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Runoffs, recently an exclamation point for Democrats, may prove hard to eliminate

By Tom Baxter

At the beginning of 2023, Georgia stands at the center of the football, political and cultural universes. If you want to argue with that, go find any Bulldogs fan or Rachel Maddow.

While the votes were being counted last month, the MSNBC commentator talked about the importance of the Senate runoff in Georgia as a mirror of the country.  Atlanta, she opined, has become the “pulsing, throbbing heart of the country in terms of culture and ideas,” the place where the hippest, coolest and best-looking people in the country can be found today.

What has caused the rest of the country to recognize what those of us who live here knew all along? We could mention several things, but what focused Maddow’s attention on Atlanta was Georgia’s contribution to modern political practice, the Senate runoffs.

The runoffs have come to bear a curious resemblance to the Iowa Caucuses. Iowa is the only state in the nation where people drive over frozen highways to meeting places where they select their presidential candidates, and we’re the only state that requires our U.S. senators to be elected by an absolute majority. Both the caucuses and the runoffs have lengthened the modern-day political season, in one direction or the other.

The Iowa caucuses got the 1976 presidential campaign off to an earlier start, giving Jimmy Carter a surprise burst of momentum which was crucial to his victory. That caused presidential candidates to flock to the state in later elections. What probably contributed most to the long-term survival of the caucuses was that they extended the picking season for the migrant workers of the American political class — the consultants and camera crews, pundits, pollsters, caterers, bus drivers and baggage handlers who converge every four years around the presidential race. The political logic of relying on mid-winter caucuses in a Midwestern state as an early indicator of who would make a good candidate has faded over time. But the caucuses have been good for the political business generally. Only recently has their survival looked to be in serious doubt.

Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs, in the years they’ve occurred, have lengthened the political calendar in the opposite direction, prolonging an element of suspense past the national Election Day. They have served a similar function to the caucuses in terms of keeping a lot of people busy longer than they would have been.

Presidential candidates haven’t been on the ballot in the runoffs, but they have been drawn to the state, beginning with Bill Clinton, who came to Georgia after his 1992 election to campaign for U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler in his runoff with Republican Paul Coverdell. That runoff culminated in a victory for Coverdell and set the stage for the Republicans’ big Contract with America comeback two years later.

Thirty years later, it’s the Democrats who’ve had the runoff momentum, with the twin victories of Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff in 2020 and Warnock’s repeat victory this year. For Democrats at the national level, these have been exclamation points at the end of successful election years.

So we have a strange bifurcation. At the national level, Democrats view Georgia as a beacon of hope, while at the statewide level the Democrats continue to get clobbered, even when Republicans have been divided over Donald Trump. The three Senate runoff victories have been vitally important to what’s going on in Washington but completely detached from what’s happening under the Golden Dome.

Runoffs are also very expensive, giving the Republican majority in the General Assembly another reason to heed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s call to get rid of them. But that’s not going to be as easy as it might sound.

The Democrats changed the law to require only a 45 percent plurality. The Republicans changed it back to 50 percent in 2005, only to have Democrat challenger Jim Martin force U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss into a runoff in 2008.

Runoffs are an artifact of the segregation era, but now that we’ve got them, neither party is entirely sure they want to get rid of them.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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