant in those states, giving the GOP 50 seats in the Senate that will be sworn in next year. If Joe Biden takes the White House, his vice president — Kamala Harris — would cast tie-breaking votes in the chamber.

It’s a scenario that could make Georgia the battleground that determines whether a president Biden would be hamstrung by McConnell or able to pursue a more robust agenda with a Democratically controlled Congress (the House looks set to stay Democratic).

Republicans say they’re confident that the GOP candidates will prevail in both Georgia contests. Historically, Republicans have won runoff elections, even in cases where the Democratic candidate finished ahead in the first round.

“We know how to vote in runoffs,” whereas Democrats don’t tend to show up in the same numbers, said Seth Weathers, a Georgia-based Republican strategist.

That trend could be exacerbated if Biden wins the White House, GOP strategists said.

In that scenario, “Democrats got what they wanted,” namely, getting rid of Trump, said Brian Robinson, a GOP strategist who served as spokesman for former Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican.

“They’re going to be fat and happy, and Republicans are going to be energized," and looking to curtail Democratic power by keeping the Senate under GOP control, he said.

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Buttressing this view is the fact that Ossoff is running roughly 100,000 votes behind Biden, whereas Perdue got slightly more votes than Trump, Robinson said. It suggests a lack of enthusiasm for Ossoff and a desire to check Democrats in Washington, he said.

Democrats who’ve been working on the ground in Georgia, on the other hand, predict Ossoff and Warnock can prevail.

“We have already started working on turnout for the runoff,” said Democratic activist and longtime Georgia party official Tony Center. He spoke to the Globe from Chatham County, home of Savannah, where he said there’s a lot of room to boost Democratic turnout and plans already in the works to coordinate efforts between the various Democrat-aligned groups.

“We’re not going to wait; we’re getting ready," he said. Center also predicted that if Trump loses the presidential race, that will depress GOP turnout in the runoff.

"They’ll come for Trump,” he said of the president’s die-hard supporters, “I don’t think they’ll come to the polls for the Senate.”

Georgia has changed dramatically, both demographically and electorally in recent cycles.

Look no further than Gingrich’s old seat, in the Atlanta suburbs, which Ossoff lost in that high-profile 2017 race. A year later another Democrat, Lucy McBath, a gun control and racial justice activist, flipped it blue.

McBath, a Black mother who lost her son to gun violence, just won a second term by a comfortable margin.

“This isn’t your father’s or grandfather’s Georgia,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

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Georgia’s electorate has grown increasingly diverse in recent years, helped in part by an influx of people from northern climes moving to its cities. Atlanta, along with cities such as Austin and Nashville, is an attractive destination for millennials and members of Gen Z.

In 1996, three-fourths of the votes were cast by white people statewide, said Bullock, whereas in 2018, they accounted for fewer than 60 percent of votes.

Democrats also credit Georgia’s increasingly purple hue to the organizing efforts of Abrams and groups that have focused on increasing participation among voters of color. Abrams founded the New Georgia Project in 2013, and came close to winning the governor’s race in 2018 with a strategy of mobilizing turnout of minority and younger voters.

“What we see in Georgia is what happens when you see investment; what you see is a result of long-term organizing,” said Brown of the Black Voters Matter Fund.

Brown also said that Republican-led efforts to suppress Black voters, especially in the run up to the 2018 election, has energized those voters, and Democratic voters more broadly.

“People have been ignited,” she said. “People have been politicized and stirred up.”


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.