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Ask Civics 101: Why Is Georgia Electing 2 Senators, And What Will Happen After The Runoffs?

Today's Ask Civics 101 question: How is it that Georgia is electing both U.S. Senators in the same year (and while we're at it, if the Senate has a 50-50 Democrat-GOP split, is there a majority leader)?  

Read on, or listen to this short podcast episode for the answer.

Do you have a question about democracy burning a hole in your pocket? Ask us!

We spoke to Casey Dominguez, professor of political science at the University of San Diego.

"Right now," Casey says, "the whole world is focused on two Senate races in Georgia, even though the rest of us are all done with our elections. Georgia's state laws are an important part of this story.

Senator Johnny Isakson retired in 2019 due to health reasons. But his term in the Senate ran through 2022. So Georgia state law allowed the Republican governor to appoint a temporary replacement until the fall elections of this year when there was a special election to fill the rest of us Senator Isakson's term, which goes or goes for another two years."

States get two U.S. Senators each. Those senators serve six-year terms, and they fall into one of three classes. Only one class, or one third, of the Senate is up for election every year. That way a state is never electing or reelecting both of its senators. This year in Georgia, it was incumbent David Perdue’s Senate seat that was on the line. He was elected in 2014.

It's because of that Georgia state law, which only allows gubernatorial appointments until the next election, that a double Senate election was triggered.

The governor appointed Kelly Loeffler, and the voters got to decide whether she would serve the rest of the term, until 2022, or whether they wanted someone else in that senate seat.

In the traditional Senate race, Libertarian Shane Hazel served as a spoiler candidate in the election between Republican Senator Purdue and Democrat John Ossoff. Recieving just over two percent of the vote, Hazel kept both Purdue and Ossoff underneath the 50% mark

"And Georgia state law says that you have to get 50% of the vote, 50% plus one, in order to win a seat in the Senate," Casey explains, "And so that race will go to a runoff because no candidate got 50% of the vote."

It was a similar situation for Loeffler's seat.

"Because there were more than two candidates who ran for that seat and again, nobody got 50% of that vote," says Casey, "Leffler, who is the Republican, is also running in a runoff against the Democrat, the Reverend Raphael Warnock. And so both of these both of the U.S. Senate seats in Georgia are going to runoffs at the beginning of January."

The current election results have the Senate at a 46-50 split between Democratic and GOP candidates, with two independents in the mix, Senators Bernie Sanders and Angus King, both of whom have tended to vote along Democratic party lines. So what happens if two Democratic candidates win in these two runoff elections?

That's where the Vice President's role of Senate President, and tie-breaker vote, comes into play.

"The best we know about that comes from the year 2000, when the Democrats had a 50 votes in the Senate and the Republicans had 50 votes in the Senate. And so it depended on which party held the White House."

"When the when the Congress first convened," Casey explains, "the Clinton administration was still in the White House. And so Al Gore provided the tie-breaking vote. And then after George Bush was sworn in, then Dick Cheney became the tie-breaking vote and and the Republicans then their party leader became the majority leader. And so we would expect, I think, something similar to happen if a 50-50 Senate were to be elected on January 5th. If the Democrats won both Georgia Senate seats, then Mike Pence would preside over the Senate until January 20th, when Biden and Harris are sworn in. And then Kamala Harris would preside over the Senate and the Democrats would their leader would be the majority leader."

In other words, if Democrats win both runoff seats, we’re probably looking at a Democrat-controlled Congress.

Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.

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