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A new Senate begins, but control of chamber waits on Georgia

Tallying results in two Senate runoffs will take time

Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks to supporters during a rally Saturday in Carrolton, Ga. Loeffler faces Democrat Raphael Warnock in a special election runoff Tuesday.
Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks to supporters during a rally Saturday in Carrolton, Ga. Loeffler faces Democrat Raphael Warnock in a special election runoff Tuesday. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The new Congress convened on Sunday, but it will take days, perhaps even weeks, to determine which party will control the Senate after polls close Tuesday in Georgia. 

Drama in the nation’s capital has upended the final stretch of the two Senate runoff elections, and leaders of both parties are descending on the Peach State.

Congressional Republicans clashed with President Donald Trump in the closing days of the 116th Congress, overriding his veto of the annual defense authorization bill on New Year’s Day and scuttling an attempt to increase direct payments from $600 to $2,000 for Americans struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Georgia GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have been caught in the middle, trying not to alienate Trump’s supporters, whom they need to turn out in droves to win their runoffs. They backed Trump’s calls for the $2,000 payments after initially opposing similar payments last spring, and both Republicans were absent for Friday’s vote to override the president’s veto.  

During an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Loeffler refused to say whether she will join Republicans who plan to object to the Electoral College votes of some of the states on Wednesday, the day after the runoffs, but added, “everything is on the table.” Loeffler also declined to say whether she would have voted to override Trump’s veto of the defense bill, though she did vote for the measure last month, after the president had threatened a veto. She missed Friday’s vote because she was on the campaign trail.  

“I have to be out across the state campaigning to make sure that Georgians turn out and vote on Jan. 5 because none of this will matter if we don’t win on the 5th,” Loeffler said. 

Loeffler remained in Georgia on Sunday for the start of the 117th Congress, even though she is still serving in the Senate. She was appointed to the remaining term of GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned due to illness. 

Perdue, whose Senate term expired Sunday, has also remained in Georgia, quarantining after coming in contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19. 

Hitting the trail

With control of the chamber at stake, senators in both parties have been hitting the campaign trail in Georgia. 

Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah were to appear Sunday afternoon at a “Save America Rally” with the conservative group Club for Growth Action. 

Later on Sunday, California Sen. Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect, will head to Savannah to campaign with Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker who is challenging Perdue, and Raphael Warnock, the pastor challenging Loeffler. 

The final push from the leaders of both parties will come Monday. Both Trump and President-elect Joe Biden will be in the Peach State to remind voters that control of Congress, and of the nation’s capital, is on the line. If both Ossoff and Warnock prevail, Democrats would control the White House, the Senate and the House. 

Loeffler said she expected Trump to emphasize the stakes of the race and encourage Republicans to vote. But Trump has cast doubt on the upcoming runoffs, tweeting Friday that Georgia’s election results on Nov. 3, including the two Senate races that necessitated the runoffs, were “both illegal and invalid.”

Trump escalated his attempts to overturn the election results during an hourlong call Saturday with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, urging him to “find 11,780 votes” and repeating baseless conspiracy theories, according to The Washington Post, which obtained a recording of the call.

The Post reported that Trump referenced the upcoming runoffs during the call and signaled he would bring up the allegations of election fraud during the Monday rally.

“Because of what you’ve done to the president, a lot of people aren’t going out to vote, and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative,” Trump reportedly said.

Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that Trump’s effort to undermine the election results would ultimately hurt Republicans. Democrats also believe they have energy on their side, with record amounts of campaign donations and a surge in early voting in the runoffs. 

“What’s happening in Georgia right now is historic,” Ossoff said Sunday on MSNBC. “We are on the cusp of a victory.” 

Ossoff and Warnock walloped their Republicans opponents in fundraising for the runoffs, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission on Dec. 24. The two Democrats raised a combined $210 million from Oct. 15 through Dec. 16, compared with the Republicans’ combined $132 million. 

But the Republicans nearly matched the Democrats’ war chests for the final weeks of the races. Perdue and Loeffler disclosed a combined $37.3 million in cash on hand as of Dec. 16, and Ossoff and Warnock disclosed a combined $40.2 million. Republican outside groups have also been outspending their Democratic counterparts.

Democratic hopes have been buoyed by early voting numbers. More than 3 million Georgians have voted in the runoffs so far, according to the website Georgia Votes. More voters of color, who tend to favor Democrats, cast ballots early than they did in the November election. Nearly 116,000 voters who did not cast ballots in November have voted in the runoffs, according to the U.S. Elections Project

Meanwhile, participation in deep-red districts where Trump logged his strongest performances in the state in November has been low. 

In the 14th District in northwest Georgia, which will host Trump’s Monday rally, more than 73 percent of voters backed the president in November, his second-best performance in the state, according to Daily Kos Elections. But only 69 percent of voters who cast ballots in November had voted early as of Sunday morning, among the state’s lowest participation rates. 

“We need a big Election Day turnout,” said Chip Lake, a GOP strategist who works on Georgia campaigns. “Any Republican would be lying to you if they told you that they weren’t concerned about turnout.”

Abrams said Democrats still need to turn out their voters on Election Day. 

“We did very well in vote by mail. We did very well in early vote,” she said. “But we know Election Day is going to be the likely high-turnout day for Republicans, so we need Democrats who haven’t cast their ballots to turn out.”

In the final stretch of the Georgia campaigns, ad spending in the runoffs has topped a record-shattering $500 million. The state has been barraged with so much information over the past eight weeks that it is unclear whether the drama in Washington will change any opinions there.

“A lot of people’s preferences are pretty hard-wired at this point,” Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie said.

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