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What If The Senate Isn't Decided On Election Day?

It's a long shot, but there's a scenario where control of the Senate might not be known until Jan. 6 — three days after the start of the next Congress. That's when Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn will face each other in a Georgia runoff if one of them fails to win 50 percent on Tuesday.
David Tulis

If you've enjoyed the battle for control of the Senate over the past many months, here's some good news: The drama could well spill over into next month — or even next year.

While Republicans are increasingly optimistic — and Democrats, pessimistic — about their prospects Tuesday, there are plausible scenarios that could have America waiting well beyond Nov. 4 to know which party will have a Senate majority.

Alaska is a key state for Republican hopes for a takeover and is also potentially a close race, meaning the result of its election "night" might not be clear until all the ballots in the far-flung state are tallied. "Alaska could take a week or more to get their votes in," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Even with Alaska settled, there's still the matter of Louisiana and Georgia. Both states require a runoff election if no candidate wins a majority on Election Day, and polling suggests runoffs are more likely in those states than not.

Louisiana's runoff would be Dec. 6, but Georgia's runoff isn't until Jan. 6. That would be three days after the start of the new Congress on Jan. 3.

Apart from the prospect of both parties focusing massive television ad campaigns and voter turnout drives on just two states, the timing raises this unusual prospect: Kentucky GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell rising to Senate majority leader for exactly one day, before losing it back to Democratic Leader Harry Reid.

It's a long shot, but it's not completely far-fetched. For it to happen, Republicans would have to have a disappointing election night, yet wind up on New Year's Day with a 50-49 advantage and the Georgia runoff outstanding. [McConnell also has to win re-election, of course.]

The Constitution says each new Congress is to begin on Jan. 3, but with it falling on a Saturday next year, leaders will more than likely agree to push it to Jan. 5 or 6. The senators would convene and be sworn in to their terms, but w hat happens next wouldn't be known until polls closed in Georgia on the evening of Jan. 6.

At that point, if Republican David Perdue has won, McConnell would have 51 senators and become majority leader. But if Democrat Michelle Nunn were to win, the 50-50 tie would give the deciding vote to Democratic Vice President Biden — and the majority leader title back to Reid.

Republicans are confident that their candidates will prevail in both runoffs, should it come to that, because their supporters are more used to turning out, even in typically low-turnout contests like runoffs.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shirish Dáte is an editor on NPR's Washington Desk and the author of Jeb: America's Next Bush, based on his coverage of the Florida governor as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Palm Beach Post.
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