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As goes Georgia, so goes the United States Senate

The final two U.S. Senate seats to be decided will be determined by the Jan. 5 runoff election.

ATLANTA — In the world of national politics, all eyes are on Georgia. The balance of power in the United States Senate will depend entirely on the outcome of two runoff elections that will take place in the Peach State on Tuesday, January 5, 2021.

Ironically, the new Congressional session gets underway two days earlier, on Sunday, January 3. 

The remainder of the US Senate races have already been decided, leaving a current balance of 50-48, in favor of the Republican Party. 

The final two seats to be decided are in Georgia.

Incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue has been forced into a runoff against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. 

In the other race, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to hold the Senate seat vacated by now-retired Sen. Johnny Isakson almost a year ago, will face off against Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock, who bested Loeffler and 19 other challengers in a special election that coincided with the November general election. 

Perdue fell short of the 50% plus one vote total required under Georgia law to ensure his victory. As a result, although he leads Ossoff by a small margin, Perdue has been forced into a runoff with Ossoff. 

Twenty-one candidates were in the other race, which all but guaranteed that no single individual would see their way clear to reaching that 50% milestone. By the end, Warnock sat atop the leaderboard in that race with about 33% of the vote. Loeffler came in second place with 26%. 

With the eyes of the nation and control of the Senate on the line, the amount of money to be spent on both sides is expected to be significant.

With the current 50-48 split in favor of the GOP, a dual Democratic victory in the January runoff would create a 50-50 tie in the Senate -- which would be broken by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, in favor of the Democratic Party.

Any other outcome would leave control of the Senate in the hands of the Republican Party.

How are winners determined in Georgia's political races?

In many states, winners are determined by a plurality of the vote -- or whoever receives the largest number of votes. In those states, the candidate does not have to win an outright majority of the votes in order to be declared the winner of the race.

In Georgia, the situation is different. In an election in Georgia, according to state law, a candidate must receive at least 50% plus one vote in order to be declared the winner of a race. 

If not, a runoff will automatically take place between the top two vote-getters in the race. 

Why do runoff elections exist in Georgia politics?

According to a 2014 analysis by the Washington Post, runoffs are a vestige of a time when white Democrats controlled Southern politics and manipulated election rules to remain in power.

The Post article quoted University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, who said that in the days when the Democrats were the only party in town, the runoff was often the "determinative election." Often, in those days, Bullock said, there were "more people participating in the runoff than in the original primary."

According to the Post's article, the runoff system was used, along with literacy tests, poll taxes, and other hurdles to keep African Americans away from the ballot box.

In recent years, Georgia is one of seven states - along with Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas - where runoffs are required if a single candidate does not receive at least one vote beyond a 50 percent threshold in a primary election. In two other states, the bar is even lower: 40 percent in North Carolina and 35 percent in Louisiana. South Dakota and Vermont have very limited instances in which they use runoffs, according to Ballotpedia.

However, Georgia is one of only two states, according to the non-profit Ballotpedia, to use runoffs to decide general elections if a candidate doesn't earn a majority of the vote. Louisiana is the other state. 

Historically, though, runoffs are significantly harder for Democrats to win in Georgia, as it is a steep uphill battle to re-galvanize a base that just voted and campaigns may have already exhausted funding needed to continue operations. 

With the current political climate, however, and the overwhelming turnout in the Nov. 3 general election, that may not be the case this election cycle. And you can bet a rush of money for both races - totaling a staggering estimated $200 million.

As 11Alive political analyst Andra Gillespie put it, “this is not about persuasion. This is about turnout.”

And with President Trump no longer on the ticket, Gillespie said both parties will likely push early and even absentee voting, especially since the election falls just days after the busy holiday season.