Democrats moved closer to winning the majority in the Senate as Raphael G. Warnock defeated appointed Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler in a special election runoff Tuesday night.
Warnock, 51, is the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and will be the first Black senator to represent Georgia. He was also the second Democrat in the 2020 cycle to shatter assumptions about the Peach State’s partisan lean, following President-elect Joe Biden’s win there in November.
When The Associated Press called the race at 2 a.m., Warnock had 50.5 percent to Loeffler’s 49.5 percent — outside the range that would automatically qualify for a recount. The race was for the unexpired term of Republican Johnny Isakson, who resigned at the end of 2019.
The other Senate runoff on the ballot, for a six-year term, remained uncalled. Republican David Perdue, who held the seat until Sunday, was trailing 33-year-old documentary film producer Jon Ossoff. Ossoff had a 9,527-vote lead — out of nearly 4.4 million cast — over Perdue, as of 2:40 a.m.
Warnock cites humble roots
Ossoff and Warnock portrayed the Republican incumbents, both of whom are among the wealthiest members of Congress, as self-interested plutocrats who had mismanaged the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were told we couldn't win this election, but tonight we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible,” Warnock said in a live video early Wednesday morning, before the race was called.
He repeated lines from his stump speech, describing his childhood in a Savannah housing project and mentioning his 82-year-old mother, who, he said, had that morning used the same hands that once picked other peoples’ cotton to cast a vote to send her son to the U.S. Senate.
Loeffler did not concede, telling supporters before Warnock spoke that there were votes still uncounted.
"We have a path to victory, and we are going to stay on it," she said.
Perdue's campaign took a similar position in a statement early Wednesday.
“We will mobilize every available resource and exhaust every legal recourse to ensure all legally cast ballots are properly counted,” Perdue's campaign said on Twitter.
Ossoff declared victory in an address posted to his Twitter account as people were waking up to headlines that Democrats had likely won both races.
“This campaign has been about health and jobs and justice for the people of this state — for all the people of this state,” he said. “And they will be my guiding principles, as I serve this state in the U.S. Senate, ensuring that every Georgian has great health care, no matter our wealth, ensuring that we invest in an economic recovery that includes all communities, that rebuilds our state's infrastructure, that lays the foundations for prosperity in rural Georgia, suburban communities, and urban communities alike, and securing equal justice for all, following in the footsteps of leaders who have departed us in this last year like Congressman John Lewis and C.T. Vivian.”
The state had struggled to count votes in November but seemed to have sped up procedures for processing a flood of votes cast by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic. State law also changed to require all counties to begin processing ballots before Election Day.
The GOP held 50 Senate seats after the November election, meaning Democrats needed to win both Georgia seats to get control of the Senate, since Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be able to break ties after she is inaugurated.
That’s likely not enough for Biden to push through some of the more ambitious policies or institution-rattling changes that have been on the Democrats’ wish list, since most legislation requires 60 votes to advance. Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has already said he will oppose any effort to eliminate the Senate’s legislative filibuster or to increase the size of the Supreme Court.
But Democratic control could make it easier for Biden to get his judicial and executive branch nominees confirmed, and provide leeway to pass policies with broader appeal, working with moderate Democrats and vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in 2022. Examples include aid for state and local governments that was left out of the coronavirus relief package passed in December.
They would have to act quickly, however. The president’s party almost always loses seats in Congress during midterm elections. And Democrats from swing states fighting to keep their seats in 2022 will include Warnock, who will have to run again for a full six-year term.
Spending broke records
The extraordinary stakes of the two Georgia elections attracted record-shattering spending from both sides as party leaders converged on the state, concluding with election eve visits from Biden and President Donald Trump.
Biden, the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Georgia since 1992, had urged voters at his Monday rally to send Ossoff and Warnock to join him in efforts to revitalize the economy, expand health care and voting rights, and address criminal justice and climate change. He also derided Loeffler and Perdue as too beholden to Trump, who is using false claims about election fraud in an attempt to overturn the November results.
“You have two senators now who think they don't work for you, they work for Trump,” Biden said. “As our opposition friends are finding out, all power flows from the people, from the people. That’s our history, that’s our law, that’s our tradition, that’s our Constitution. Politicians cannot assert, take or seize power. Power is given, granted by the American people.”
Ossoff and Warnock modeled their campaigns after Biden’s, holding outdoor car rallies and focusing much of their public appearances on how they would shepherd the country through the economic recovery from the pandemic and the racial reckoning that rocked the 2020 election cycle.
Like Biden, both sheared the edges from the most progressive elements of the Democratic Party platform. They supported demilitarizing police, not defunding them. They called for increasing access to affordable health care, not “Medicare for All.”
Both have deep connections to civil rights icons of the past half-century who served as beacons for their campaigns. Warnock preaches from Martin Luther King Jr.’s former pulpit, where he has espoused the social justice teachings of Black liberation theology in sermons that Loeffler misrepresented throughout her campaign as radical and dangerous.
Warnock responded with a series of ads, starring his pet beagle, that subtly dismantled stereotypes against Black male candidates and depicted him as a mild-mannered moderate in a puffer vest and starched windowpane plaid.
Ossoff lost high-profile House race
Ossoff, who is white, began his career as an intern for Georgia Rep. John Lewis, whom he credits as a mentor. The late Democratic congressman was among Ossoff’s earliest political backers when Ossoff ran in a fiercely competitive special election for an Atlanta-area House seat in 2017.
Ossoff lost that race, but it helped him tap into a network of thousands of volunteers who remained active throughout his Senate bid. It also gave him inroads with political organizers, many of them working to galvanize voters of color who have transformed the state’s Democratic Party in recent years.
Loeffler and Perdue declared themselves the last line of defense against Democratic control in Washington and said their opponents were radical socialists who would sell out the state’s interests to party leaders in D.C.
They also bought into Trump’s false claims that the Nov. 3 election had been stolen from him, demanding the resignation of Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, and supporting, eventually, the efforts in Congress to object to the counting of the state’s electoral votes.
Gabriel Sterling, the top voting administrator in Georgia who delivered a lengthy rebuttal to Trump’s fraud claims on Monday, told CNN it would be Trump’s fault if Republicans lost.
“When you tell people your vote doesn't count, has been stolen, and people start to believe that, and then you go to the two senators and tell them to ask the secretary of state to resign and trigger a civil war in the Republican Party when you need voters to unite, all of that stems from his decision-making since the Nov. 3 election,” Sterling said Tuesday night.