ATLANTA – The consequences of Georgia’s twin Senate runoffs are well known: They’ll determine which party controls the Senate in the new Congress.
Long term, yes, that’s the case. But the circumstances of Georgia’s seats make the near term a bit messy.
One of two Georgia races is a regular election for a six-year term. The other is a special election for an unexpired term. The timing of the Jan. 5 runoffs, coming two days after the new Congress convenes and 15 days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, further complicates things.
That means Republicans will have a bare majority of 51 senators to begin the new Congress and potentially in the opening days of Biden’s presidency, regardless of Georgia's results. At the least, that will allow current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to open the Senate’s organizing session in his familiar — and influential — post, while the national political spotlight continues to shine on Georgia officials managing another high-stakes election.
Here’s how it works:
A new Congress is elected every two years. November elections guaranteed Republicans at least 50 Senate seats for the 117th Congress, which convenes for the first time in January as set by federal law. Democrats won 48 Senate seats. The Georgia seats remain up for grabs because no candidates got an outright majority as state law requires. So Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both Republicans, face runoffs against their respective Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
One Republican victory would keep the Senate under GOP control throughout the next Congress (barring an unforeseen vacancy). Democrats need a sweep for a 50-50 Senate, positioning Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to tilt the chamber to Democrats with the tiebreaking vote. The quirk that affects the initial Senate majority, though, is that Loeffler will still be a senator to start the new Congress, while Perdue will not. That yields a 51-48 advantage for Republicans until the Georgia winners take their oaths of office.
TWO SENATORS, DIFFERENT TERMS
All 435 House seats are on general election ballots every federal election cycle, but the 100 seats of the Senate, where terms are six years, are staggered in three classes. Perdue was elected in the 2014 class. His six-year term began in January 2015 and will end when the current Congress gives way to the new body. Because that happens before the runoffs, Perdue will technically be a former senator when polls open Jan. 5.
Loeffler, alternately, was appointed to the seat that opened when Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson resigned from a six-year term that runs through January 2023. Her matchup against Warnock is for the remainder of that term. But her appointment from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp remains in effect until the winner of the election is sworn in, so there’d be no vacancy in that seat at any point.
KEY DATES AND ACTIONS
The new Congress convenes Jan. 3, with Loeffler still holding office.
Congress will ratify Biden and Harris’ election on Jan. 6, but Georgia's results won't be settled by then. The runoff elections are expected to be close, given that Biden won the state’s electoral votes by about 12,000 out of 5 million votes, and with another expected large batch of absentee ballots, the initial count could take several days, as it did in November. Further, there’s a three-day window — ending Jan. 8 — for officials to receive overseas and military ballots and for voters who cast provisional ballots to settle questions about their eligibility and have their votes counted.
Georgia counties have until Jan. 15 to certify results. The secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, has until Jan. 22 — two days after Biden is inaugurated — to certify statewide results. Raffensperger’s office notes the law doesn’t require him to wait that long if everything is in order, but if November is any indication, there could be court fights or moves by officials across Georgia’s 159 counties that require the maximum timetable.
JOINING THE SENATE
The Office of the Secretary of Senate confirmed that the winning candidates do not formally become senators until the chamber receives “a properly executed certificate of election from the state” and they take the oath of office. Georgia law spells out that the governor must issue a certificate of election “immediately” upon his receipt of certified vote totals from Raffensperger. Kemp spokesperson Cody Hall affirmed that his boss would “follow the law,” just as he did in certifying Biden’s slate of presidential electors in November despite President Donald Trump and his allies falsely asserting that Kemp could block or overturn the outcome. Pending recounts or unsettled court challenges do not override an official certificate of election.
HOW IT MATTERS
Practically speaking, the scenarios are mostly about what Democrats can’t do rather than what Republicans will do. McConnell has defined his tenure as majority leader in two ways: confirming judges and blocking Democratic legislative priorities. If Democrats had secured an outright Senate majority in the November elections, they could have started legislating on Jan. 3 and, with the Democratic House majority, even cast votes on some of Biden’s legislative priorities. They could have held hearings on Biden’s Cabinet nominees, setting up quick votes after the inauguration. They could have settled any rules changes — such as addressing whether to abolish or tinker with the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass major legislation — before Biden took office.
As it is, Democrats’ best hope is that Ossoff and Warnock pull off victories and give them a late start as the majority, probably no earlier than Jan. 23. Even then, it would come only after what is likely another contentious vote count in Georgia and after McConnell, at minimum, has another brief run as majority leader to dictate his terms on Capitol Hill.