Georgia Runoff History: Why the Past May Not Be Prologue

by Jacob Rubashkin November 19, 2020 · 2:26 PM EST

On his way to becoming the first person to defeat an incumbent president since Bill Clinton in 1992, Joe Biden also replicated another one of the Arkansas governor’s feats: winning Georgia, something no Democratic presidential candidate has done in 28 years.

Along with Biden’s narrow win — confirmed by hand recount this week — Democrats also picked up a House seat in the Atlanta suburbs, and held incumbent GOP Sen. David Perdue to less than 50 percent of the vote.

That last achievement has triggered Georgia’s unique runoff law.

Georgia is the only state where general elections are subject to an absolute majority threshold, meaning that for a candidate to win outright in November, they must capture “50 percent plus one” votes. If no candidate does so, the top two vote-getters proceed to a runoff, this time scheduled for January 5, 2021.

Georgia’s other Senate seat is also headed for overtime. The special election to succeed Sen. Johnny Isakson was conducted as a “jungle primary,” in which all candidates from all parties appeared on the same ballot in November. If no candidate receives an absolute majority a runoff is triggered. Appointed-Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, received just 26 percent of the vote, while Democrat Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, won 33 percent, so the two will face off in January.

In the regular election, Perdue finished with 49.7 percent, while Democrat Jon Ossoff won 48 percent (Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel took 2.3 percent). So Georgia will see two Senate runoffs, conducted simultaneously.

Georgia’s general election runoff law dates back to the mid-1960s, and in the modern era the system has been largely unkind to Democrats.

Georgia’s Secretary of State website keeps records of all statewide elections going back to 1988. In those 30 years, there have been eight statewide general or special election runoffs. Democrats have won just one of them.

Moreover, Democrats have not won a single statewide election in Georgia since 2006. But that doesn’t guarantee GOP success this time.

A History of Misses
Democrats’ bad luck began in 1992, when Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler unexpectedly fell just short of 50 percent in his re-election campaign against GOP nominee Paul Coverdell, the former director of the Peace Corps.

In the Nov. 3 general election, Fowler led with 49.2 percent to Coverdell’s 47.7 percent (Libertarian Jim Hudson took 3.1 percent). Although Clinton won the state, he did so with just 43.5 percent against President George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.

In the Nov. 24 runoff, in which 1 million fewer voters participated, Fowler lost to Coverdell, who took 50.7 percent to the incumbent’s 49.3 percent. 

That same year, Democrats lost another statewide runoff, for a seat on the Public Service Commission. In the Nov. 3 general election, Republican Bobby Baker took 48.3 percent to Democrat John Frank Collins’ 47.6 percent, but Baker would go on to win an easy runoff victory, 56.8 percent to 43.2 percent. 

The last time a Democrat won a statewide runoff was in 1998. Lauren “Bubba” McDonald had been appointed to a seat on the PSC by Gov. Zell Miller and faced Republican Jim Cole in a special election. In the general election, McDonald finished just under 50 percent, with 49.6 percent to Cole’s 42.1 percent, but cruised to a 30-point win in the runoff. 

Nearly 1.3 million people voted in the 1998 general, but just 114,000 turned out for the runoff. McDonald would later switch parties and now serves as a Republican. (He stood for re-election this year but fell 5,115 votes shy of a majority, and will face Democrat Daniel Blackman in his own runoff, also on Jan. 5.)

In 2006, Democrat David Burgess, the first African American to serve on the PSC, faced Republican Chuck Eaton for his seat. Burgess placed first in the November general, 48.8 percent to 46.3 percent. But Eaton won in the runoff, 51.8 percent to 48.2 percent.

The 2008 Collapse
In 2008, as Barack Obama won a resounding victory in the presidential race and Democrats picked up eight Senate seats, GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss faced a spirited challenge from Democratic state Rep. Jim Martin. 

Martin won 46.8 percent in the general election, holding Chambliss to 49.8 percent and forcing a runoff.

But in the Dec. 2 runoff, Chambliss won a dominant 57-43 percent victory.

The story was the same in 2008’s other runoff, for a seat on the Public Service Commission. In that race, Democrat Jim Powell actually led Bubba McDonald, by then a Republican, by 47.9 percent to 47.2 percent in the November election. But in the runoff, McDonald performed as well as Chambliss, defeating Powell 57 percent to 43 percent.

Ask any Georgia Democrat about runoffs, and they will bring up 2008. Even a great national environment for Democrats, the thinking goes, wasn’t enough to make a Georgia runoff competitive.

The 2008 races were the last statewide runoffs for a decade, and largely informed how members of both parties saw the state’s politics.

How 2018 Changed Things
In 2018, Republican Brian Kemp narrowly avoided a runoff with Democrat Stacey Abrams, who captured national attention for her attempt to become the first Black woman governor in U.S. history. Kemp finished with 50.2 percent of the vote.

But GOP secretary of state nominee Brad Raffensperger wasn’t as lucky.

Raffensperger and Chuck Eaton, the Public Service Commissioner who won the 2006 runoff, were both forced into overtime competitions against their Democratic opponents, former US Rep. John Barrow and Lindy Miller, respectively.

In 2008, the conventional wisdom was that Democrats were so happy with their nationwide victories that they weren’t motivated to turn out for a December special election. It didn’t help that Obama, whose 47-percent total in the state was the best showing since favorite son Jimmy Carter in 1980, was no longer at the top of the ticket and did not campaign for Martin because he wanted to stay above the partisan fray as he stepped into office.

Republicans, meanwhile, were smarting from their losses and intent on denying Democrats a 60-seat supermajority in the Senate. Turnout dropped by nearly half from the general, but while Chambliss only saw his raw vote total decline by 639,064 votes, Martin, already behind, saw his decline by 847,470.

In 2018, Democrats won big nationwide too, so you might imagine their voters would be similarly unmotivated to turn out for another election. And just like Jim Martin no longer had the star power of Obama boosting turnout from the top of the ticket, Barrow and Miller didn’t have the benefit of running on the same ticket as Stacey Abrams.

But 2018 was no repeat of 2008.

In the Secretary of State race, Raffensperger had won 49.1 percent to Barrow’s 48.7 percent in November. In the Dec. 4 runoff, in which turnout was just 37 percent of November, Raffensperger won a close contest with 51.9 percent to Barrow’s 48.1 percent. Raffensperger’s raw vote dropped 1,141,733, while Barrow’s dropped 1,181,261, a level of parity entirely unlike in 2008.

And in the Public Service Commision race, Eaton took 49.7 percent to Miller’s 47.6 percent in November, and went on to win 51.8 percent in the runoff, where Miller actually increased her vote share to 48.2 percent. Eaton’s raw vote fell by 1,159,103, a greater dropoff than Miller’s delta of 1,130,753.

Put another way, Miller’s share of the two-party vote increased from the general, where it was 47.5 percent, to the runoff, where it was 48.25 percent, the first time in two decades that happened to a Democrat.

While Democrats lost both races, they were heartened by the fact that both races remained very close, despite occurring in December and without Abrams at the top of the ticket. 

January 5, 2021
With Republicans currently holding 50 seats in the Senate, and Democrats holding 48, control of the chamber will come down to the runoffs in Perdue’s and Loeffler’s races. If Democrats win both, after winning the presidency, they would have the barest of a majority despite falling short in a dozen races on Nov. 3.

The conventional wisdom holds that Perdue and Loeffler would be heavy favorites in their respective races, due in large part to Democrats’ dismal track record in Georgia runoffs. 

But it’s impossible to deny that things are shifting in the Peach State. Biden won Georgia — the first Democrat to do so since Clinton in 1992 — and his total vote share will be the highest since Carter in 1980. 

And Biden has already made clear he won’t stay away from the runoffs like Obama did in Martin’s 2008 race. (For his part, Obama is expected to campaign in Georgia this time around, and served as the Biden team’s closer in the final days of the presidential election here.)

In 2018, Georgia Democrats showed they would turn out even for lower-profile special elections and after they had already won large victories nationwide. 

With control of Washington, DC on the line, these runoffs will be anything but low-profile, and it could be that 2021 is the year Georgia Democrats finally chase away the ghosts of 2008 once and for all.