Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have won runoff races in the southern state of Georgia, The Associated Press news agency has projected.
The victories will give Democrats control of the US Senate and have national ramifications for President-elect Joseph Biden’s administration when he takes office later this month.
The elections of both candidates are historic. Warnock, 51, who serves as pastor for the same Atlanta church that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr once led, will become the first Black senator from Georgia in history and the first Black Democrat ever from the American South.
Ossoff will become the first Jewish senator from Georgia. At 33 years old, he will be the youngest senator and the first of the millennial-generation in the chamber.
The races were close. On Wednesday afternoon, the AP said Warnock’s lead over Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler had reached 1.2 percentage points, or about 62,000 votes. That lead was expected to grow as more votes were counted.
Later on Wednesday, the AP projected Ossoff as the winner against the Republican David Perdue, with a lead of about 25,000 votes or about 0.56 percentage points.
With their victories, Democrats will control the House of Representatives, the White House and now the Senate in 2021, allowing Biden to enact his agenda with less resistance from Republicans.
While the chamber will have 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats (including two independent legislators who caucus with Democrats), Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will serve as tie-breaker.
For the past two months, Republicans and Democrats waged a fierce battle over the state, pouring more than $500m combined into the runoff races to advertise and mobilise voters. The outcome serves as an affirmation that political coalitions and power structures in Georgia – where Republicans have enjoyed dominance for decades – have undergone an enormous shift.
Democrats, in part thanks to a decade-long effort led by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to register hundreds of thousands of new voters, were pushed to victory by high turnout among Black voters and a rapidly increasing population, particularly in the state’s growing cities.
“African Americans made up a larger portion of early voters in this election than they did in the general election,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “That suggests mobilisation efforts improved that were targeting these particular groups. And that bodes well for Democrats.”
The outcome of Georgia’s elections will have significant national implications in Washington that will affect federal policy and shape Biden’s ability to govern as president.
“Republicans lost the primary check they could hope to have on Biden in the most productive part of this presidency,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist and former adviser on Senate campaigns. “People are still grappling with the fact that it really happened. It’s still surreal to be talking about and thinking about two Democratic senators from Georgia.”
With a Democratic majority in the Senate, Biden will enjoy more liberty in who he nominates for his cabinet, judicial nominations and in legislation than he would have with Republicans still in control.
“This is absolutely critical to Biden’s success. With these victories he gets to control the flow of legislation to the Senate floor, run the committees and control the investigative and oversight process, as well,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to retired Democratic Senator Harry Reid, who served as Senate majority leader from 2007-2015.
In Washington, work is already in motion to act on news of the Democratic victories in Georgia. In a news conference Wednesday, New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, the incoming Senate majority leader, said he would work with Biden to pass a stimulus bill to provide relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to send $2,000 checks to Americans as an early act of the new Congress.
“President Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will have a partner in me and my caucus who is ready, willing and able to help achieve a forward-looking agenda and deliver bold change to the American people,” Schumer said. “For too long, much-needed help has been stalled and diluted by a Republican-led Senate and President Trump. That will change with a Democratic Senate, a Democratic House and a Democratic president.”
The Democratic majority does not, however, mean Biden will not face congressional roadblocks and restrictions to his ambitions. Republicans will still have the power to stall and even halt legislation through the filibuster, which requires 60 votes in the Senate to overcome.
“From a legislative standpoint, you’re still at the mercy of Senate rules and the filibuster,” said Donovan. “But what it does allow you to do is unlock important tools that can operate on a majority basis.”
One of those tools is the Democrats’ ability to pass their initiatives using “budget reconciliation,” a legislative loophole that allows policymakers to approve a limited scope of goals with just a majority in the Senate.
“This is the one neat trick to get around the Senate’s requirement to have 60 votes,” Donovan said.
Republicans, still recovering from the pair of losses – and the demotion to minority status in the Senate – largely blame Trump for failure in the runoffs.
Although the president rallied for the Republican candidates by visiting Georgia twice since November, he simultaneously waged a months-long grievance campaign that aimed to turn the integrity of the state’s election process into doubt. Trump publicly berated Georgia’s Republican election officials and Governor Brian Kemp – also a Republican – for running what he called a “rigged” election when he lost to Biden in November (His complaints were not backed by facts or any evidence of widespread fraud).
Trump’s relentless attacks on party officials may have planted doubts among Republicans that their vote would be fairly counted, and it could have reduced turnout.
The weekend before the election, Trump even tried to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” extra votes for him months after his loss, pulling attention away from the Republican candidates’ crucial get-out-the-vote efforts.
“The president of the United States spent more time attacking Gov. Kemp and Ben Raffensperger than he did Raphael Warnock and … Ossoff,” said Gabriel Sterling, who oversees Georgia’s voting systems, during a press conference Wednesday. “It irritates me …While Republicans were busy attacking the governor and my boss, the Democrats were out there knocking on doors and getting people to turn out to vote.”
Warnock and Ossoff will be sworn in once their victories are certified later this month.