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High-stakes special elections on Jan. 5: Joe Biden hoping to avoid divided government in DC

Donald Trump's erratic behavior has complicated Republican attempts to win the Georgia Senate runoffs. Veteran Georgia journalist Marilyn Geewax discussed the situation with Global Business Journalism students on Dec. 29.


Global Business Journalism reporter

The two runoffs in the U.S. state of Georgia, on Jan. 5 will decide whether Republicans continue to control the Senate, with profound implications for Joe Biden’s presidency.

Earlier this year, the state on America’s southeastern coast was getting attention as one of the eight “swing” states that would decide the presidential election between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Biden. Biden prevailed by 12,000 votes in Georgia and won five of the other seven swing states, giving him a comfortable majority in the Electoral College, the strange system of indirect election of the U.S. president.

Raphael Warnock speaks at a runoff debate with Kelly Loeffler. (C-SPAN screen grab)

“In U.S. we don’t really have a national election for president, we have 50 different elections,” said Marilyn Geewax, former senior business news editor for National Public Radio. “This is sort of a second presidential election.”

Georgia’s two Republican senators both faced re-election on Nov. 3, but they failed to reach the majority required for victory, prompting the unusual general election runoffs. (Georgia is the only state with that requirement.)

In the hotly contested runoffs, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are aiming to hold off Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been dropped on ads in what are likely to be two of the most expensive months of non-presidential politics in American history. Republicans will retain control of the U.S. Senate unless Democrats sweep these two races.

The stakes are enormous both for the new Democratic president and his opposition in the Republican Party. If Democrats gain the Senate majority, Biden will have a much easier time winning confirmation of his nominees and moving forward with an aggressive policy agenda. If Republican retain their majority, Kentucky Sen.Mitch McConnell likely to return to the obstruction tactics he used to foil former President Barack Obama’s agenda after Republicans won the Senate in 2010.

Both sides are spending heavily to win, and early voting has broken records for special elections. So far, the money has not swayed voters one way or another. More than 2.5 million people — about half the turnout of November’s presidential election — had already cast their ballots early, in person or by absentee ballot, by Dec. 30. A nonpartisan poll released Jan. 2 found that more than two-thirds of voters who cast ballots by mail favored both Democrats, while the challengers took 55% of those who cast in-person early ballots.

Republicans are counting on a strong majority on Election Day to overcome the Democrats’ early edge. Both Biden and Trump are planning last-minute campaign stops to boost Election Day turnout.

Geewax, a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a former National Press Club board member, told to the Global Business Journalism students that none of the campaigns are trying to sway voters – only trying to convince their loyalists to show up.

“It’s really about motivating people to vote, not so much about changing minds,” said Geewax, a 2019 visiting professor of Global Business Journalism at Tsinghua University.

Most polls have shown a close race between David Perdue (left) and Jon Ossoff (right). {C-SPAN screen grab)

The Democrats' campaigns announced Wednesday that Biden would campaign Monday in Atlanta with Ossoff and Warnock. Trump already had announced plans for an Election Eve rally with the Republican senators in the north Georgia town of Dalton on Jan. 4, just hours before polls open. Vice President Mike Pence has visited Georgia on behalf of the Republican candidates at least five times.Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, meanwhile, will come to Savannah on Jan. 3.

The most unpredictable factor about this election might be President Trump. He insists that the November election was “rigged” to favor Democrats. The lame-duck president has called for the resignation of Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state, who defended the state’s electoral integrity from Trump’s unsubstantiated claims. Trump’s persistent criticism of fellow Republicans could discourage Republican turn out on Jan. 5, state party leaders fear.

Two Republican runoff losses would leave psychic scars on a party remade during Trump’s single term as president. But it also will have immediate and long-lasting consequences for Biden’s ability to fill vacancies in the U.S. courts and executive branch.

“It really matters who is in the control of Senate,” said Geewax, “because of not only the legislative power, but this ability to manipulate who gets in to which position in government.”

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