Republican Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock (Images: EPA, AP)

Barely recovered from November’s bruising presidential election, the southern state of Georgia is returning to the polls on January 5 for possibly the most consequential runoff election in US history. The polls close at 11am on January 6, Australian Eastern Standard Time.

The runoffs for the state’s two Senate seats were triggered after no candidate received more than 50% of the vote on November 3. If the Democrats are able to win both seats, they will gain control of Congress.

The candidates

Incumbent Republican David Perdue, a 70-year-old former Reebok executive, is being challenged by 33-year-old Democrat Jon Ossoff. 

Perdue has been accused of profiting from the pandemic, having bought stocks in personal protective equipment company the same day he received a classified briefing on the threat posed by the coronavirus. Ironically, Perdue has had a quiet last few days of the campaign after possible exposure to COVID-19 required him to isolate.

Elsewhere we have Republican Kelly Loeffler, a senator since December 2019. Loeffler is the co-owner of the WNBA team the Atlanta Dream, but has been called on to sell her stake given her loud opposition to Black Lives Matter. Indeed, Dream players have publicly backed her opponent, Reverend Raphael Warnock.

Warnock is a pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and previously chaired voting rights organisation the New Georgia Project.

Even more than usual in the US, race has been a key issue. Loeffler has painted the African-American Warnock as an extremist, highlighted his criticism of police, and gone further and gotten vaguer as the campaign has progressed. She was also recently photographed with a former longtime Ku Klux Klan member, although she claims to have had no idea who he was.

Meanwhile, Ossoff has made a great deal of an endorsement from the late congressmen and civil rights campaigner John Lewis.

Why does it matter?

If both Democrats win, it would give the party effective control of the Senate.

Each party would have 50 senators (technically the Democrats would have 48, but independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King generally caucus with them). This would in turn give Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote.

This wouldn’t exactly give Joe Biden legislative carte blanche — conservative Democrat Joe Manchin has already said he won’t support sweeping reform. But it will make Biden’s life a great deal easier, particularly with judicial and cabinet appointments.

Of course, if either Republican holds on, we can look forward to two years, at least, of congressional gridlock.

Consequently, both campaigns have smashed fundraising records, while President Donald Trump, Biden and Harris are all in the state campaigning.

What’s Trump saying?

You have a big election coming up and because of what you’ve done to the president — you know, the people of Georgia know that this was a scam. Because of what you’ve done to the president, a lot of people aren’t going out to vote, and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative, because they hate what you did to the president. Okay? They hate it.

In a remarkable (even by his standards) phone call that leaked to the press this week, Trump explicitly asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s win in the state, heavily implying it would cost the Republicans the runoff, or that they might be subject to criminal charges (“that’s a big risk to you”) if they failed.

While Trump’s gangsterish “it’d be a real shame if anything happened to that nice career of yours” approach is transparently another gob full of spit hocked at democratic conventions, it may also have breached state and federal laws.

Law professor Kim Wehle told NPR that it’s “a crime to request, solicit or ask someone else to say falsify returns or falsify reports of votes, and arguably that’s what we heard on the call”, while Daniel Goldman, a former prosecutor who helped lead the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry against Trump told Politico, “I’ve charged extortion in mob cases with similar language.”

Of course, Trump may well be trying to preemptively counter the narrative that this is a “referendum on Trump“. Both Republicans have publicly aligned themselves with the president, supported his baseless election fraud claims and adopted his tactics.

What are the polls saying?

Dead heat. FiveThirtyEight‘s aggregate of all the runoff polls has the two Democrats fractionally ahead — Ossoff by 1.6% and Warnock by 2.1%. CNN also has them ahead, within the margin of error.

No Democrat has held a Senate seat in Georgia since 2005. Then again, Biden/Harris was the first Democratic ticket to win Georgia since 1992.

Early voting numbers have hit record highs, while 70,000 new voters have registered since the presidential election.

What can be gleaned from early voting is complicated by the fact that Georgia doesn’t register voters according to their party. That said, the demographics and locations of early voters hint at likely Democrat bent. Conversely, Republicans are generally more likely to vote on the day.

Further, any guidance from the poll has to be tempered by the fact that many quality and high-profile pollsters seem to be sitting this one out.

Either way, don’t expect to get a result quickly. The race will be tight, and legal challenges are all but inevitable. In November, the state spent a month having to certify and re-certify the presidential count.