It’s a big week in the United States to kick off the year. On Wednesday (Thursday morning in Australia), a joint session of Congress will count the votes that will officially make Joe Biden president – we talked about this last week. He will be sworn in two weeks later, on 20 January.
But in the meantime, tomorrow morning Australian time, the state of Georgia goes to the polls in an election – strictly speaking, two elections – that will make a great deal of difference to what Biden’s presidency is like.
Two months ago, in conjunction with the presidential election, the US voted, as usual, for a third of the Senate. The Democrats did poorly; needing to pick up four seats for a majority or three for a 50-50 tie, they managed a net gain of only one, winning Arizona and Colorado but losing Alabama.
In Georgia, however, the Senate race was close. Republican incumbent David Purdue won 49.7% of the vote, a lead of less than 90,000 on his Democrat challenger, Jon Ossoff, who had 47.9% (a Libertarian candidate won the remainder). Because Georgia requires an absolute majority for election, that meant the two would go to a runoff.
At the same time, there was also a Senate by-election in Georgia, to select a replacement for Republican Johnny Isakson, who was elected in 2016 but resigned a year ago. In a by-election (called a “special election” in the US) multiple candidates from the same party can run in the general election – effectively a “jungle primary” – and if no-one wins an overall majority, the top two, regardless of party, contest a runoff.
Republicans won more votes in the by-election, by (not surprisingly) a similar, although slightly closer, margin to the main election: 49.4% in aggregate to the Democrats’ 48.4%. But with no-one having a majority, a runoff was scheduled between Democrat Raph Warnock and Republican Kelly Loeffler.
So tomorrow, two months after the rest of the election, Georgia will elect its two senators; one to serve a full six-year term, and one to serve the remaining two years of Isakson’s term. The democratic thing to do, of course, would be to elect them in a single proportional ballot, in which case the two parties would get one each. But that’s not how America works: there will be two separate elections, which could conceivably give different results.
And if the Democrats should win both races, that will tie the Senate at 50 seats all (counting the two independents as Democrats). With incoming vice-president Kamala Harris able to vote to break a tie, that would give the Democrats effective, if very precarious, control.
How likely is it? In normal times, runoff elections show a sharply reduced turnout, which tends to favor the Republicans. Since the Democrats need to make up ground, that would argue against their chances. Added to that is the fact that the Democrats have already won the White House and the House of Representatives, and some voters will probably be keen to maintain something of a balance of power.
But to state the obvious, these are not normal times. Since the general election the Republican Party has split down the middle between those who acknowledge Biden’s victory and those who are clinging to Donald Trump’s fantasies and plotting to somehow overturn the result. Georgia’s Republican officials have mostly lined up with the first group (notably including its secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, the target of a Trump shakedown); Purdue and Loeffler have aligned themselves with the second.
It’s not an edifying spectacle, and it risks deterring Republican voters on both sides of the line. Constitutional Republicans may stay home (or even vote Democrat) to express their concerns about the president’s behavior; Trump loyalists may stay home because they’re being told that elections are all meaningless.
I would normally take the balance of power argument very seriously; concentration of power in one set of hands is generally a bad thing. But the dysfunctionality of the American system has made that an increasingly difficult argument to sustain. The Republican Party has become so much of an anti-democratic cult that giving it any share of power is a hard thing to justify.
It may be that voters are feeling the same way, because the polls in Georgia have swung around to showing narrow Democrat leads for both of tomorrow’s races. Sportsbet this morning has Warnock as favorite for the by-election, while the regular election is neck-and-neck.
And since Georgia is clearly a very evenly-divided state, it’s quite possible that at least one of the elections could be extremely close, creating the same opportunities for litigation and conspiracy theories that we’ve already seen on the presidential stage – although with his name not on the ballot, it’s unlikely that Trump will be so heavily invested in the result.
Biden was the first Democrat presidential candidate to carry Georgia since 1992. If he can get two Senate candidates over the line there as well, he will be free from at least the grossest sorts of Congressional interference for the first half of his term. The president may be doing his best to help him, but it’s a big ask all the same.