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Georgia voters making history with Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoff
Scholar of runoffs says GOP has always held advantage, but what about now?
Charles S. Bullock III, Ph.D

Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff for both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats is historically unique in more ways than one, according to the state’s pre-eminent scholar on runoff elections, Charles S. Bullock III, Ph.D.

Bullock, who holds the Richard B. Russell chair in political science and is university professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia, literally wrote the book on “Runoff Elections in the U.S.”

With the runoffs between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff and between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger the Rev. Raphael Warnock drawing national attention, Bullock has been getting more calls than usual. He responded to the Statesboro Herald’s request for a phone interview earlier this week.

“No state has ever had two runoffs for the Senate at the same time, and of course never before then has there been a situation where the control of the Senate hung in the balance awaiting the outcome of a runoff,” Bullock said.

Direct elections of U.S. senators began only 106 to 107 years ago. Although the Senate was established in 1789, the senators were appointed by state legislatures until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

Senate comp
From left, Sen. David A. Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, and Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challenger the Rev. Raphael Warnock


Unique to Georgia

As of 2020, few states require runoffs to obtain a majority winner in congressional elections, including those for Senate.

 “No other state does it exactly like Georgia does,” Bullock said. “In the case, say for a six-year term, Perdue’s seat, first you have to go through a primary and you might have to go through a runoff on that; then there’s a general election, then there’s a potential for a runoff after that. No other state does that.”

Perdue ran unopposed in the Republican primary, while Ossoff won 52.82% of the votes in the seven-candidate Democratic primary, so there were no runoffs at that stage. But after Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel received 2.32% of the votes statewide in the Nov. 3 general election, Perdue led with 49.73%, with Ossoff at 47.95% of the votes.

So, with no candidate having garnered more than 50%, Ossoff and Perdue are headed to a runoff.

Georgia ended up electing both its senators at the same time after Sen. Johnny Isakson retired at the end of 2019 and Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler until a special election could be held.

Among the 20 candidates in what was in effect an open primary for all parties and independents on the Nov. 3 ballot, Warnock captured 32.9% of votes to Loeffler’s 25.91%. That left Doug Collins, also a Republican, behind in third place with 19.95%.

Louisiana has a similar requirement for a runoff following such a “jungle primary,” Bullock said. But again, no other state’s election rules could have produced the situation now before Georgia voters. Absentee ballots can be applied for now, and in-person early voting opens Dec. 14.


Balance of power

Meanwhile, U.S. Senate elections in other states leave Republicans with 50 seats and Democrats with 46 so far, a gain of just one seat by the Democrats. But the two senators that are officially independents also caucus with the Democrats.

So, with Georgia’s two seats remaining to be decided, the outcome could be 51 or 52 seats for Republicans or a 50-50 split.

After she takes office Jan. 20, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be president of the Senate and can wield a tie-breaker vote on behalf of the Democrats. So the nation’s eyes are on Georgia with Jan. 5 approaching.

“People want to know what’s likely to happen, of course, and if we look to the history, we’ve only had seven partisan general election runoffs (in Georgia),” Bullock said.

One Senate runoff occurred in 1992 between Democrat Wyche Fowler and Republican Paul Coverdell and another in 2008 between Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin. Most recently, in 2018, there was runoff for Georgia secretary of state between Brad Raffensperger, the Republican who won, and former John Barrow, the Democrat who previously represented the 12th District in the U.S. House.


History favors GOP

Additionally, Georgia has held five runoffs for seats on its Public Service Commission over the years, but one of those was nonpartisan, Bullock said.

“Of the seven partisan runoffs, Republicans have won every one of them,” he said. “Now in some, like the one in ’92, the Democrat, Fowler, led in the November (general election) vote. He led by about 30,000 votes, but then lost the runoff by about 16,000.”

So the conclusion that Republicans always win Georgia’s runoffs is true “so far,” Bullock said.

“And what that really tells you is that Republicans have done a better job of getting their supporters back to the polls than Democrats have,” he reasoned. “So then a question becomes, is there anything in 2020 which might change that pattern?”


Democratic hopes

One factor that might change it is that two Senate runoffs appear on the same ballot, giving voters more reason to return to the polls, Bullock said.  The ballot also includes a runoff for a Georgia Public Service Commission seat between Republican incumbent Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr. and Democratic challenger Daniel Blackman.

Bullock frames another possible pattern-changing factor in the observation that, while African American voters are currently about 90% likely to vote for a Democratic candidate, they have  been less likely than white voters to return to vote in runoffs.

“Having an African American candidate participate here might offset that,” Bullock said.

That candidate, of course, is Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the historic home church of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bullock reasons that Loeffler also has to win over a share of Collins’ supporters after spending millions of dollars “attacking him very vigorously” with her advertising.

“There’s the risk then when you do that, when you try to win those supporters back, some of them may be so alienated, they may think that you have so maligned their favorite, not that they would necessarily go and vote for Warnock, but they might say, ‘I can’t bring myself to vote for her,’” Bullock said.

Another thing he observed is that there have been “some people on the far, far right fringe of the Republican Party” urging Georgians to boycott the runoff. Those individuals were suggesting that Georgia’s two senators should somehow intervene on behalf of President Donald Trump to stop the state’s certification of votes for President-elect Joe Biden, which senators have no control over, Bullock noted.

However, Trump announced this week that he would hold a rally Saturday in Georgia, and both Loeffler and Perdue made statements welcoming him. He, in turn, took to Twitter to urge his followers in Georgia to support them and not avoid the runoff.


All about turnout

“The biggest challenge for each of these four participants in the runoff is to get the people who voted for you in November to put aside the holidays and New Year’s and everything else and make sure to get out and vote,” Bullock said.

Originally published in 1992 by the University of North Carolina Press, his book “Runoff Elections in the United States” was “not a big seller,” he said, but it remains the only book he is aware of on the topic. He has published several, more popular books on aspects of elections and politics, particularly in the South.

Bullock is starting work on a new book about runoffs, considering such recent developments as “the instant runoff” by ranked-choice voting.

“You know, if we had that we wouldn’t even be talking about this now,” he said.



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