Democrats need more sense than dollars in Georgia Senate run-offs

America Letter: Money only goes so far in helping to persuade people which way to vote

As the race for the White House went down to the wire this week, captivating the attention of the nation and the world, another contest remained too close to call.

The battle for control of the US Senate – arguably the most closely watched election after the presidential race – remains unresolved.

Although Democrats had been hoping that anti-Trump sentiment could help them win a majority in the 100-member chamber where Republicans currently hold 53 seats, that outcome seems unlikely.

Georgia may have been one of the big stories of the presidential election as Joe Biden looked to be closing in on a Democratic victory there for the first time in 28 years

By Friday, four of the 33 Senate seats that were on the ballot were uncalled. Two of those – Alaska and North Carolina – were expected to go to Republican candidates. The remaining two, however, are more complicated.


Georgia operates a unique system whereby candidates need to pass a 50 per cent threshold to win. A run-off had been expected in the special election race in the state. Neither of the two Republican candidates – Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins – reached the 50 per cent required, nor did Democrat Raphael Warnock.

On Tuesday, Collins conceded to Loeffler with the result that the Republican incumbent will now meet Warnock, an Atlanta pastor, for a run-off on January 5th.

It now appears, however, that the other Georgia Senate race may also have to be held again in January. While Republican David Purdue built a decisive lead over Democrat Jon Ossoff in early tallies, he dipped marginally below 50 per cent on Thursday, raising the likelihood of a run-off.

An inconclusive result in the Georgia races now looks like a real possibility. Should Alaska and North Carolina go for Republicans, this will leave Republicans with a 50-48 majority. Democrats would need to win both Senate seats in Georgia – together with the casting vote of a vice-president Kamala Harris, they would then have a majority.

Uphill battle

Georgia may have been one of the big stories of the presidential election as Joe Biden looked to be closing in on a Democratic victory there for the first time in 28 years. But winning the two Senate seats will be an uphill battle. It also means that the state will become a huge focus of political attention in the coming months.

The result of the Senate races show that money can only go so far in buying political victories

Already this year, the race for Senate seats has attracted an enormous amount of money, with Democrats significantly outraising Republicans. Two races alone – Democrat Amy McGrath’s challenge to Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and Jaime Harrison’s contest against Republican Lindsey Graham in South Carolina – raised $200 million.

But as the dust settles on the election, Democrats are left facing losses. Most of the high-profile Senate showdowns resulted in easy Republican wins – Susan Collins comfortably won re-election in Maine, while Graham beat Harrison by 10 points.

Graham couldn’t resist a dig at the Democrats’ enormous fundraising chest during his victory speech. “All the liberals in California, in New York, you wasted a lot of money. This is the worst return on investment in the history of American politics.” He had a point.

The result of the Senate races show that money can only go so far in buying political victories.

Spent in vain

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, for example, at one point a candidate for the Democratic nomination, spent a colossal $100 million in Florida, which Biden ultimately failed to win.

The Centre for Responsive Politics estimates that a record $14 billion will have been raised and spent in this election cycle. While the advent of the internet has democratised the political donation process in some ways, allowing ordinary Americans to donate small amounts to candidates of their choice, the influence of so-called super-Pacs (political action committees) still looms large in the country.

The role of money in the US political system will come back into focus in the coming months in Georgia. Much of the pent-up political energy unleashed by the presidential campaign on the Democratic side will have a new outlet as the party pursues those two Senate seats.

The stakes could not be higher. But a lesson of both Jaime Harrison’s campaign and, in 2018, Beto O’Rourke’s quixotic quest for a Senate seat, is that much of the mind-boggling money raised came from people outside their states who did not have any participatory role in the election.

As Democrats seek to pull off a double win in Georgia, they would do well to focus less on big money, and more on the get-out-the-vote effort that local party stalwarts like Stacey Abrams have championed.

It would be a fitting approach in a southern state that has a long history of voter suppression.