Democrat Raphael Warnock won one of Georgia’s two Senate qualifiers on Wednesday, becoming the first black senator in his state’s history and putting the majority of the Senate within the party’s reach.
A pastor who spent the past 15 years leading the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, Warnock defeated Republican candidate Kelly Loeffler. It was a scathing rebuke of outgoing President Donald Trump, who made one of his last trips to Georgia to gather his loyal base in support of Loeffler and the Republican who was running for another seat, David Perdue.
The focus now shifts to the second race between Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. This contest was too early to be called, as the votes were still being counted. If Ossoff wins, Democrats will have full control of Congress, strengthening the position of President-elect Joe Biden as he prepares to take office on January 20.
Warnock’s victory is a symbol of a marked shift in Georgian politics, as the growing number of diverse voters with higher education exercise their power in the heart of the Deep South. It follows Biden’s victory in November, when he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to hold office since 1992.
Warnock, 51, acknowledged his unlikely victory in a message to supporters on Wednesday, citing his family’s experience of poverty. His mother, he said, used to pick “someone else’s cotton” when he was a teenager.
“The other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick someone else’s cotton chose their youngest son to be a United States senator,” he said. “Tonight, we proved with hope, hard work and with the people at our side that anything is possible.”
Loeffler refused to give in to a brief message to supporters shortly after midnight.
“We have a lot of work to do here. This is a game of centimeters. We are 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 governor.
Loeffler, who remains a senator for Georgia until Tuesday’s election results are finalized, said she would return to Washington on Wednesday morning to join a small group of senators who plan to challenge the Congressional vote to certify the Biden’s victory.
“We will continue to fight for you,” said Loeffler, “it is about protecting the American dream.”
Georgia’s other second round placed Perdue, a 71-year-old former business executive who held his Senate seat until the end of his term on Sunday, against Ossoff, a former Congressional aide and journalist. At only 33, Ossoff would be the youngest member of the Senate.
Trump’s false allegations about electoral fraud cast a black shadow over the run-off elections, which were held only because no candidate reached the 50 percent limit in the general election. He attacked the head of the state election the day before the election and raised the possibility that some votes could not be counted, even when the votes were being cast on Tuesday afternoon.
Republican state officials at the site have reported no significant problems.
This week’s elections mark the formal end of the turbulent 2020 election season, more than two months after the rest of the country has finished voting. The unusually high stakes made Georgia, once a solidly republican state, one of the country’s main battlegrounds in the final days of Trump’s presidency – and probably later.
Both disputes tested whether the political coalition that fueled Biden’s victory in November was an anti-Trump anomaly or part of a new electoral landscape. To win Tuesday’s elections – and in the future – Democrats needed strong African-American support.
Taking advantage of his popularity among black voters, among other groups, Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by about 12,000 votes out of 5 million in November.
Trump’s claims about electoral fraud in the 2020 election, though without merit, resonated with Republican voters in Georgia. About 7 out of 10 agreed with his false claim that Biden was not the legitimately elected president, according to AP VoteCast, a poll of more than 3,600 voters in the runoff elections.
Broken attendance record
Election officials across the country, including Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, as well as Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, confirmed that there was no widespread fraud in the November election. Almost all legal challenges to Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two filed by the Supreme Court, where three Trump-appointed judges preside.
Despite Trump’s claims, voters from both parties were drawn to the polls because of the high risk. AP VoteCast found that 6 out of 10 voters in Georgia say party control in the Senate was the most important factor in their vote.
WATCH | Democrats hold the lead in the second round of the Georgia Senate:
Even before Tuesday, Georgia broke its turnout record in a second round with more than 3 million votes in the mail or during the in-person vote in December. Including Tuesday’s vote, more people voted in the second round than they voted in the 2016 presidential election in Georgia.
In Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, 37-year-old Kari Callaghan said she voted “fully Democratic” on Tuesday, a new experience for her.
“I’ve always been a Republican, but I was very disgusted with Trump and the way Republicans are working,” she said. “I feel that the Republican candidates are still there with Trump and the campaign with Trump looks very bad. Those are not the conservative values that I grew up with.”
But Will James, 56, said he voted “straight GOP”.
He said he was concerned about the recent support of Republican candidates for Trump’s challenges to the results of the presidential election in Georgia, “but that hasn’t really changed the reasons why I voted.”
“I believe in the balance of power and I don’t want either party to have a referendum, basically,” he said.