Democrats were on the verge of flipping control of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday with a victory in one of Georgia’s runoffs and a widening lead in the other, setting the stage to give President-elect Joe Biden broad leeway to pursue his policies in Congress.
Raphael Warnock became the first Black U.S. senator in Georgia history when he defeated U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, putting Democrats within one seat of capturing majority of the chamber. The focus shifted to Jon Ossoff, who declared victory as he held a steady lead over Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue.
Neither Republican has conceded the race, pointing to thousands of military overseas ballots that are still outstanding. But thousands of other votes remained outstanding in heavily-Democratic parts of metro Atlanta and Savannah.
Democrats need to win both the runoffs to force a 50-50 Senate with Democrat Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker when she is sworn in as vice president on Jan. 20. Republicans need only capture one seat, meaning their only chance of maintaining control of the chamber hinges on Perdue’s race.
Ossoff’s campaign expressed confidence he would hold his lead, as did state and national figures. Shortly after Ossoff thanked voters for electing him, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer – who would become the leader of the chamber – tweeted “buckle up.”
Meanwhile, Republicans quickly launched into finger-pointing about the GOP struggles. Until November, Georgia hadn’t voted Democratic in a presidential race since 1992 and hadn’t elected a Democratic statewide candidate since 2006. Over a nine-week stretch, Democrats broke both those losing streaks.
Much of the anger focused on President Donald Trump, who warred with state Republican figures who refused his demands to overturn the election results and sent his loyalists confusing messages by promoting false claims that the runoffs were “rigged.”
But other Republicans also criticized the state GOP for not more aggressively preparing for the votes. John Porter, the top aide to Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, said the party largely ignored absentee ballot and early-voting initiatives. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston praised the Democratic ground game.
“The good news is we don’t have to invent the wheel, we just need to copy the Democrats’ design,” said Kingston, a Savannah Republican who marveled at the extensive get-out-the-vote efforts from across the aisle.
“It’s an expensive and extensive hand-holding operation which includes paid volunteers, rides to the polls and lots of coaching,” he said “However, it’s very effective and you can’t beat it by flooding mailboxes with brochures the week before the election.”
He added: “Also, what a surprise – it turns out having a unified party and message works.”
Even as Democrats took a victory lap, Republicans signaled they would not soon concede the high-stakes races. Perdue’s campaign said it would “mobilize every available resource and exhaust every legal recourse.” And Loeffler told a cheering crowd shortly after midnight that she still had a “path to victory.”
“This is a game of inches,” she said. “We are going to win this election.”
Warnock’s stunning victory was fueled by epic turnout from Black voters and strong support across metro Atlanta’s suburbs.
It came on the heels of Biden’s narrow November victory in Georgia, which made him the first Democratic presidential nominee to capture the state since 1992 and offered partisans a road map to winning a second round in January.
Warnock followed that route by tapping into voter frustration over Republican policies with a promise to enact sweeping new voting rights legislation, expand affordable health care and boost public health funding to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
In his victory speech early Wednesday, Warnock spoke of his unlikely path to the Senate and noted that his mother used to “pick somebody else’s cotton” during her childhood in rural Waycross.
“We were told that 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. “May my story be an inspiration to some young person who is trying to grasp and grab hold to the American dream.”
Later, he reminded a national audience on CNN that he intends to stay on the pulpit of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and return to preach to his flock on Sundays.
“The last thing I want to do is become disconnected from the community and just spend all of my time talking to the politicians,” he said on CNN. “I might accidentally become one.”
Ossoff, who runs an investigative journalism firm, lagged about 20,000 votes behind Warnock but still maintained a widening lead over Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive.
Shortly after dawn Wednesday, Ossoff urged Georgians to “unite now to beat this virus and rush economic relief to the people of our state and to the American people.”
“I am honored - honored - by your support, by your confidence, by your trust,” he said. “And I will look forward to serving you in the United States Senate with integrity, with humility, with honor and getting things done for the people of Georgia.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com