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The (Unfinished) Battle for the Senate

michael barbaro

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[music]

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

Today, a Biden victory was expected to translate into Democratic control of the Senate. Julie Davis on why that hasn’t happened and how both parties are preparing for a pair of Senate races in Georgia that will determine the balance of power in Washington. It’s Wednesday, November 11.

Julie, until now, we have been very focused, I think understandably, on the presidential race. But now that race has been called and called for President-elect Joe Biden, we want to turn to the fate of Congress, which alas, is not at all a settled matter. So just how unsettled a matter is Congress at this moment?

julie davis

Well, it’s still pretty unsettled. Democrats are on track to have held their House majority. They had kind of a rougher night than they expected and they lost some seats in the House. But in the Senate, it’s a much more complicated picture and majority still hangs in the balance.

michael barbaro

So let’s talk about how we get to this moment. What Senate races were on the ballot on Election Day last Tuesday?

julie davis

So going into this election, you know, Republicans had a lot more to lose than Democrats did. They had 23 seats they were defending. Democrats, because of the way Senate races are staggered, every two years, only were defending 12 seats. And they had some pretty good pick up opportunities around the country. You had senators who were facing voters in Colorado, Cory Gardner, Martha McSally in Arizona. They were both very vulnerable and seen as potentially going to lose. You had Susan Collins in Maine who is a moderate. President Trump is very unpopular in her state. So she was seen as very vulnerable. Thom Tillis in North Carolina was also seen as somebody who could potentially lose his seat to a Democrat.

But Democrats also knew they were going into this cycle with at least one member who was almost certain to lose, that’s Doug Jones in Alabama. So given that the Senate balance of power is very narrow, Democrats have 47 seats, Republicans have 53, they were going to have to pick up at least four seats in order to be able to have a chance at control of the Senate. And even then, that would only be the case if Joe Biden were to win the presidency. Therefore, his vice president would have the power to cast tie breaking votes. So the math was full of opportunities for Democrats, but it was still going to be an uphill battle. And that’s kind of how they were looking going into Election Day.

And as the months went on, and President Trump’s popularity sagged even more, the pandemic got worse, the economy was getting worse, the polls were showing that voters were extremely unhappy with Republican leadership in Washington. Democrats started to see opportunities to go even further and reach for seats in places like Alaska, where Dan Sullivan was up for reelection; Texas, where John Cornyn was up for reelection; and even South Carolina, where Lindsey Graham, one of President Trump’s most loyal allies, was up for reelection. So by Election Day, they had pretty high hopes of doing very well in competitive states and maybe even being able to flip some of these redder states where they haven’t had opportunities in the past.

michael barbaro

And then, the air starts to come out of the balloon.

julie davis

That’s right. It became clear pretty quickly that some of these more difficult races in conservative leaning states just were not panning out for Democrats. The Republican incumbents were hanging on. And even in the four competitive states where Democrats thought they had the best opportunities, it turned out to be a really mixed bag.

michael barbaro

So let’s talk about what happened in these four competitive states, starting, Julie, wherever you’d like.

julie davis

Well, let’s start with where Democrats did what they expected they were going to do, which is to pick off the Republican incumbents. And that was in Colorado and Arizona. In Arizona, Mark Kelly, the astronaut who’s married to former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was able to defeat Martha McSally, the Republican who had been appointed to her seat in a special election to finish out the term of the late Senator John McCain. And in Colorado, an increasingly Democratic leaning state, John Hickenlooper, the former governor, was able to beat Cory Gardner, who was a first term senator by a very wide margin. So those were two important pickups that were pretty much crucial to Democrats’ hopes of retaking the Senate, if they were going to be able to do that.

michael barbaro

Right. And what about in North Carolina?

julie davis

So North Carolina was a very different story. Going into the election, Thom Tillis, a first term senator was seen as very vulnerable, incredibly unpopular, running behind President Trump in his state. But that race also got a little complicated at the end. Because Cal Cunningham, the Democratic candidate, late in the game it was revealed that he had been carrying on an extramarital affair. And some racy texts emerged. And he was running kind of on his character and as a wholesome, you know, better candidate than Thom Tillis. And so this was pretty damaging to him.

But then also Senator Tillis contracted the coronavirus after attending this reception that President Trump had at the White House to announce his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court. And that was seen as kind of emblematic of the administration not taking the virus seriously and all of the reasons that voters were frustrated with Republicans and, by extension, with Senator Tillis. And it happened just the same moment that these texts were coming out. And it was really unclear where voters were going to come down there. But in the end, it looked like President Trump was actually doing quite well in North Carolina. It seems like he’s headed for a win there. And that did help Senator Tillis. And so he was able to hang on in a way that I think neither party really fully anticipated.

michael barbaro

Right. And so far, if there’s a theme here, it seems to be if President Trump did really well in the state, then the Republican incumbent did pretty well in the state. And if Joe Biden carried the state, then the Democratic challenger seemed to prevail.

julie davis

That was true almost everywhere except for Maine.

michael barbaro

Hm.

julie davis

President Trump was very unpopular in Maine. He lost the state by a very wide margin, by 10 points. But Susan Collins, veteran moderate Republican, she’s the last remaining New England Republican in Congress, was able to win re-election. And people really split their votes between Joe Biden and Susan Collins. And so that result was really different than the rest of the country, where you really did see the Senate races trending toward the presidential race.

michael barbaro

And Julie, how do you explain what happened there? Because Susan Collins has been held up by Democrats as the symbol of kind of dangerous complicity in the Trump era, right? She is an abortion rights supporting moderate Republican whose denunciations of the president’s conduct at various moments have struck people as kind of contorted and half-hearted. And she reliably voted with the president on the most hot button issues, including the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite the theoretical threat he poses to Roe v. Wade, which she supports. So what do you make of what happened there?

julie davis

Well, I mean, it’s a fascinating case study of a campaign run, I think, really well. I mean, you’re right that going into the election, I would say that many Democrats and progressive activists detested Susan Collins more than any conservative Republican I can think of. And so there was a huge amount of Democratic money and a huge amount of activism just kind of focused on Maine and getting rid of Susan Collins. But what people forgot about Susan Collins is that she had been in the Senate for more than two decades. She is a recognizable and known person and brand in her state. She’s been delivering the kinds of federal aid and local projects and constituent service that people talk about when they talk about what a member of Congress is really supposed to do for all this time.

And she was actually able to do a thing that is really difficult in politics, particularly in the Trump era, which is to separate herself in the minds of voters from President Trump and the Republican Party and run as Susan Collins of Maine, who also happens to be a Republican. And if you look at the numbers, she won her race by a substantial margin. And the math just shows you that there were many voters who said, you know what? I’m sick of President Trump. I don’t want to vote for President Trump any more. I’m going to vote for Joe Biden. But when it comes to the Senate, I’m going to keep my Republican senator.

But Michael, there is one other place where voters may have delivered a split verdict. And that is in Georgia, where it looks like Joe Biden is on track to win that state and turn it blue. But when it comes to the two Senate races that were on the ballot this year, it was a lot more complicated.

michael barbaro

Right. And those are the two Senate races that will determine control of the entire Senate.

julie davis

That’s right.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

So Julie, control of the Senate comes down to two unfinished Senate races in Georgia. My first question is why are there two Senate races in Georgia, in the same state? That never seems to happen. And my sense is that that is by design.

julie davis

Right. So Senate seats are staggered every two years. Only a third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years. And it’s never both seats in the same state at the same time. But because one of Georgia’s senators retired before his term was over because of health issues, and another Republican was appointed to his seat, that person then had to face a special election to serve out the remainder of that term. So you had both the regular Senate race that would always have been on the ballot in 2020 and a special election on the ballot this year.

michael barbaro

Got it. And why aren’t these two races, one regular, one special, why aren’t they resolved from Election Day?

julie davis

They’re not resolved because Georgia has a rule that in order to win an election, some candidate has to get a majority, so 50 percent or more. And if no candidate gets to that 50 percent, then it goes to a runoff between the two top vote getters.

michael barbaro

OK. So tell us about these two races that produced these two runoffs. And let’s start with the regularly scheduled election.

julie davis

Right. So the regular election is between the incumbent Senator David Perdue, a Republican, and Jon Ossoff, the Democrat challenging him. And going into the race, it didn’t seem like Senator Perdue was particularly vulnerable. He had won by a wide margin in 2014. He was a very close ally of President Trump’s in a conservative leaning state. He seemed to be in pretty good shape. But over the months of the campaign, Jon Ossoff, who is about 40 years his junior, created some sort of viral moments that, I think, really made life difficult for Senator Perdue and made him actually seem like he was a lot more vulnerable to defeat than people might have thought.

archived recording

The candidates are eight feet apart. And as you can see, there is a Plexiglass—

julie davis

During some of their debates, Jon Ossoff would sort of go really hard at him for his financial background and his investments.

archived recording (jon ossoff)

Well, perhaps Senator Perdue would have been able to respond properly to the COVID-19 pandemic if you hadn’t been fending off multiple federal investigations for insider trading.

julie davis

Senator Perdue is a former executive of Reebok and Dollar General. He’s very wealthy. And he had a lot of investments.

archived recording (jon ossoff)

You did say COVID-19 was no deadlier than the flu. You did say there would be no significant uptick in cases. All the while, you were looking after your own assets and your own portfolio.

julie davis

And there were all sorts of questions during that coronavirus pandemic, in the early months, of whether he or other senators had sort of traded on their knowledge about the virus—

michael barbaro

Right.

julie davis

—or tried to make money off of the fact that there was a pandemic. And Ossoff really hammered him hard about this.

archived recording (jon ossoff)

Can you look down the camera and tell the people of this state why you voted four times to allow insurance companies to deny us health coverage because we may suffer from diabetes, or heart disease, or asthma?

julie davis

He attacked Senator Perdue’s many attempts, which he had in common with the rest of the Republican Party, about trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and said it’s not just that you’re a crook, it’s that you’re trying to take people’s health care away.

archived recording (jon ossoff)

Listen, everybody out there watching at home, you need to know if he has his way, insurance companies will be able to deny you coverage because you’ve got heart disease, or diabetes, or you’ve recovered from cancer.

archived recording

That is your time, Mr. Ossoff.

archived recording (jon ossoff)

I have—

julie davis

And you know, these attacks really resonated in a state that was feeling a lot of economic difficulty from the pandemic. Also, late in the game, Perdue made some pretty bad gaffes of his own.

archived recording

Critics say that Senator David Perdue’s campaign employed imagery historically used against Jews, as more anti-Semitism seeps into politics.

julie davis

His campaign ran an ad against Ossoff, in which Ossoff, who is Jewish, appeared with a nose that was, like, enlarged and made to look sort of hook-like, drew instant accusations of anti-Semitism.

archived recording

Perdue’s campaign blames an outside vendor, claiming that it was an unintentional error. They will remove the ad to ensure there is absolutely no confusion.

julie davis

David Perdue’s campaign said that it was the vendor’s fault. But you know, I think that stung him. He got attacked pretty widely for that. And then just the week before the election, he was at a rally with President Trump in Macon, Georgia.

archived recording (david perdue)

The most insidious thing that Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden are trying to perpetrate, and Bernie and Elizabeth and Kamala or what Kamala or Kamala Kamala mala mala— I don’t know. Whatever.

julie davis

And kind of deliberately seemed to butcher Kamala Harris’s name in a way that Ossoff quickly jumped on.

archived recording (jon ossoff)

He’s acting like a schoolyard bully, making jokes about heritage of his political adversaries.

julie davis

And said, you know, that was racist bullying.

archived recording (jon ossoff)

This is why his campaign is in freefall. It’s desperate. And it’s pathetic.

michael barbaro

And so what ends up happening is this kind of blundering Perdue faces off with this young, deft debating Ossoff on Election Day.

julie davis

So on election night, the race looked a lot like the presidential race, which was that Senator Perdue, the Republican, was narrowly leading Jon Ossoff. And it looked like he was going to win. He was over the majority of the vote that he would need in the early returns. But as the night wore on and they counted more votes, he started to drop below 50 percent. And in the end, because there was a libertarian candidate in the race, Senator Perdue ended up just under 50 percent, leading Jon Ossoff by only a couple of percentage points.

michael barbaro

Got it. So nobody ended up getting over 50 percent, thus triggering this runoff. What about the special election? What happened there?

julie davis

So the special election was a little bit less of a cliffhanger. Because there were really three major candidates in the race, a Democrat, Raphael Warnock, and the incumbent Republican, Kelly Loeffler, as well as another Republican, Congressman Doug Collins, who was also vying for the seat.

michael barbaro

And Julie, how does that work? Because two Republicans in a general election race sounds like some kind of weird general election primary hybrid.

julie davis

Right. So this is another of Georgia’s quirky election rules. You can have several candidates, some from the same party, some from different parties, all squaring off against each other in the same election. And what matters is who gets a majority. Or if no one gets a majority, who the top two vote getters are.

michael barbaro

Got it. So tell me about the three candidates, the two Republicans and the Democrat.

julie davis

So in this race, you have Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the Senate seat at the end of 2019 after Johnny Isaacson retired, by the Republican governor of the state. She’s a businesswoman. She is sort of a doyen of Atlanta society, owned a WNBA team. She’s the wealthiest member of the Senate. And she was chosen in part because she was seen as sort of a more broadly appealing Republican who could really draw support from the suburbs, where Republicans have really started to worry they were losing ground because of voters reactions to President Trump.

The second Republican, the Republican that President Trump wanted to run, was Doug Collins. He is a Republican congressman, the top ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. He was a combatant for President Trump in the impeachment drama. And he’s a real dyed in the wool conservative, very much this profile of candidate who appeals to your typical base voters, but maybe would have a harder time reaching out and broadening the electorate.

And then the Democrat is Reverend Raphael Warnock, who is the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s church in Atlanta, very well-known in the state. He’s an unapologetic progressive. And his message really was tailor made for the cycle that he found himself running in, where he was talking about racial justice, he was talking about economic inequality and health disparities during a pandemic in a state that was very hard hit by the coronavirus and found itself in pretty dire straits. So you have a real contrast between his message and both of the Republicans in the race.

michael barbaro

So predictably on Election Day, given that there are three significant candidates in this race, nobody gets to 50 percent. But how exactly did each of them fare?

julie davis

So Dr. Warnock ended up with just under 33 percent of the vote, leading the field. Senator Loeffler ended up just under 26 percent. And Congressman Collins got 20 percent. So that knocked him out of contention in the runoff and triggered a contest between Dr. Warnock and Senator Loeffler in January.

michael barbaro

So Julie, looking ahead to January, am I right in thinking that these are both challenging runoffs for the Democrats? Or do I have that wrong?

julie davis

No, I think that’s right. I mean, I think it’s especially true in the special election where you saw Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins split the Republican vote. It’s a little bit of a different picture in the regular Senate race, in the Perdue-Ossoff race, because the two of them were so close. But, again, with a third candidate gone, it is very likely that Senator Perdue will get at least some of those voters and be able to maintain his lead.

michael barbaro

But in some ways, it feels like these races, these two runoffs, they’re about to become not really about the candidates in these races in Georgia, but about which party controls the Senate. And so I have to imagine both parties are going to pour tens of millions of dollars into both these races. They’re going to put hundreds, maybe thousands of their staff on the ground. And that’s going to really scramble perhaps all of our normal assumptions about how two Senate runoffs proceed.

julie davis

Right. This is now not about these individual races at all. But it’s about the balance of power in Washington. And we’re already seeing it happen. The ads started the fundraising appeals, the opposition research dumps all started basically as soon as it became clear that this second race had gone to a runoff. And for Democrats, it’s a really high stakes situation right now. They thought they had a crack at taking the Senate. They still might actually have that ability. And with it, the ability to actually allow Joe Biden to have a working majority that would let him get his agenda through, that would let him have the cabinet that he wants. That is how they are thinking about this. That if they are able to win these two races, then they really will have dominance in the Congress and in the White House to do what they want to do. And if they don’t, then they really won’t.

michael barbaro

Right.

julie davis

And the same is true for Republicans who understand that they have fallen just short of keeping their Republican majority. They’re on the brink of being able to really have the power to deny Joe Biden some of the policy legislation that he wants, to have a very heavy hand in steering who is in his cabinet and his personnel. But they need to win these two races first.

[music]
archived recording

The media is desperately trying to get everyone to coronate Joe Biden as the next president. But that’s not how it works.

julie davis

And that is part of the reason—

archived recording

We will war over Biden if he wins. But Trump has not lost.

julie davis

—that we are seeing such a bitter back and forth unfold in Washington right now.

archived recording

Do not concede, Mr. President. Fight hard.

julie davis

And so many Republicans—

archived recording (mitch mcconnell)

The core principle here is not complicated.

julie davis

—all the way up to Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader of the Senate, are basically backing up the president’s refusal to concede the election.

archived recording (mitch mcconnell)

If any major irregularities occurred this time of a magnitude that would affect the outcome, then every single American should want them to be brought to light.

julie davis

And holding out the possibility that, in fact, there could have been as the president keeps alleging without foundation, fraud and massive abuses that have had the result of tipping this election against him.

archived recording (mitch mcconnell)

We have the tools and institutions we need to address any concerns. The president has every right to look into allegations and to request recounts under the law.

michael barbaro

Wait. How is that connected to Georgia?

julie davis

Well, the Republican base is incredibly angry and energized over the thought that President Trump was denied his rightful victory. The Republican base is who Republicans need to turn out to return Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to the Senate. That’s how they’re going to win these races if they’re going to win, is by massively driving the energy and money and anger of the Republican base into the effort to win these races. And so everything you’re seeing is driven, at least in part, by that.

And in fact David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler took the extraordinary step this week of calling on the secretary of state of Georgia, a Republican, to resign, alleging that there had been a lack of transparency and potential fraud and that they were outraged at the way that this election had been administered. They are getting ready to argue that tens of millions of people in this country were disenfranchised because of voter fraud that no one has seen any evidence of. And that is the reason that they need to be elected, so that they can preserve some degree of Republican power in Washington.

michael barbaro

Well, I’m curious. If the Republican strategy is to keep talking about, as you said, non-existent voter fraud, and send that message to voters all over the country, but also to Republican voters in Georgia, is that a message that’s going to draw out Republican voters to back Perdue and Loeffler? Or is that potentially a message that says to Republican voters, falsely, but repeatedly, don’t vote, don’t trust the system?

julie davis

Well, I think that is a big part of what we’re going to find out and a big part of what’s going to drive the result here. Do people accept the notion that the entire system is rigged against the president, but yet, still go out to vote for these two incumbent Republicans who are saying they need to get back to Washington to protect the party’s power and deny Joe Biden his agenda? Or do they say, well, I guess the system is useless. I guess our democracy really is fatally flawed. And we’re not going to participate.

But it seems like they’ve made the calculation that keeping people activated and angry and energized is the way that they’re going to keep these seats. And so they seem to be all in with the strategy at this point.

michael barbaro

Julie, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

julie davis

Thank you, Michael.

michael barbaro

During a news conference on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the latest member of the Trump administration to publicly refuse to acknowledge that the president was defeated.

archived recording

Is the State Department currently preparing to engage with the Biden transition team? And if not, at what point does a delay hamper a smooth transition or pose a risk to national security?

archived recording (mike pompeo)

There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration. All right? We’re ready. The world is watching what’s taking place here. We’re going to—

michael barbaro

Speaking to reporters later in the day, President-elect Biden shrugged off the statements from Trump and Pompeo, saying that they would not hinder the transfer of power.

archived recording (joe biden)

We’re going to do exactly what we’d be doing if he had conceded and said we’ve won, which we have. And so there’s nothing really changing.

michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today. In oral arguments for a Supreme Court case about the future of the Affordable Care Act, two conservative justices, John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh, signaled that they are prepared to join their liberal colleagues in upholding the legality of the law.

archived recording (brett kavanaugh)

Looking at our severability precedents, it does seem fairly clear that the proper remedy would be to sever the mandate provision and leave the rest of the act in place, the provision’s regarding—

michael barbaro

In exchanges with lawyers, both Roberts and Kavanaugh indicated that they would be willing to remove the law’s penalty for not obtaining health insurance without striking down the ACA’s larger framework.

archived recording (john roberts)

And here Congress left the rest of the law intact when it lowered the penalty to zero. That seems to be compelling evidence on the question.

michael barbaro

Such a ruling would be a major victory for President-elect Joe Biden, who helped pass the law in 2010, and a major defeat for President Trump, who has repeatedly tried to dismantle it. That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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