Georgia Senate runoffs: Democrat Raphael Warnock wins against Kelly Loeffler
"Democrats within striking distance of taking control of the upper chamber in triumph that marks dramatic moment in American politics
Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King once preached, has won one of the two runoff elections for the US Senate in Georgia, putting the Democrats within striking distance of taking control of the upper chamber.
Warnock’s victory over the ultra-Trump loyalist Kelly Loeffler was called by Associated Press just after 2am. It solidifies the astonishing transformation that has seen Georgia reshape itself from a southern Republican stronghold into a diverse and increasingly progressive state, just two months after Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win there in almost three decades.
The result puts the Democrats just one seat away from gaining control of the Senate. The second run-off election of the night, that of the former documentary film-maker Jon Ossoff against Republican incumbent David Perdue, was still too close to call with fewer than 2,000 votes between them.
A Democratic sweep of both runoffs, now potentially within the party’s grasp, would have seismic ramifications. It would strip the Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell of his vice-like grip over the Senate which under his control has been likened to a “legislative graveyard”.
By extension, it would vastly widen the vistas of the incoming Biden administration over such critical and potentially epochal areas as tackling the climate crisis the Covid-19 pandemic, appointing federal judges, and addressing racial and income inequality.
Taken on its own, Warnock’s triumph marked a dramatic moment in American politics. The first time a Democrat has been sent by Georgia to the US Senate in 24 years, it raises several awkward questions for the Republican party that has seen its dominance in the state crumble in such short order.
There is also likely to be soul-searching over whether Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat in November’s presidential race, and his on-going attempts to overturn the results of the election, damaged the party’s standing among moderate Republicans.
The president-elect himself summed up the high stakes on the eve of election day at a rally in Atlanta. He told the crowd: “One state can chart the course not just for the next four years, but for the next generation.”
Warnock delivered what amounted to a victory speech before any of the TV networks or Associated Press had called his race. Shortly after midnight, with his lead over Loeffler looking increasingly solid, he went online and introduced himself effectively as Georgia’s new senator-to-be.
Calling himself a “son of Georgia whose roots are planted deeply in Georgia soil”, he promised to work in the Senate for all of the state’s people. “We were told that we could not win this election, but tonight we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible.”
He went on: “Washington has a choice to make – all of us have a choice to make: will we continue to divide, distract and dishonor one another, or will we love our neighbors as we love ourselves?”
Warnock’s lead in a race in which he was relentlessly attacked by Loeffler and the Republicans as a far-left “socialist” was presaged by the candidates’ contrasting fortunes in turnout. In Republican areas of the state, turnout was notably down on the presidential race in November which Biden won by a paper-thin margin.
By contrast, Democratic-leaning counties saw both Warnock and Ossoff markedly improve on Biden’s record.
As Dave Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report pointed out, turnout in majority African American counties was especially striking. “Black turnout looks, frankly, phenomenal,” he wrote on Twitter.
Throughout Tuesday, polling stations across the state reported a steady stream of voters who defied a devastating surge in coronavirus infections in Georgia to vote in person. Individual Georgians went to extreme lengths to take part in what have been described as elections that could set the course of America for a generation.
According to state election officials, the number of Georgians who had cast their votes in advance of election day – either through absentee ballots or by early voting – reached 3.1 million. That, on its own, smashed the standing record set in 2008 for a Senate runoff in Georgia which attracted a total of 2.1 million voters.
By the time the final votes are counted, election officials suggested the total is likely to reach 4.6m – more than double the 2008 record.
The enormous electoral energy swirling around the runoffs was reflected in key counties where the results of both races could be won or lost. Dekalb county, which covers the eastern suburbs of Atlanta, saw turnout on Tuesday exceed even that of the presidential election day in November.
For participation in runoff elections to surpass that of a presidential race was extremely rare, and was welcomed as a positive signal by Democrats given that Biden soundly defeated Trump in Dekalb county by 83% to 16% in November. However, a similar story of large turnout was also being told in key Republican-leaning counties, such as Forsyth county and Cherokee county where long lines were witnessed outside the polling places.
Stacey Abrams, who has been seminal in building a Democratic ground game through her group Fair Fight, put out a tentatively celebratory tweet shortly before midnight, when both runoff elections remained in the balance. “With new votes joining the tally, we are on a strong path,” she said, adding: “Across our state, we roared.”
With the data leaning tentatively in the Democratic direction as the night progressed, excitement was building around the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, where Warnock is pastor and Martin Luther King Jr grew up and often preached. The 134-year-old church was firmly closed, its doors plastered with coronavirus warnings, but people outside could sense history in the making.
Cheryl Johnson, a voting engagement activist and community historian, said: “We’re hoping, we’re hoping. We know that Georgia is in the midst of a great change. We believe that we can lead the country forward as we have always led the country in many different ways. We have a history of great leadership. We have always been change-makers.”
Warnock would be the first Black person from Georgia elected to the Senate. Johnson stood on Auburn Avenue, which she noted was once the heart of Black wealth in America. “We had millionaires from one end of the street to another. All of these churches that you see were built by African Americans who had just come out of slavery.
“So this is where we we drew our strength. This is where Dr King was brought up. People think that it’s a surprise for Atlantans but it’s not, because Atlanta has been known to birth and to develop leadership.”
Johnson, 54, has heard Warnock preach at the church. “He can break it down intellectually but when it comes to talking about the issues that impact our community, social justice issues, homelessness, healthcare issues, police reform, he comes in the tradition of the Baptist church, which is passionate, engaged. He challenges people to think about who are you? If you say that you are this, what does that mean?”
Fears of trouble or even violence outside polling stations appeared not to have materialised. Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, told CNN that “we have never seen an election is more secure and has had more integrity.”
His fellow Republican official, Gabriel Sterling, said that incidents of difficulties with voting mechanisms were passingly few. At a press conference, he said that only 0.1% of scanning machines across the state had failed to work while 0.02% of counting machines had to be replaced.
Destabilising both parties herculean efforts to get their supporters to the polls on Tuesday was the mercurial influence of Donald Trump. The president continues to refuse to concede defeat in the presidential election, and has persisted in a campaign of falsehoods targeting Georgia with unfounded claims of voter fraud.
Trump lit a fuse under the double runoffs on Saturday when he called Raffensperger and tried to cajole him into overturning the certified results of the presidential race. The conversation was taped and leaked, and has led to calls for Trump to be prosecuted for election crimes.
The president’s antics have left some Republicans in Georgia fretting that his claims that his victory was “stolen” would dissuade party supporters from turning up at the polls on Tuesday. But it remained to be seen just how much impact his incendiary interventions would make, and in what direction.
The Republican contestants have attempted to move beyond Trump’s baseless complaint about the presidential count and focus their campaigns on what they have depicted as the “radical socialism” of their Democratic rivals. The airwaves have been flooded with unprecedented numbers of political adverts on both sides, with the campaigns of the four candidates jointly splurging more than $833m on the state according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Nonetheless Loeffler, the richest member of the Senate who also prides herself as being the chamber’s most conservative, has announced that she will vote to challenge the electoral college results at a joint session of Congress on Wednesday."