On Wednesday morning, Raphael Warnock, a pastor and political novice, was projected to make history as the first African-American U.S. Senator from Georgia–a victory that puts Democrats just one seat away from control of the chamber, hands a crushing defeat to Republicans and offers a stunning coda to the Trump era.
Warnock’s victory was historic. The pastor of the Atlanta church that Martin Luther King, Jr. once presided over was elected 55 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, becoming the first Democrat sent to the U.S. Senate by Georgia since 2000 and the state’s first African-American Senator ever.
Warnock outperformed his Democratic colleague, Jon Ossoff, by a small but persistent margin throughout the tense evening. The rare double runoff had all the hallmarks of the recent national election–massive media coverage, nine-figure ad spending, bitter political divisiveness, and the rapt attention of both parties as two Democrats who had never held office sought to unseat Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Both Democrats were propelled by the extraordinary turnout from Black Georgians across the state and no corollary enthusiasm from Trump supporters in the exurbs and rural towns. The populous counties of Atlanta and its closest suburbs proved crucial to Democratic hopes as was the case in November when the state moved into the Democratic column for the first time since the 1992 presidential election.
Warnock’s victory alone is a stunning blow to the GOP–not only to President Donald Trump who took two trips to Georgia since November to campaign for Perdue and Loeffler in a state he narrowly lost but also for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell who would find himself in the minority for the first time in six years. Ossoff and Warnock winning would create a 50-50 tie in the Senate with soon-to-be Vice President Kamala Harris as the gavel wielding president of the Senate who could break it. In that case, Democrats would control the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, albeit by the narrowest of margins. With President-elect Joe Biden due to take office in less than two weeks, Democrats would control all three chambers for the first time in a decade, greatly enhancing Biden’s chances of advancing a bold agenda and putting the kibosh on Congressional probes that could distract the new president.
The dramatic vote in Georgia comes just a day before Congress will certify that Joe Biden won the election–despite promised protests from Senate and House Republicans–as well as protestors gathered in Washington, D.C.– disseminating the false claim that the election was tainted by massive fraud. It was not.
Ossoff and Warnock, should they both win, would be historic pathbreakers. Warnock would be the first African-American Senator from Georgia and the first American-American Democrat elected to the chamber from the South. He would be one of just three African-American senators serving in the session that began this week, the others being New Jersey’s Cory Booker and South Carolina’s Tim Scott. Ossoff would be the first Jewish U.S. Senator from Georgia and would, at 33, be the youngest member of the Senate since Joe Biden took the oath of office in 1973 from the hospital room where his two sons lay severely injured from a car accident that also took the life of Biden’s wife and daughter. Neither has ever won a general election.
Ossoff’s political career, in many ways, marks the beginning and end of the Trump era. The documentary filmmaker ran for Congress in 2017 in a special election to replace Rep. Tom Price who vacated his suburban Atlanta seat to become Secretary of Health and Human Services, a position he was forced to abandon nine months later after questions arose about his travels at government expense. The contest drew national attention and Ossoff was narrowly defeated by Republican Karen Handel who subsequently lost in 2018. But the Atlanta-area native’s competitive showing in a red district positioned him well for the 2020 U.S. Senate race. Ossoff has now been under the klieg lights in three high-profile elections, a remarkable trajectory for someone who had never run for office less than four years ago.
Loeffler, whose Senate career is over, was appointed to her seat by Gov. Brian Kemp after Sen. Johnny Isakson left the Senate due to ill health. Loeffler, a wealthy business executive who owns a WNBA team and is married to the Chair of the New York Stock Exchange, was considered too moderate by many in the Georgia GOP and compensated by running to the right, embracing Trump and distancing herself from her benefactor, Kemp, when Trump attacked the GOP governor for standing by the state’s presidential balloting which the president falsely said had been corrupt. She tried to shed the trappings of wealth with ball caps and flannel shirts and labeled Warnock a far-left radical, even quoting his sermons against him. She made the runoff against Warnock by coming in ahead of a slew of Republicans in the general election in November. A stiff, sometimes robotic campaigner, she seemed poised to lose as of early Wednesday morning, her attacks on Warnock having fallen short.