WASHINGTON — Georgia is about to become the center of the political universe.
Control of the Senate is likely to come down to the Jan. 5 Georgia runoff, when voters could be asked to decide whether both Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler should continue to serve in the upper chamber.
Loeffler will face a challenge from Democrat Raphael Warnock after the two emerged from the crowded jungle primary.
Perdue’s race against Democrat Jon Ossoff is still rated “too close to call” by NBC News. The incumbent Republican remains short of the 50-percent threshold he needs to win the seat and avoid a runoff.
So far, Democrats have secured 48 seats in the Senate. And Republicans look poised to control 50 seats by the time all the votes are tallied in Alaska and North Carolina if the current leaders hold.
Democrats will need to win both of Georgia’s seats to secure control of the chamber with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
The stakes are enormous. If Republicans hold one or both seats, Biden would be the first president since 1989 to enter office without full control of Congress, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would have power over his legislative agenda, cabinet picks and judicial nominees.
Georgia Democrats are celebrating the opportunity as Biden leads by 10,000 votes in the Republican-dominated state, with 99 percent counted and a potential recount on the horizon.
“It’s a new day in Georgia,” said Bianca Keaton, the chair of Gwinnett County Democratic Party in the diverse and growing Atlanta metropolitan area, which is powering Democrats. “I never thought we’d be in this position where the state of our country and the Senate would depend on our state. And here we are.”
Georgia has been on the forefront of the political evolution of the South.
Decades ago, Georgia Democrats ran the state. It was the era of “Dixiecrats” who fought to maintain racial segregation.
That began to flip when national Democrats embraced the civil rights movement and pro-segregationist politicians left the party. Georgia last voted Democrat for president in 1992 — when fellow Southerner Bill Clinton won — and Republicans haven’t lost a Senate race there since 2000.
But in recent years, with booming suburbs and young, diverse voters skeptical of the GOP turn, a different kind of Democratic Party has been gaining a foothold. Hillary Clinton lost Georgia by just 5 points in 2016, and Stacey Abrams lost a gubernatorial election by 1.5 points in 2018.
“We are stunned,” said Jack Kingston, a former GOP congressman from Georgia and a Trump campaign surrogate. “You know it’s out there but you just don’t know how jarring it is till you see it. Hats off to the Democrats — they’ve gotten their people to the polls.”
Kingston said Perdue and Loeffler could try to leverage a Biden victory to their advantage by running against his proposed Cabinet appointees, especially if they’re from the “hard left” of the party.
“The idea that Americans like balance is helpful to us,” he said. “Our people do know how to vote in a runoff and we’ll show back up.”
Republicans are preparing to campaign on keeping control of the Senate to restrain the progressive agenda. The party’s campaign arm promoted footage of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer D-N.Y., saying, “Now we take Georgia, then we change America!”
Ossoff’s campaign says it is prepared.
“That’s a conversation that we welcome,” Ossoff campaign manager Ellen Foster told reporters on a conference call Friday. “It is harder to protect Georgians’ rights unless we have a Democratic majority in the Senate.”
On Monday, Ossoff wrote a letter to Perdue calling for three live, in-person debates ahead of the possible runoff.
Democrats are planning to highlight their message about the need to tackle the coronavirus against a GOP they say has been reckless about the deadly pandemic and protect access to health care from attempts to unwind the Affordable Care Act.
Uncertainties surround the races. Which side will have the money edge? Will Republican energy flag without Trump on the ballot? Will the president’s baseless claims of election illegitimacy demotivate or fire up conservatives? Will the Atlanta metropolitan area drag Democrats over the line? And will the young and diverse new voters in Georgia turn out in big margins?
“Jon is particularly well positioned in this new electorate,” Foster said, describing the race as the first runoff in the more diverse Georgia that has put Democrats in range.
Perdue’s campaign expressed confidence about the road ahead.
“If overtime is required when all of the votes have been counted, we’re ready, and we will win,” Perdue campaign manager Ben Fry said in a statement, arguing that Georgians agree with “David Perdue’s positive vision for the future direction of our country.”