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Will Georgia’s Two Senate Runoffs Split Different Ways?


The presidential race seems to be over. Republicans gained seats in the House, but Democratic control is assured there too, if narrowly. Only the Senate stands between the Democrats and undivided government, with the majority there to be decided by two runoff elections in Georgia. As close as that state was in the presidential race—a margin of 0.25 percent, according to the hand recount just finished—we can expect the Senate races there to be similarly close.

How will these elections end? Will they both end in the same result? Prognosticators who write about Georgia seem to assume so, with the debate being whether Republicans or Democrats will win both seats.

But while each party wants to win both contests, Republicans only need one of the two seats to maintain their Senate majority. A look at the history of similar contests indicates that an electoral split is uncommon, but still possible.

The Same Party Usually Wins Both

Because of the way Senate seats are staggered, it is somewhat rare for two to be up for election on the same day in the same state. When it does happen, we should expect that the same party would win both elections.

While people sometimes split their votes on executive offices, with a legislature they are voting not just for the candidate but also for the party that candidate would help organize the chamber. More so than in other branches of government, party matters in a legislature.

That is borne out in the history of double Senate elections. Since World War II, there have been 35 occasions in which both of a state’s Senate seats were on the ballot on the same day—36 including Georgia’s January 2021 runoff.

In 31 of the 35, the same party has won both seats. In the most recent examples, Mississippi and Minnesota in 2018, Democrats won both Minnesota races and Republicans won both Mississippi races. This was not unexpected, and confirmed what election-watchers had suspected about the two states’ electorates.

To find the most recent election in which this was not the case, we have to go all the way back to 1966. That day, South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond easily won re-election while the special election for the state’s other seat went narrowly to Democrat Fritz Hollins. Hollins and Thurmond served together in the Senate for the next 37 years.

Even that occasion of voters splitting their tickets probably deserves an asterisk: Thurmond had been a Democrat until 1964 and, other than him, South Carolina was effectively a one-party state. Voters in 1966 elected two men who had previously won various elections in the state as southern Democrats. We have to go back four more years to 1962 to find more examples of split-tickets in a double Senate election, when Idaho and New Hampshire voters both did the same thing, sending one senator from each party to Congress that year.

But A Split Is Entirely Possible

That makes for a daunting historical precedent, even more so as split-ticket voting is on the decline these days. But looking beyond the winners of the elections to the actual percentage of the vote they received shows that voters’ choices are more varied than it first appears. Most of these elections have not been in swing states, which gives room for a party’s candidates to have wildly varying performances while both still winning.

The 2018 elections in Mississippi and Minnesota show just this sort of divergence. In Minnesota, Democrat Amy Klobuchar won easily in the regular election with more than 60 percent of the vote. In the special election, Democrat Tina Smith also won, but with just 52 percent.

In Mississippi, the regular election was not close, with Republican Roger Wicker taking 58 percent of the vote, but the special election was close enough to require a runoff. Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith won that election three weeks later with 53 percent of the vote.

In each case, the longer-serving senator won a greater share of the vote than the appointed replacement who was running in the special election. How could this play out in Georgia? We can see some indication in the first round of balloting. On November 3, incumbent Republican David Perdue took 49.73 percent of the vote, just missing the majority he needed to avoid a runoff. Kelly Loeffler, the Republican appointed in January to fill a vacancy, managed only 25.91 percent.

Part of that is the nature of the election: Perdue’s was a normal election where each party had one nominee. In Loeffler’s election, each party had multiple nominees, with the top two advancing to a runoff.

But even combining all of the Democratic and Republican votes in that race leads to a different tally than the regular election: Republicans won 49.37 percent of the vote and Democrats took 48.39 percent. That small difference 49.73 percent versus 49.37 percent might be enough, in this closely divided state, to split the election.

The Effects of Turnout

Much depends on what the third-party and independent candidates’ voters decide to do, and on whether each party can keep turnout levels as high as they were on Nov. 3. Perdue clearly has the easier road to victory: peeling off just a few votes that went to the Libertarian in his race would be enough to get to 50 percent. Loeffler’s path is harder, but she already has the support of Doug Collins, the other main Republican her race, and the rest of the party should coalesce around her candidacy.

Turnout is a bigger issue. “It will all come down to turnout” is a classic, content-free prediction in a close election, but it is often true. Traditionally, Republicans have had an easier time turning out their voters than Democrats, but recent elections may show that trend changing.

In 2018, the Democratic base was more inspired than usual and almost elected a governor in Georgia with the highest turnout ever in a non-presidential year in that state. But then they were motivated by their distaste for President Trump. Now, with Joe Biden on his way to the White House, will that energy dissipate?

Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics has suggested Republicans’ usual advantage may not yet have returned and that Georgia “may not revert to ‘factory settings.’” Likewise, Jacob Rubashkin at Inside Elections believes 2018 to have been a turning point for Democrats in the state. Democrats lost two runoffs for state offices that year, but both were exceedingly close. Is 2020 (or 2021) the year everything comes together for Democrats in at least one of these two races?

Republicans probably have more reason for optimism. The Democrats’ best vote-getter of the night, Biden, still only managed 49.51 percent of the vote. All of the energy of the presidential election could not elevate any Democrat above 50 percent, nor did any of the eight statewide races in 2018 produce a majority for Democrats.

Democrats’ growth in the state is real, but calling Georgia a blue state is premature. Republicans should feel good about their chances to win at least one, and that is all they really need.