Column: The Georgia Senate runoffs could make all the difference. But is electing a Democrat possible?

Eylia Love, of the Georgia Tech women's basketball team, holds a voting sign outside of McCamish Pavilion.
Election day in Atlanta earlier this month.
(Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Inc.)

Everybody knows by now that the success or failure of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration in the months ahead hinges in part on the outcome of the two runoff races for U.S. Senate in Georgia on Jan. 5.

With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the millionaires and billionaires of Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street will be tapped yet again to pour their money into this state with only about 7 million voters.

Fortified by tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, political operatives will descend on the state, where Democrat Jon Ossoff is challenging incumbent Sen. David Perdue and the Rev. Raphael Warnock is running against Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.


“This is going to be wildly expensive — the most costly Senate election in Georgia history,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Jeffrey Lazarus, a political science professor at Georgia State University, said spending of $200 million to $300 million was likely in the two runoffs.

It’s all very exciting. But has anyone asked the voters of Georgia how they feel about it?

Biden has clinched the Georgia presidential race, and those who voted for him are aware, of course, that if the Democrats don’t win both of these runoffs, the GOP retains its Senate majority, and much of the Biden agenda can be considered dead on arrival.

But, generally speaking, voters don’t make their choices “tactically” on behalf of abstract goals such as flipping control of the Senate in Washington. Even taking growing partisanship into account, voters are still more likely to choose sides based on things such as protection of the Port of Savannah or how trade laws will affect Georgia farmers, or which candidate they viscerally trust to handle the coronavirus or the ailing national economy.

And here’s another thing: I don’t think they’ll appreciate the flood of outside money pouring in to influence the race. No voter wants to have a bunch of distant billionaires suddenly wake up to the realization that there’s a state called Georgia and start waving their wallets around to influence its election.

More than 80% of the donations to Democrats Ossoff and Warnock came from out-of-state donors in the first cycle of the election. It’s not a particularly good look. Perdue’s communications director was well aware of that when he told the press that Ossoff’s out-of-state money proved he was “hopelessly out of touch with Georgia families,” though Perdue himself also took significant money from individuals and groups based outside the state.

It’s depressing, frankly. Senate races shouldn’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The outsized role of big money in politics is unhealthy and inherently corrupting.

And the fact that the money is coming so heavily from out of state is troubling. For a bunch of rich Californians and New Yorkers to come galumphing in pretending to care about Georgia issues and jacking up the cost of a Senate race by orders of magnitude is unseemly. We didn’t like it when Russians tried to interfere in the U.S. presidential election, and this reminds me of that. It’s Georgia’s business.

That’s why we need to reform the way we finance and run elections. Passing HR1, which has been stalled by the GOP in the Senate, would be a start.

But here’s the conundrum: Until the electoral system is changed, there’s no alternative but to fight by the rules that exist. That’s why I’m hoping that, ugly as it is, the Democrats can win this arms race by outraising the Republicans and spending their money more effectively.

I want Joe Biden to be able to pass climate change legislation and a COVID stimulus package and an expansion of the Affordable Care Act. If he has to face the implacable, partisan opposition of Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), little or nothing will get done.

At the moment, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, more political donations come from California than any other state; donations to the 2020 presidential and congressional elections from this state totaled $1.2 billion. New York was second at $740 million. Both states give overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates.

Ironically, when both contenders in a race have so much money, they often cancel out each other’s advantage. Yet neither side will stop fundraising. This is an arms race, so there’s no choice but to keep at it.

Filings through mid-October suggest that eight of the 10 most expensive Senate races ever took place in 2020. The most expensive Senate race in history, the CRP’s data show, was this year’s North Carolina Senate race between Democrat Cal Cunningham and incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. With outside spending, the total came to $287.6 million. Both candidates received help from tens of millions of dollars in outside spending, and Tillis won the race.

In Georgia, where a similar fortune will be spent, the two Democrats face an uphill battle. Georgia hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years.

But it’s not a lost cause. Joe Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since 1992. That’s the result, in part, of a growing population of younger and more diverse voters, especially in Atlanta and its suburbs.

Winning both seats will be hard. But if Democrats remain energized and turnout is high, if the money and staff and resources turn up, and if there’s not too much resentment about the meddling, it’s possible.