Updated November 6, 2020 - 5:25 pm
WASHINGTON — Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto kept Democrats’ hopes of a Senate majority alive Friday with national party efforts to upset two Republican lawmakers in Georgia special elections that are likely to determine which party will control the legislative agenda in the upper chamber.
Democrats are seeking to wrest away control from Senate Republicans to advance the initiatives of a new administration if Joe Biden wins the presidency.
Optimistic projections by Democrats all but evaporated on Election Day as most vulnerable Republicans won re-election. The GOP also voiced confidence they would hold the seats in Georgia.
“Republicans will hold the line in Georgia,” said Kevin McLaughlin, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Democrat Jon Ossoff advanced to a runoff against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue, and GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face off with the Rev. Raphael Warnock in a special election to fill the seat held by former Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned last year for health reasons.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called both Democratic candidates independent leaders who are up to the task to win and stand up for constituents over special interests.
“We are thrilled to support these great candidates in these critical elections, and are confident the momentum that has powered their campaigns will carry them to victory in January,” Cortez Masto said in a statement released by the DSCC.
McLaughlin said Georgia voters rejected Ossoff in a previous race and know of “his backers’ socialist agenda for this country.” Loeffler said she plans to talk about Democrats’ anti-police and law enforcement rhetoric.
Closely divided Senate
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the current Congress, but the political climate in 2020 and the overwhelming voter turnout prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to put the chances of the GOP holding the majority at just “50-50” before the election.
Democrats were successful in taking two Republican seats, with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper defeating GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, and former astronaut Mark Kelly dispatching Republican Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona.
But Republicans won back a seat in Alabama, when former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville defeated Sen. Doug Jones, a heavy underdog.
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis holds a narrow lead in North Carolina over Democrat Cal Cunningham.
In Alaska, GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan holds a wide lead over his Democratic opponent with just half of the vote counted.
The North Carolina and Alaska Senate races have yet to be called by The Associated Press due to ongoing ballot counting.
Uphill battle in Georgia
Democrats face an uphill battle in the runoff races in Georgia, a historically red state. Officials there also noted Friday a statewide recount is likely.
Perdue is seeking a second term and narrowly failed to win the 50 percent-plus needed to avoid a runoff. Ossoff is a documentary filmmaker who is running his first statewide campaign. He lost a race for a House seat in 2018.
Loeffler, co-owner of the Women’s National Basketball Association team the Atlanta Dream and one of the richest members of Congress, was appointed to the seat by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp following Isakson’s resignation.
She faced questioning by federal agencies after she and her husband sold off $18 million in stock in companies before the coronavirus pandemic. A Justice Department insider trading inquiry into the stock sale after information was disclosed to senators was later closed.
Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, would become the first black Democrat elected to serve in the Senate from Georgia.
With control of the Senate at stake, both parties and leadership political action committees are expected to dump millions into the races that so far have together cost between $150 million and $200 million, according to political analysts and watchdog groups like the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
In addition to financial assistance, the DSCC and the NRSC are expected to flood the zone with field operators.
“All eyes are on Georgia,” a Democratic campaign aide said of a massive effort to get out the vote.
Cortez Masto called Ossoff and Warnock candidates who would deliver for Georgia, not special interests, and fight for health care, an issue she said was a top concern for Americans.
The Georgia races also give Democrats a chance to overcome a disappointing performance in other races that the party expected to win and reclaim the majority. Faulty polling data was blamed for some of the overconfidence.
But Joe Biden’s performance in Georgia, along with changing demographics, growth in suburban areas and increased voter registration in the suburbs and among Black voters is changing the dynamic of the once solid Republican state.
In addition, President Donald Trump will not be on the top of the runoff ballot.
With the likelihood that GOP incumbents in Alaska and North Carolina will hold on to their leads to win, and Democrats and Republicans at a 48-48 tie, the Georgia’s two runoff elections on Jan. 5 become critical.
If Biden wins the White House, Kamala Harris as vice president would become president of the Senate and cast tie-breaking votes in the chamber.
“If Democrats win the two Senate races in Georgia, their odds of being able to pass the legislation in their platform goes up dramatically,” said Steven White, a Syracuse University assistant professor of political science.
If Democrats lose, their options are a lot more limited. Not only would they need the support of more moderate Republican Senators like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, but they would also lose control of the agenda, White noted.