ATLANTA – The Democrats took a giant step closer to control of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday morning when Georgia voters elected Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church, in a highly competitive runoff contest that President Trump insisted False allegations of electoral fraud in the state have wavered.
Mr Warnock’s victory over Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler marked a milestone for both African American politicians and Georgia: he became the first black Democrat to be elected to the Senate from the South.
In order for the Democrats to take over the Senate, which is vital in passing the first term of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., they must also win Tuesday’s other Senate runoff. The votes were still counted in this race between Republican candidate David Perdue and Democratic rival Jon Ossoff.
But voter turnout in rural, predominantly white counties, where Republicans needed a strong performance, stayed behind on the ballot without Mr. Trump, and many of the heavily black towns in Georgia had turnouts close to that of the November presidential race.
“May my story be an inspiration to a young person trying to capture and hold on to the American dream,” said Mr Warnock, who grew up in poverty, in an online video just before 1am on Wednesday. Citing his mother, he said, “Because this is America, the 82-year-old Hands who used to pick someone else’s cotton went to the polls and chose their youngest son to be the United States Senator.”
With about 97 percent of the votes counted in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Mr Warnock had around 47,000 votes ahead of Ms. Loeffler after taking a lead on the heavily democratic DeKalb County late Tuesday night.
While Mr Warnock’s victory was a huge win for his party – he is the first Democrat to be elected to the Senate from Georgia since 2000 – both political parties stayed on the unsolved Ossoff-Perdue race and its implications for the next two years nervous in American politics. Which party wins this race will control the Senate, with Republicans counting on Mr. Perdue to prevail and giving them the opportunity to curtail Mr. Biden’s political ambitions.
After Mr Biden’s triumph in November, Mr Warnock’s victory offers yet another comeuppance for the Trumpist policies that have defined the Republican Party for the past four years. Ms. Loeffler had renamed herself as a stubborn Trump loyalist to fend off a challenge from the right in the first round of the election. For the past few weeks, she has continued to hug the president and even use an election rally with Mr. Trump in northwest Georgia to proudly declare that she will refuse to certify Mr. Biden of his loss when Congress meets on Wednesday.
Mr. Warnock and Mr. Ossoff ran like the two Republicans as a virtual package deal. They often appeared together at events and formulated similar messages about the grave consequences for the nation if the other side won.
Republicans used much of the runoff to focus on Mr. Warnock’s sermons, a line of scrimmage that apparently mobilized African American voters, particularly in more conservative rural Georgia, where the Church is a pillar of many congregations.
Mr Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his defeat also robbed Ms Loeffler of what might have been her best argument in a still slightly right-wing state – that she would be a control of liberal excesses in a government completely controlled by Democrats .
Even before Tuesday’s elections closed, senior Republican campaign officials blamed the president, finding that their polls testified the power of the “check-and-balance” argument, which the party was unable to put forward because of Mr. Trump’s rejection the election results.
The election was a tumultuous coda for Mr Trump’s presidency, balanced with control of the Senate and Mr Biden’s first two years in office. The runoff elections were also a major contributor to a deep south state where once dominant Republicans are gradually losing their advantage due to an increasingly diverse electorate and changing preferences of suburban voters.
Voter turnout on Election Day was what made the Republicans catch up with the Democrats. During a primary election that ended last week, more than three million Georgians cast their votes and turnout was high among African-Americans and in liberal bastions in the Atlanta area.
It was difficult for voters to choose between the two pairs of candidates: Mr. Perdue (71) and Ms. Loeffler (50) are both white millionaires who leaned towards more conservative political positions such as gun rights and opposition to abortion. They also made it clear to voters that their business success gave them hands-on experience in dealing with economic affairs.
Mr Warnock (51) and Mr Ossoff (33) were a more diverse team. Mr. Warnock is a noted pastor in the Atlanta Church where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. The Jew Ossoff is the head of a video production company and worked as a congress assistant.
Both men pledged a stronger response to the coronavirus pandemic and an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and endorsed the national Democratic Party.
They also railed against Mr Trump, who made sure he was regularly on the minds of Georgian voters by relentlessly – and unfounded – insistence that a “rigged” parliamentary election in November deprived him of victory in the state.
Shortly after his narrow defeat, Mr Trump instigated a Republican civil war in Georgia and slammed two Republicans, Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, when they refused to take steps to change the president’s findings. Mr. Perdue and Mrs. Loeffler, both passionate defenders of Mr. Trump, voted early on, accusing Mr. Raffensperger of incompetence and asking him to step down a few days after the election.
By the eve of the runoff election, Republicans were concerned about the possible aftermath of Mr. Trump’s efforts to undo his defeat, particularly the revelation that he called Mr. Raffensperger on Saturday and pressured him to “find” the votes, who would help. The President declares victory. Mr. Trump’s false claims of fraud made some in his own party fear that his supporters would take him literally and suspend the election on the grounds that their votes would not matter much in a compromised system.
Even on Tuesday afternoon, when his party fervently pushed for voter turnout on Election Day, Mr Trump questioned the integrity of the Georgian electoral system. He claimed on Twitter that voting machines “don’t work in certain Republican strongholds”. Mr Raffensperger said the issues were minor and resolved by 10 a.m.
Long before Tuesday, the president left the two Republican senators with a tricky job: Republican control of the Senate was crucial to limiting Mr Biden without admitting that Mr Biden had actually won the presidency, which would punch a hole in Mr Trump’s false narrative .
By the end, both candidates have tied themselves to Mr. Trump and calculated that the party’s base would suspend the runoff election if they distanced themselves in the slightest.
If the Republican hopefuls twisted to accommodate Mr. Trump’s die-hard supporters – risking alienation from Biden-backed suburbanites – the two Democrats did little to defy their own party.
In a state where Republicans hold every nationwide office, Mr. Warnock and Mr. Ossoff acted as National Democrats rather than highlighting the differences they had from party orthodoxy as an earlier generation of Georgia Democrats did. While resisting some far-left ambitions, such as defusing the police, the two candidates expressed their support for abortion rights and gun control.
Republicans took up these issues, as well as the biographies of Mr Ossoff, and especially Mr Warnock, when they argued that the two men were too liberal for Georgia.
Mr Ossoff was best known for running and losing in an expensive, highly competitive special election in the House of Representatives at the start of the Trump era in 2017. On the other hand, one of Mr. Warnock’s greatest challenges was the length of his record as a public figure and an activist preacher.
After Mr. Warnock largely evaded criticism in the November elections when Ms. Loeffler focused on fending off a challenge from the right, he received particularly harsh criticism.
Republicans shed light on Mr. Warnock’s most controversial sermons, portraying him as a critic of the military and law enforcement. Mr. Warnock attempted to defuse the criticism and soften his image by airing commercials featuring a puppy.
Mr. Ossoff also took some hard shots at Mr. Perdue, calling him a “crook” over controversial stock deals the Senator had made while accusing him of profiting from the coronavirus pandemic, which Mr. Perdue denies.
None of the parties lacked the resources to make their arguments. These were the most expensive Senate competitions in US history. Including the pre-runoff campaign, more than $ 469 million was spent on the Perdue-Ossoff competition and more than $ 362 million was spent on the Loeffler-Warnock race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
That the races were competitive at all was evidence of Georgia’s changing nature.
Although the state has been largely Republican dominated for the past two decades, it is changing due to the influx of newcomers, immigrants, and American-born voters who pursue warm weather and the opportunity for the sun belt. Democratic hopes were bolstered not only by Mr Biden’s victory, but also by Stacey Abrams’ campaign in 2018, which led a competitive but unsuccessful race for governor.
And the Senate’s two aces have been abandoned by some of the determining forces that have shaped national politics.
Mr Ossoff made his political debut in 2017 as a fresh-faced and virtually unknown candidate fighting for a seat in the open house in suburban Atlanta. The special election was one of the first major referendums on Mr Trump. Mr Ossoff, despite its darkness, was inundated with money from energetic liberals across the country.
Mr Ossoff lost the 2017 race but he brought his experience and notoriety to the battle of 2020 where he forced Mr Perdue into a runoff.
In the other race, Ms. Loeffler was appointed to the Senate by Mr. Kemp in December 2019 to fill the seat of Senator Johnny Isakson, who was retiring for health reasons.
But his election displeased Mr. Trump, who had wanted Mr. Kemp to tap into Doug Collins, then a far-right Georgia congressman who had served as one of Mr. Trump’s most loyal defenders during his impeachment.
Mr. Collins jumped into the race anyway and forced Mrs. Loeffler far to the right; She once aired an ad saying she was more conservative than Attila the Hun.
The strategy helped Ms. Loeffler win a spot in the runoff election, but appeared to invalidate Mr. Kemp’s original rationale for her appointment when she renamed herself a die-hard Trump loyalist.
Rick Rojas, Astead W. Herndon and Sean Keenan contributed to the coverage.