On 5 January the US state of Georgia will vote, again, on who to send to the Senate.
The control of the Senate is up for grabs, and thus the prospects for the Biden administration – at least for the next two years.
As millions of dollars and hundreds of campaigners descend on the state, here is an explainer about what is happening.
What is at stake?
Two seats are up for grabs.
Republicans hold 50 of the 100 seats, and Democrats hold 48. There are 46 formally party-aligned and two independents – Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont – who caucus with the Democrats. When there is a 50-50 tie, the deciding vote is cast by the vice president. That will be Democrat Kamala Harris after the Biden administration is sworn in on 20 January.
If Democrats can win both seats they will control the Senate.
A Senate majority is crucial in deciding a range of legislative changes, cabinet appointments, potential presidential impeachments and nominations to the supreme court. Republicans have controlled the Senate since 2014.
The Democrats have a majority in the House, so a Democratic Senate majority would make Joe Biden’s next two years much easier. Conversely a Republican-controlled Senate under majority leader Mitch McConnell would be able to block much of his agenda, just as it did with former president Barack Obama’s. Biden has a history of attempting compromise across the aisle and could try to entice one or more Republicans on individual votes, but given McConnell’s history of obstructionism that seems a distant prospect.
With so much hanging on the result, money has been pouring in to the state to support both sides. More than US$400m was spent on political ads by the middle of December, most going to the two Republicans.
Today in Focus
The Georgia Senate runoff
Who are the candidates?
Both Georgia seats are contested between one Democratic candidate and one Republican.
One race pitches Republican David Perdue, incumbent senator since 2015, against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former journalist, who is only 33.
Their battle has been vitriolic at times, Ossoff repeatedly calling Perdue a crook and referring to investigations into Perdue’s alleged insider trading.
But Perdue has mostly not risen to the bait, and he declined to meet Ossoff in their scheduled TV debate earlier this month, leaving Ossoff to make his points on an empty podium.
The other, much more colourful, race is between Republican Kelly Loeffler, a seriously wealthy former businesswoman, and Democrat Rev Raphael Warnock.
Warnock, bidding to become Georgia’s first black senator, is a pastor at the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King held the same position. A long-time civil rights campaigner, he is a powerful orator in the tradition of King, and a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As a result he has been denounced as a “radical liberal” by his opponent, Loeffler, at every possible opportunity, but has responded in disarming campaign ads by accusing Loeffler of having nothing positive to say about herself and stressing how much he loves puppies.
Loeffler ran into controversy when she criticised players from the WNBA team she owns – the Atlanta Dream – over their support for Black Lives Matter, saying BLM had “Marxist foundations”.
Loeffler is also technically an incumbent – she was appointed an interim senator on 6 January after former Republican senator Johnny Isakson resigned due to ill health.
Why are they runoffs?
Georgia state law requires runoffs in both elections because no candidate in either seat reached 50% in the November election.
For the Loeffler-Warnock seat, the vacancy was created by the resignation of a sitting senator.
This meant the November vote was contested by 20 people, in what is known as a “blanket” or “jungle” primary, which is to say it was almost always going to a runoff, with the top two from the first round going through. In that blanket primary, Loeffler also faced strong competition from moderate Republican congressman Doug Collins, and Warnock competed against a range of Democrats.
Warnock topped the blanket primary with 32.9%, Loeffler came second with 25.9% and Collins came third with 19.95%. The top two – Warnock and Loeffler – then advanced to the runoff.
In the other seat, contested by Perdue and Ossoff, the 2.32% of the vote won by Libertarian party candidate Shane T Hazel was enough to ensure that neither main party candidate reached 50% in a tight race: Perdue received 49.73% and Ossoff 47.95%.
Who is likely to win?
A Democrat has not won a Senate race in Georgia in 20 years, so the odds of winning two at the same time do not look great.
However, Biden won the state in the November presidential election, the first time in 30 years a Democratic candidate had done so.
How the outcome of the presidential race will affect the runoffs is the great unknown. Will traditionally Republican voters who rejected Donald Trump return to the party to ensure the Biden agenda is tempered by Republican control of the Senate? Or will Trump’s insistence on continuing to campaign in Georgia on the basis that the election was a fraud – and tying the Senate candidates to that cause – again motivate Democratic voters to turn out in high numbers?
As in the presidential election, voting is not compulsory – so turnout will be a huge concern for both camps.
A few more younger voters will be eligible to vote in January. Anyone who turns 18 on or before 5 January is eligible to vote, according to the Georgia Voter Guide. Registration to vote closed on 7 December.
What do the polls say?
By 24 December the poll average compiled by FiveThirtyEight had Perdue ahead of Ossoff by 0.5%, but Warnock leading Loeffler by 0.6%. Real Clear Politics on 22 December gave the Republicans slightly better figures, with Perdue up by 1% and Loeffler by 0.2%, but the numbers for the Democrats were improving over the past week or so with both agencies.
Both polling outfits came under sustained criticism over the presidential election when they drastically underestimated Republican support in some states.
When will we know the result?
It depends how close the races are. The first Ossoff-Perdue race from November was so close that the result was not known for three days, but under most circumstances the result should be apparent on the night.