07 January 2021
Georgia On Their Minds
By J.R. Thomas
Donald has got his rerun, and by the time you read this you may know the result. But the rerun, or more properly, run-off, will not make any difference to the President completing his packing and booking the removals haulier to Florida or wherever he intends to establish the Trump Last Stand base. The result of the run-off for the senate seats of Georgia will, though, make a deal of difference to the political and possibly financial lives of Americans over the next four years.
Georgia, politically a typical ante-bellum southern state, was safe Democrat country for the century or so after the Civil War. So safe that after World War Two the Republicans did not even run a candidate for the Governorship until 1966. In the 60’s the voting behaviour of the south began that slow march toward the GOP which has seen the state vote for the GOP presidential candidate in every election since 1996 – until 2020, when it went narrowly for Joe Biden. But this simplistic analysis hides some complex behavioural changes among voters – not least that Republic voting seemed to peak around the turn of this century but is now slowly declining.
The changes of the 1960’s were driven by the enfranchisement of black voters – and the consequent collapse of Democrat support among conservative whites (and Georgian whites were very conservative). That gave the Republicans a coalition of traditional Republican voters with those angry Democrat defectors and turned Republican no-go areas, vote wise, into safe Republican seats at all levels of state politics. But it seems things are on the change again demographically. One feature of the black vote has been its low turn-out, partly at least from a feeling that voting changed nothing for those at the bottom of the heap (turnout has historically been very low for poor whites as well). The Democrats now though have a determination and an organisation to get the vote out and show those disillusioned voters that actually, voting really can change things. A generation of black political leaders has appeared in the South that demonstrates black people can succeed, and the election of a black president in 2008 confirmed that in the most dramatic way. At the same time, the southern states have begun to see stronger economic growth and that has drawn new populations in from the north east in particular, and they are not always traditional Republican voters.
In 2016 there is no doubt though that the Trump campaign did appeal to increasingly marginalised poor white and older white voters, and although this was strongest in the rust belt state of the upper mid-west, it also pulled some Democrat loyalists away from their traditional allegiance in the South.
So, having thrown all that chaff into the windmill, what is likely to happen in the Senate run-offs? For those unfamiliar with the more esoteric corners of Georgia electoral law, we should explain that any successful candidate for the Senate must get more than 50% of votes cast – in November last the Republicans’ candidates were leaders in both seats but did not get the clear majority legally required, because of the presence of Libertarian party candidates. This time the contest is one on one, and whilst that might be assumed to favour the Republican candidates again (making the broad but sensible assumption that most Libertarian votes would tend to find their way to the GOP), that may not be necessarily so.
This election, as we said, is completely key to control of the Senate, and the Senate is what allows or stops much federal policy making from happening. Currently there are 50 Republican Senators and 48 Democrats (including our old chum Bernie Saunders as a Democrat). If the Democrats win both seats this week, then it is 50/50 deadlock and the casting vote, if needed, is that of new Vice President Kamala Harris. If the Republicans win even one seat then they theoretically control the Senate and Mr Biden is not going to find it easy to get his legislative programme through. Two and he can give up on large parts of it before he starts. We did say there, you may note, “theoretically”. That is because party loyalties are somewhat more fluid in the US than in many democracies, and in particular, historically some Democrats have not been that loyal on more radical proposals from their own party. This trend recently has spread to the Republican side of the Senate, not all party members agreeing with President Trump at all times on all matters, but that factor may now vanish off to Florida (or wherever).
Not surprisingly, the amounts spent on this state run-off are the most spent on a Senate election, ever. Not far off half a billion dollars is the reckoning to date, about equally on each side. Everything now depends on this result. And it is at the time of writing (with voting still going on) impossible to call. Turnout seems high; the number of postal votes requested is the highest ever, the number of volunteers to help is a record (nicer to be in Georgia than Maine at this time of year). Mr Trump’s ungracious behaviour following his loss of the Presidential vote is thought to have upset Republican loyalists who may stay at home. But then, the north east/Californian orientation of Mr Biden’s slate may not be the most appealing to southerners.
There is a more subtle question as well. Does Mr Biden really want control of the House and of the Senate? Well, you may be sputtering, of course he does. But Joe is an old fashioned Democrat and whilst there are parts of a Democrat programme that he really wants to get through (more taxes on the rich, improved medical support for all, more money for education), some of his more radical colleagues in the House of Representatives have much more far-reaching programmes of social and financial change hidden in their back-packs. It might suit Joe and even Kamala, thought to be not that revolutionary herself and eying up her prospects for the top job in 2024, for some of the more crowd-frightening measures to become stuck in the Senate.
That thinking may also be reflected on the GOP side of the legislature. To lose Georgia would be annoying, but getting a large radical programme through the Senate on the Veep’s casting vote will not be easy, and the sight of the Democrat Party at its radicalistic socialistic worst will certainly frighten a goodly number of marginal voters. That might be very helpful in 2024. Even better, to lose Georgia can be firmly laid at the door of the departing Donald and close the door (can one lay things at a door and close it at the same time? Never mind) on the era of Trump populism. That would suit the ruling hierarchy of the Republican party very well. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell is no Trump fan and he has a problem with the perhaps quarter of his team who are (most oddly, Senator Ted Cruz, who ought to be an obvious front runner for the Republicans in 2024, positioning himself as leader of this group). But a bust in Georgia would surely help Mitch – or his successor – make a new start on a reconstructed party.
All we can do now is wait for the results – and that might be until Friday, as there is a three day allowance for postal votes sent on polling day. But from then on, the game is real.