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"Everybody is looking up to Georgia right now": Early voting kicks off in Senate runoffs

Early in-person voting in Georgia runoffs
Early in-person voting kicks off in Georgia Senate runoff elections 09:01

Early voting kicked off Monday in the two Senate runoffs that will determine which party will control the Senate in the first two years of Joe Biden's presidency. In some counties, early voting will run until December 31, and the runoff election is scheduled for January 5. 

The high stakes for the race haven't been lost on Atlanta resident Clinton McZorn, who voted Monday at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta. He told CBS News the Senate race "means so much to Georgia because everybody is looking up to Georgia right now."

This is the second election in 2020 where Georgia has commanded the nation's attention. In November, the state delivered a razor-thin victory for President-elect Joe Biden, the first time the state backed a Democrat since Bill Clinton won it in 1992. 

And this year, Georgia also has the unusual opportunity to elect two senators at once: Republican Senator David Perdue was up for reelection in this year, and after Georgia's senior senator, Johnny Isakson, stepped down at the end of 2019, Kelly Loeffler was appointed to replace him. She is now defending that seat this election. Under state law a candidate must receive 50% of the vote to win outright. 

In the general election, the GOP candidates received more votes than the Democrats, though not enough to win in November — Perdue won 49.7% of the vote in his race against Jon Ossoff. Although Democrat Raphael Warnock was the top vote-getter in the other race, Loeffler and GOP Congressman Doug Collins together won over 60,000 votes more than Warnock.

While Republicans appear to have an edge, President Trump has been dividing the party in the state, attacking Georgia's election process, which was run by Republican officials including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Governor Brian Kemp. In late-night tweets this weekend, Mr. Trump called Kemp a "fool" and a "clown."

"Could have been so easy, but now we have to do it the hard way," Mr. Trump wrote. "Demand this clown call a Special Session and open up signature verification, NOW. Otherwise, could be a bad day for two GREAT Senators on January 5th."

Although Mr. Trump traveled to Georgia for a post-election rally for Loeffler and Perdue, some of his staunchest supporters favor boycotting the runoffs. 

If Warnock and Ossoff win both seats, there would be a 50-50 tie and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the president of the Senate, would be the tie-breaking vote. 

Fundraising has taken off — according to FiveThirtyEight, it spiked after Election Day, with money pouring in from across the country for all four candidates as the fate of the Senate hangs in the balance. 

Outside groups have leapt into the race with tens of millions to spend. For the Republicans, super PAC American Crossroads is slated to drop nearly $48 million in the races. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund is investing $46.8 million by January 5, according to Kantar/CMAG tracking. The conservative Peachtree PAC plans to bring nearly $40 million to the races. GOP operative Karl Rove's group One Nation is spending $15 million. And the Republican National Committee is investing at least $10 million.

Groups supporting Democrats are also active. Democratic super PAC Georgia Honor has rounded up $15 million for the Senate runoffs while The Georgia Way expects outlays of more than $13 million. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is investing more than $6 million in advertising. And Stacey Abrams' Fair Fight Action has more than $4.2 million on the line. American Bridge also has nearly $4 million in the runoffs to help Democrats.

More than $316 million has already been spent on TV, radio and digital ads in the two races since Election Day and another $150 million is already slated to be spent on TV and radio by January 5, bring the grand total to more than $466 million by candidates and outside groups early next year, according to Kantar/CMAG. Even split between the two races, that's more than was spent on ads in any other Senate race during the 2020 cycle.

But the biggest spending will be done by the Democratic candidates. Ossoff is slated to spend nearly $85 million and Warnock is projected to spend at least $67.3 million. For her part, Loeffler is currently projected to spend $47.2 million, and Perdue, $42.5 million.

Ja-Lisa Walden, voting at the State Farm Arena on Monday, said this election "means a lot" because "everything America stands for, for Atlanta, is on the line."

"I was so excited that Georgia turned blue this year and for all the millennials and the young people, that they came out and taking over for the older people who stood before us," Walden said. 

Amy Cavenaugh and Tyler Shelton, who voted Monday at the State Farm Arena, hope to help hand the Senate over to Democrats.

"If Mitch McConnell wasn't there, it wouldn't worry me as much, but he's been a real roadback," Shelton said. 

"We need to get back to working together in the Senate," Cavenaugh said, adding, "the Republican party has kind of, I think, lost its way."

If Democrats are to win, it will be because they were both able to turn out their voters despite the fact that there's no presidential race on the ballot, and because Republicans showed less enthusiasm for such an election. Democrats would need to break the trend of what exit polling showed for the presidential election. President Trump won 1.4 million in-person early voters compared to 1.25 million for Mr. Biden. The president also dominated in-person voting on Election Day, receiving almost 588,000 votes, compared to Mr. Biden's 367,000 votes.

The president-elect was able to overcome the deficit with absentee votes, bringing in almost 850,000 votes, compared to about 451,000 for Mr. Trump, a nearly 2-to-1 advantage. The U.S. Elections Project said in November that nearly 825,000 people had requested mail-in ballots, and Georgians have until January 1 to mail in their ballots.

"This never happens with two senate races, so it's really neat," Cavenaugh said. 

Elena Cox and LaCrai Mitchell contributed reporting.

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