The votes are being counted in Georgia, where Republican and Democratic US Senate candidates faced off after running the most expensive and nationally consequential pair of congressional runoff campaigns in state history.
It is estimated that over four million voters returned to the polls Tuesday to vote in two races pitting Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler against Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican David Perdue, whose Senate term expired Sunday, against Democrat Jon Ossoff. More than three million cast mail-in ballots or voted early in person.
With over 85 percent of the votes counted as of 03:30 GMT, the races are still too early to call.
The outcome will determine which party controls the US Senate, and it appears that was on the minds of voters. In preliminary results from The Associated Press’s VoteCast survey, 60 percent of Georgia runoff voters said Senate control was the most important factor in their vote. Of those who said it was the most important factor, 58 percent voted for Perdue and Loeffler.
Pre-election surveys showed both races to be too close to call, which means the results could take some time to confirm. The winners are expected to be announced as early as Wednesday morning, Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, told Fox News on Tuesday.
As part of last minute get-out-the-vote efforts, three candidates, Loeffler, Warnock and Ossoff, made public appearances throughout the state Tuesday. Perdue could not campaign in person because he is in quarantine after coming into contact with a campaign staffer who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
Given the high stakes of the outcome, the runoffs received nationwide attention and hundreds of millions of dollars in combined donations. In the two months since election day in November, approximately $516m was spent on the contests, according to Medium Buying, which tracks advertisement spending.
Additional national cable and digital ad buys pushes the grand total we have tracked to $516.8M
— Medium Buying (@MediumBuying) January 5, 2021
Party activists on both sides encouraged supporters to vote early and by mail. Of the 7.7 million registered voters in the state, about four million voters are expected in total, shattering the previous state runoff turnout record of 2.1 million. Since the November election, approximately 70,000 new voters have registered, according to an NBC News analysis.
The competitiveness of the race shows how Georgia, a state dominated by Republicans for decades, has changed during the past few years, said Jessica Taylor, an election analyst for the Cook Political Report.
“You have this massive influx of people who are moving into Georgia, and they are the ones that are changing the demographics and the voting patterns,” Taylor said. “Georgia is where Democrats are going to put a lot of their resources in 2022 as well.”
Democrats have also benefitted from an aggressive statewide voter mobilisation effort that registered some 800,000 new voters before Election Day in November. They are hoping turnout among traditional Democratic voters, especially Black voters, was robust enough to make the difference in these races.
Preliminary results from the AP’s VoteCast survey show that Black voters made up 32 percent of the electorate, up from 29 percent in November.
A Republican victory will largely depend on election day voting, and whether they come out in the numbers the party needs them to make up for early Democratic votes.
“We expected that the early vote was going to privilege Democratic voters in this race. The demographic numbers seem to suggest that that pattern is holding up,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “If Republicans don’t make up the low early voting numbers with election day turnout, that probably does not bode well for David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.”
In a last-minute plea Tuesday afternoon, Perdue and Loeffler released a joint statement requesting voters to keep urging friends to vote, a sign that they still needed more participation to make up for Democratic early voting.
“We are encouraged by reports of high voter turnout across the state – particularly so in North Georgia, where President Trump rallied Republicans last night,” the statement read. “But make no mistake about it: This is going to a very close election and could come down to the difference of just a few votes in a few precincts across the state.”
The low early turnout among Republican voters pushed the GOP candidates to focus on northern Georgia late in the race, where support for President Donald Trump is high. Trump rallied for the Republican candidates Monday night in Dalton, in Georgia’s far northwest corner, an event that attracted thousands of supporters. Loeffler attended and Perdue addressed the crowd via video while quarantining.
Anecdotal evidence from Tuesday’s voting suggests that early voting may have alleviated crowding at the polls. Georgia election officials throughout the state reported that polls avoided long lines and suffered minimal problems with voting machines.
“Smooth election so far this morning across Georgia,” said Gabriel Sterling, who oversees the state’s voting systems, several hours into voting on Tuesday, Sterling shared voting data showing the average wait time was just one minute long, and the longest wait was only 20 minutes.
“Get out and vote,” Sterling urged. “It’s quick and easy.”
Trump on Tuesday complained on Twitter about alleged voting irregularities in Georgia’s 12th district. Sterling responded quickly to the president, saying that the issue was fixed hours before.
“Sorry you received old intel Mr. President,” Sterling tweeted.
And this issue in Columbia Co. was resolved hours ago and our office informed the public about it in real time. The votes of everyone will be protected and counted. Sorry you received old intel Mr. President. https://t.co/qqGmnIqwsM
— Gabriel Sterling (@GabrielSterling) January 5, 2021
Trump has battled with Georgia’s Republican election officials like Sterling for months about his loss in the state in November, when Joe Biden defeated him by approximately 12,000 votes.
Trump has, without evidence, accused them of botching the election, going as far as pressuring Georgia election officials to “find” him extra votes months later. Trump’s personal grievances and baseless claims of voter fraud have distracted from the Senate race, a worrying sign for Republicans who need these races to hold onto their last sliver of legislative power in Washington.
It seems voters in Tuesday’s runoffs may have been turned off by Trump’s rhetoric. According to preliminary results from the AP’s VoteCast survey, more than half of runoff voters disapprove of the president’s handling of the 2020 election results.
But, the AP reports that Trump’s allegations of widespread fraud have resonated with Republicans: Only 13 percent are confident that the 2020 results were accurate, compared to 84 percent of Democrats.
Regardless of the outcome, the races showed that Georgia will remain a battleground for some time as the state’s population continues to grow and change, experts said.
“There are still lots of Republicans in Georgia – perhaps even more Republicans than Democrats in the state. But what this means is that Republicans can’t expect to coast to victory,” Gillespie said. “And both parties are going to have to do their utmost to make sure they turn out as much as their base as possible.”