IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

5 things to watch for in Georgia's monumental Senate elections

When we will know the results? Which party will control the Senate? How are the suburbs voting?
Image: Voters wait to cast ballots in the Georgia Senate runoff election in Marietta on Jan. 5, 2021.
Voters in Marietta wait to cast ballots Tuesday in the Georgia Senate runoff elections.Mike Segar / Reuters

WASHINGTON — The stakes are clear, but the outcome is a toss-up in Georgia’s twin Senate runoff elections Tuesday that will determine control of the Senate and the launch trajectory of President-Elect Joe Biden's incoming administration.

Both parties have pulled out all the stops in the monumental clash between Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Almost half a billion dollars has been spent on TV, radio and digital advertising since the November general election alone, easily making these the most expensive Senate races in history, and both Biden and outgoing President Donald Trump campaigned in the state Monday.

Many pollsters sat out the race as they take stock of misses in November, but experts and limited polling all point to close contests that will come down to which party can do a better job turning out its voters.

"Georgia, the whole nation is looking to you," Biden, the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in decades, said at an Atlanta rally Monday.

Republicans are fighting for a check on Biden and over Trump's legacy. The president falsely claimed once again at a rally Monday night that the November election was rigged against him — rhetoric that some Republicans worry could depress GOP turnout if his base thinks their vote won't count.

"If we don't get up and vote tomorrow then everything President Trump has done to make America great again is gone," Perdue said at the rally.

Here are five things to watch as polls close at 7 p.m. ET:

1. When will we know who won?

If the races are especially tight, prepare to wait — possibly until Wednesday or maybe longer. For instance, NBC News was not able to project that Perdue would fall short of the 50 percent threshold and be forced into a runoff until almost 10 days after the November election.

More than 3 million early votes have already been cast, but officials cannot begin counting ballots until after polls close.

2. Black turnout — how strong?

Any Democratic win in Georgia will require strong turnout by African Americans, who form the core of the party in the rapidly diversifying state. Historically, it has been harder for Democrats to get minorities to turn out in nonpresidential elections and the party has a poor track record in Georgia runoffs, but the stakes and attention on these races may be different.

The Democratic firm TargetSmart, which has partnered with NBC News to provide early vote data, projects that the early Black vote is actually up slightly compared to November, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough.

3. Will Trump's supporters show up?

Republicans need Trump backers to come out to vote in big numbers on Election Day to counter Democrats' edge in the early vote, but worry the president's baseless attacks on the integrity of the vote will discourage them, especially in the most conservative parts of the state.

For his election-eve rally Monday, Trump and his advisers chose Dalton, a small city in rural north Georgia in the congressional district represented by newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has spoken favorably of QAnon.

Loeffler in particular has shown weakness in another north Georgia congressional district formerly represented by an ardent Trump ally who ran against Loeffler in the primary and attacked her from the right. At Monday's rally, Loeffler vowed to challenge the certification of Biden's Electoral College win in the Senate on Wednesday.

4. Will the suburban revolt roll on?

The suburbs, once GOP strongholds, rebelled against Trump and helped elect Biden. But with Trump on his way out, Republicans have gambled that suburban voters are not ready to give Democrats complete control of Washington, arguing that electing Warnock and Ossoff will empower the most extreme elements of the left.

The answer to this question could help set the course of politics for the next decade as both parties decide whether to double-down on the trends that defined the Trump era or try something different.

5. A split decision?

Most observers expect both races to break the same way, but anything is possible and Democrats need to win both seats to flip the Senate.

Republicans have overwhelmingly concentrated their fire on Warnock, while Ossoff has a thinner record, most of which was already picked over during his first high-profile race for the House a few years ago. Perdue, a businessman who originally hailed from the country club wing of the GOP, outperformed Trump in the Atlanta suburbs in November and could potentially outperform Loeffler on Tuesday.