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Explained: What is at stake in the Georgia senate runoffs?

The upcoming Georgia runoff elections are make-or-break for the Democratic Party. With the Republicans currently holding 50 seats in the US Senate and the Democrats trailing behind with 48, the races will determine which party controls the senate.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Vasco |
December 27, 2020 10:25:08 am
A voter walks to the entrance during early voting for the Senate runoff election, at Ron Anderson Recreation Center, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, in Powder Springs, Ga. (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland)

President-elect Joe Biden’s thumping victory over Donald Trump in the recently-held US presidential election was just half the battle won as his ability to govern over the next two years is currently hinging on two senate races slated to take place in Georgia next month.

The upcoming Georgia runoff elections are make-or-break for the Democratic Party. With the Republicans currently holding 50 seats in the US Senate and the Democrats trailing behind with 48, the races will determine which party controls the senate.

Nearly 2.1 million people have already cast their ballots, ahead of the critical January 5 Senate runoff election in the state. According to Reuters, about 1.3 million voted early at in-person polling booths, while another 721,000 people sent ballots by mail.

Here is everything you need to know about the two high-stakes runoff elections in Georgia

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Why is another election happening in the US state of Georgia?

Georgia will conduct two runoff elections on January 5, for both the state’s senate seats, after all four candidates from the Republican and Democratic parties fell short of the 50 per cent-plus-one vote threshold mandated in the state.

Under Georgia election law, if a situation arises where no candidate is able to secure at least 50 per cent of the vote, then the two candidates with the most votes qualify for a second election, where they go head-to-head once again to try and clinch the minimum vote share mandated by the state to be declared the victor of the race.

Robert Campbell, Graco Hernandez Valenzuela and Stephanie Lopez-Burgus, from left, canvas a neighborhood for the Working Families Party about the U.S. Senate races, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Lawrenceville, Ga. (AP Photo/Tami Chappell)

According to the US’ constitution, all 50 states are allowed to have their own election system and are thus free to decide what the minimum share of votes is to win a race. Several states, including Georgia, require candidates to get a minimum of 50 per cent of the total votes. Some states ask only for 40 per cent, and others do not have the option of runoff elections at all.

It is rather uncommon for two senate runoffs to be held at once, but it is happening this year as the seat for Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired last year, has to be filled again.

In the November election, incumbent senator David Perdue got 49.8 per cent of the vote, while his Democratic contender Jon Ossoff managed to secure 47 per cent. The vote share of third-party candidate Shane Hazel of the Libertarian Party ensured that neither Perdue nor Ossoff could establish a clear majority.

The state’s other senator Republican Kelly Loeffler was appointed in 2019 to succeed Isakson after he retired. She was running against 21 candidates, none of whom were able to garner enough votes to win the race. Democrat Raphael Warnock received the greatest share of the vote (32.7 per cent), with Loeffler placing second (26 per cent). The winner of this runoff will only serve two years, which is the remainder of Ossoff’s six-year term.

But these are only Senate elections, so why the excitement?

There is a lot riding on the Senate runoff elections in Georgia, as it will ultimately determine the balance of power in the Senate. If the Republicans win one or both of the Georgia Senate races, then they will clinch the majority in the house and will, as a result, pose a major hurdle for Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.

With a majority in the senate, they will be able to block legislation and major appointments put forth by the Democrats. So, the Democrats need this win.

If they manage to win the Georgia seats, then they will have a 50-50 tie with the Republican Party in the Senate. In that case, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will serve as a tie-breaker. This would mean, her’s would be the deciding vote in the Senate, which would clear the path for the Democrats to pass legislation and make big decisions.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Why is it so crucial for both sides to get that majority?

If the Democratic Party is able to clinch both seats and reach the crucial 50-seat threshold in the senate, it would create a unified government since the Democrats already have a majority in the US House. In this case, for the first two years of his term, President-elect Biden’s administration will be able to enjoy the enormous power that comes with control of both chambers and the executive branch.

In a Zoom call with Warnock and Ossoff supporters, Obama said, “Anybody listening right now, you need to realise this is not just about Georgia. This is about America and this is about the world.” Meanwhile, the Republican Party, too, has been pushing out ads with a similar sentiment urging conservatives to vote in the upcoming runoff election.

With Trump’s repeated threats to reject the $900-billion Covid relief package, which could potentially lead to a government shutdown before the end of the year, Democrats are pushing the message that if they win the two Senate seats in Georgia, Congress will provide a more generous package with better benefits for the unemployed.

But if the Democrats lose, then it will be challenging for them to enact their major priorities like expanding healthcare and fighting climate change. The Senate’s senior-most Republican Mitch McConnell is likely to block pretty much everything that is laid before him by the Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, speaks during a news conference with other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington, while Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, listens at left. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Basic duties like allocating funds for government projects and paying debts will become a struggle and their more ambitious proposals — such as a multi-trillion-dollar plan to curb carbon emissions and to create more jobs in the country — won’t stand a chance in a Republican-majority Senate.

It isn’t just policy proposals, if Senate Republicans win the fight to keep their majority, McConnell will also have complete authority to stifle Biden’s picks for the federal judiciary. For the last six years, the senate — led by McConnell — has been confirming conservative judges, a trend that Democrats hope to reverse if they win the upcoming runoff elections.

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Has a Republican majority thwarted a Democratic White House earlier?

Yes. During former President Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House, the senate led by Mitch McConnell fought and attempted to block nearly every piece of legislation or major nomination the president put forth.

In a landmark political moment that was widely reexamined following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, McConnell and the Senate Republicans refused to confirm Obama’s pick, Judge Merrick Garland, to replace Justice Antonin Scalia in the US Supreme Court after his demise in the spring of 2016.

Many Democrats cited this instance after the recent nomination of federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to point out an apparent double standard in how Republicans handled the Supreme Court nominations of Obama and Trump.

Former President Bill Clinton, too, was repeatedly blocked into virtual paralysis by the Republicans in the Congress and Senate. Several of his nominees for judgeships, ambassadorships and other top posts were turned down by the Senate. To work around the hurdles posed by the House and Senate Republicans, he began flexing his presidential power by issuing executive orders, regulations and proclamations.

On December 19, 1998, the House (then controlled by Republicans) voted to impeach Clinton for lying under oath and obstructing justice in connection with his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. In the end, however, he was acquitted on both articles of impeachment following a trial in the senate — which then was controlled by the Democrats.

So who’s contesting the races and against whom?

Sen David Perdue vs Jon Ossoff

In the November election, incumbent senator David Perdue got 49.8 per cent of the vote, while his Democratic contender Jon Ossoff managed to secure 47 per cent. (AP)

David Purdue, a 71-year-old wealthy former businessman and vehement Trump ally, has served as a Georgia Senator since 2015. He is currently under scrutiny over allegations of insider trading, the New York Times first reported. But he is better known for sparking tremendous backlash when he consciously mispronounced Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris’ name at an event.

Ossoff is a documentary filmmaker who first launched his campaign with an endorsement from the late civil rights icon John Lewis. The 33-year-old was the democratic candidate for a special congressional election in 2017, which he ultimately lost.

Sen Kelly Loeffler vs Raphael Warnock

Democrat Raphael Warnock received the greatest share of the vote (32.7 per cent), with Loeffler placing second (26 per cent). (AP)

Loeffler is a junior Georgia senator and is still regarded as a political newcomer. Much like Purdue, she has also been a long-time supporter of Donald Trump. In 2019, she was named to the senate by Governor Brian Kemp after the sitting senator resigned. She also happens to be one of the wealthiest members of the Senate and even co-owns a women’s NBA team called the Atlanta Dream.

Warnock is a pastor at the popular Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr used to preach. He has often been called “radical Raphael” by his Republican adversaries, who constantly bring up statements about the police, US-Israel relations, and the military that he has made during some of his sermons.

What role is Trump playing in the election?

President Trump has been relentlessly trying to cast doubts on the results of the Georgia race, where he became the first Republican in over two decades to lose in the otherwise reliably-red state.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., speaks as President Donald Trump and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., listen at a campaign rally at Valdosta Regional Airport, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Valdosta, Ga. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

However, the results of a November exit poll conducted in the state, showed a sharp decline in his approval ratings. According to CNN, he lost independent voters by around 9 percentage points and moderates by 32 percentage points. Many suburban voters were increasingly moving away from the president also due to his election ‘conspiracy theories’, the Washington Post reported.

Trump’s refusal to concede and his repeated voter fraud allegations have also divided the Georgia Republican Party. Many fear his recent antics may deter some Republicans from voting. He even launched a scathing attack against the state’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp, calling him “hapless” for not permitting a signature verification after he lost the election.

“I will easily & quickly win Georgia if Governor Brian Kemp or the Secretary of State permit a simple signature verification. Has not been done and will show large scale discrepancies,” he tweeted. “Why are these two ‘Republicans’ saying no? If we win Georgia, everything else falls in place!

But after facing pressure from Republican leadership, he held a rally in the state where he urged his supporters to vote as a way of getting back at the Democratic Party for committing fraud, the Washington Post reported.

The President courted controversy yet again when questions were raised about his “Georgia Election Fund” to support Republicans in the two senate runoffs, Politico reported. But a closer look showed that most of the proceeds were going towards his newly-launched Political Action Committee (PAC), which he plans to use to fund his future political activities.

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