WASHINGTON – A first-term senator in Georgia narrowly prevailed against his opponent, overtaking his party’s standard bearer, only to face the electorate again a few weeks later. The system briefly became the center of the political universe after a highly competitive president election.
The year was 1992, and Senator Wyche Fowler Jr., a Democrat, garnered more votes than his Republican opponent on election day. But three weeks later he lost his place.
“Yes, I was disappointed, six points ahead of the president and the only state in the country with such a crazy system,” said Fowler, now 80, looking back on a famous run-off 28 years ago. Bill Clinton won the presidency .
Now, the same “insane system” that turned Mr. Fowler’s leadership on its head and defeated a popular member of Congress who is known for his popular stories has once again caught the attention of both parties. This time the scenario plays out in a double pack: Not only two incumbents, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both Republicans, are facing run-off elections to keep their seats. This time the effects are even more momentous.
Georgia’s runoff elections, the remnant of segregationist efforts to dilute black power, will determine control of the Senate in races due to be decided on January 5th. In the past, such competitions have greatly favored Republicans due to a decline in Democratic voters. especially African Americans after the general election.
But those who were closely involved in the previous two Senate showdowns say what happened before doesn’t necessarily predict the future. Demographic and cultural change has led to rapid changes in the state, and Democrats have made a concerted effort to energize and convince their constituents. This work paved the way for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s strong presence in the state.
“Both times before that, Republicans really stood out and Democrats didn’t,” said Saxby Chambliss, the former Republican Senator from Georgia who won a second term in a 2008 runoff after Barack Obama won the presidency. “This time around, I’m not so sure if that will be the case. I have told my Republican colleagues that the Democrats are going into the race and since Biden Georgia wins, I expect that will give them momentum.”
Both parties and their allied external groups are already making huge investments in advertising and grassroots effort, and a host of surrogates – perhaps including Mr Biden and President Trump – will be attracting heavy visits to the state over the next two months. Vice President Mike Pence is making the trip next week.
If the Republicans can only hold one of the two seats, they will retain a Senate majority and control much of Mr Biden’s agenda. If Democrats win both, they’ll get a working majority in a 50:50 Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris having power to break the ties. The difference between a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democrat-run chamber is huge when it comes to what legislation is considered and how nominations are handled.
“I can never recall a time when the difference between a 50:50 Senate and a 51:49 Senate was so big,” said Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat.
Mr Perdue, like Mr Fowler, finished first in his re-election by a narrow margin over his Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. Ms. Loeffler, who was appointed last year to fill a position, succeeded her Democratic opponent, Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, a black minister.
The double runoff elections represent an extraordinary accident that occurred because Mr Perdue’s regularly scheduled re-election race coincided with a special election to end the tenure of former Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired on health grounds in 2019 and started the opening woman Loeffler was tapped for temporary filling.
But the unusual drainage rules in Georgia that require a candidate to get a majority of the vote to win and automatically trigger a second contest between the top two voters if no one does, are very much by design. They arose out of efforts by some white Georgians in the 1960s to maintain control of the state’s political apparatus after the Supreme Court overturned a system that gave sparsely populated, heavily white rural counties more voting power than dense urban areas with one large numbers of black voters.
A federal study published in 2007 The struggle for the right to vote has described how segregationist lawmakers then turned to runoff elections, which many believed would reduce the likelihood that black voters would band together behind one candidate for a plurality victory while other candidates won the white Share voice. Supporters of the plan were confident that they would have better control of the results as the winner had to go head-to-head against each other.
“It was just another form of hiking,” said Fowler.
The special election provides a textbook example of why Republicans wanted to keep the system. Mr. Warnock received just under 33 percent of the vote, while Ms. Loeffler received just under 26 percent and another Republican, Representative Doug Collins, received just under 20 percent. With Mr. Collins out of the picture now, Ms. Loeffler has the potential to solidify the Republican vote in an individual competition.
The racist origins of the runoff election have taken a back seat over the years, and defenders argue that it is only fair to require a candidate to win at least half of the state’s voters to be elected.
In 1992, Mr. Fowler, a former Atlanta city councilor and congressman who was seen as a rising force in the Senate, sought his second term. He had won in 1986 by surprising a Republican, Mack Mattingly, who was implicated in Ronald Reagan’s coattails in 1980. Mr. Fowler’s opponent this time was Paul Coverdell, a Republican and a reluctant Atlanta businessman, lawmaker and ally of the elder George Bush, who had made him head of the Peace Corps.
Mr. Clinton’s southern roots helped him run Georgia with 43 percent of the vote – the last Democrat to win Georgia before that year – while Mr. Fowler outperformed Mr. Coverdell with 49.2 percent and defeated him by 35,000 votes. But under Georgia’s unique law, it wasn’t enough.
The drain quickly escalated into a bitter clash. As Mr. Clinton was preparing to move into the White House, Republicans saw an opportunity to deal him a quick blow by defeating Mr. Fowler. They pulled the registers, poured money, and airlifted Republican luminaries to Georgia, including Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, who promised to hand over his seat on the Agriculture Committee to Mr. Coverdell if he won.
Mr. Fowler attracted his own notable visitor when the President-elect of Little Rock, Ark., Came to performances in Albany and Macon, where he played the saxophone with a high school band. He and Mr. Fowler raised folded hands to celebrate what awaited them as the victory to come.
But Mr. Fowler had problems. It would be difficult to restore enthusiasm for the presidential election after the vote was over and Mr Clinton’s victory. Mr Fowler also faced backlash for his vote the previous year to bring Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Mr. Fowler recalled that Justice Thomas, a native Georgian, had strong support from the state’s black community but was rejected by leading women’s groups because of his anti-abortion stance and allegations of sexual harassment. He said he believed the opposition cost him.
In the runoff election, which took place two days before Thanksgiving, nearly a million fewer votes were cast than it was three weeks earlier, and Mr Fowler saw his initial lead fade, losing 16,000 votes to Mr Coverdell – 50.6 percent to 49.6 . It was a stabbing defeat for Mr. Fowler, but a welcome consolation prize for the Republicans.
“We’ve been more successful in getting our people back than the other side in getting their people back without a presidential race at the top of the ticket,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who advised Mr. Coverdell. However, he cautioned that the dynamics could be very different this time around as Mr Warnock, an African American, is on the ballot.
“Democrats have never had an African American candidate to vote for at a time when control of the Senate is at stake,” he said. “The circumstances are clearly different. I don’t know if the result will be any different. “
Mr Fowler agreed, noting that black voters now make up a much larger proportion of the voters in Georgia than they did when he was elected.
“Whether or not the Democrats can win this thing in the runoff election, the demographics are much, much better now than it was in 1992,” he said. “The numbers make it more likely than six years ago. Either way, it will be a whisper. “
Mr Fowler said he shook off the loss pretty quickly, and in 1996 he became ambassador to Saudi Arabia and served for five years until the election of George W. Bush.
“I’ve had a good, adventurous life,” he said.
He said he had stayed away from politics over the years but changed course in these elections and passed knowledge and ideas on to Mr Warnock and his campaign.
“I dusted my campaign shoes,” said Fowler. “I think it’s so important.”