Democrat Raphael Warnock won one of Georgia’s two senate runoffs on Wednesday, becoming the first Black senator in his state’s history and putting the senate majority within the Democrats’ reach.
A pastor who spent the past 15 years leading the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, Warnock defeated Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler. It was a stinging rebuke of outgoing President Donald Trump, who made one of his final trips in office to Georgia to rally his loyal base behind Loeffler and the Republican running for the other seat, David Perdue.
The focus has now shifted to the second race between Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. That contest was too early to call as votes were still being counted. If Ossoff wins, Democrats will have complete control of Congress, strengthening President-elect Joe Biden’s standing as he prepares to take office on January 20.
Warnock’s victory is a symbol of a striking shift in Georgia’s politics as the swelling number of diverse, college-educated voters flex their power in the heart of the Deep South.
It marks the end of nearly two decades in which Democrats have been shut out of statewide office and follows Biden’s victory in November, when he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992.
Warnock, 51, acknowledged his improbable victory in a message to supporters early on Wednesday, citing his family’s experience with poverty. His mother, he said, used to pick “somebody else’s cotton” as a teenager.
“The other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” he said. “Tonight, we proved with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible.”
Loeffler refused to concede in a brief message to supporters shortly after midnight.
“We’ve got some work to do here. This is a game of inches. We’re going to win this election,” insisted Loeffler, a 50-year-old former businesswoman who was appointed to the Senate less than a year ago by the state’s governor.
Loeffler, who remains a Georgia senator until the results of Tuesday’s election are finalised, said she would return to Washington on Wednesday morning to join a small group of senators planning to challenge Congress’ vote to certify Biden’s victory.
“We are going to keep fighting for you,” Loeffler said, “This is about protecting the American dream.”
Georgia’s other runoff election pitted Perdue, a 71-year-old former business executive who held his Senate seat until his term expired on Sunday, against Ossoff, a former congressional aide and journalist. At just 33 years old, Ossoff would be the Senate’s youngest member.
This week’s elections mark the formal finale to the turbulent 2020 election season more than two months after the rest of the nation finished voting. The unusually high stakes transformed Georgia, once a solidly Republican state, into one of the nation’s premier battlegrounds for the final days of Trump’s presidency — and likely beyond.
Both contests tested whether the political coalition that fueled Biden’s November victory was an anti-Trump anomaly or part of a new electoral landscape. To win in Tuesday’s elections — and in the future — Democrats needed strong African American support.
Drawing on his popularity with Black voters, among other groups, Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by about 12,000 votes out of five million cast in November.
Meanwhile, Trump is is working on several fronts to stop Biden’s confirmation — ranging from lawsuits to administrative maneuvering. The incumbent president and his campaign have already filed almost 60 lawsuits in state and federal courts as well as the Supreme Court. Most of these lawsuits, however, have been rejected and there’s little hope of them winning the legal battle.
So Trump and his team have turned their focus on officials in Republican states, like Georgia, that Biden won by a thin margin.
In a rally in Georgia on Monday, Trump said would “fight like hell” to hold on to the presidency and appealed to Republican lawmakers to reverse his election loss to Biden when they convene this week to confirm the Electoral College vote.
On Saturday, Trump had also telephoned Georgia’s secretary of state, who has a decisive role in determining the outcome. Trump and his legal aides urged Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to cancel the 11,500 votes that won the state for Biden.
Trump’s claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election, while meritless, resonated with Republican voters in Georgia. About 7 in 10 agreed with his false assertion that Biden was not the legitimately elected president, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,600 voters in the runoff elections.
Election officials across the country, including the Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, as well as Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, have confirmed that there was no widespread fraud in the November election. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, where three Trump-nominated justices preside.
Even with Trump’s claims, voters in both parties were drawn to the polls because of the high stakes. AP VoteCast found that 6 in 10 Georgia voters say Senate party control was the most important factor in their vote.
In Atlanta’s Buckhead neighbourhood, 37-year-old Kari Callaghan said she voted “all Democrat” on Tuesday, an experience that was new for her.
“I’ve always been Republican, but I’ve been pretty disgusted by Trump and just the way the Republicans are working,” she said. “I feel like for the Republican candidates to still stand there with Trump and campaign with Trump feels pretty rotten. This isn’t the conservative values that I grew up with.”
But 56-year-old Will James said he voted “straight GOP.”
He said he was concerned by the Republican candidates’ recent support of Trump’s challenges of the presidential election results in Georgia, “but it didn’t really change the reasons I voted”.
“I believe in balance of power, and I don’t want either party to have a referendum, basically,” he said.
Even before Tuesday, Georgia had shattered its turnout record for a runoff with more than 3 million votes by mail or during in-person advance voting in December. The state’s previous record was 2.1 million in a 2008 Senate runoff.