Democrat Raphael Warnock won one of two close Senate runoff races in the U.S. state of Georgia, putting Senate control within the party’s reach and making Warnock the first Black Democrat to win a Senate seat in a former Confederate state.
Warnock, the pastor of an Atlanta, Georgia, church once led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., defeated Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler in a race that was called by Edison Research and the Associated Press early Wednesday after the candidates exchanged leads overnight.
In the other Georgia Senate race, Democrat Jon Ossoff maintained a tighter lead over Republican Senator David Perdue, whose six-year term expired on Sunday. Ossoff, a former congressional aide and television documentary producer, claimed victory early Wednesday but the race was too close to declare a winner.
An Ossoff victory would give Democrats full control of Congress, raising the possibility that President-elect Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers can more easily enact their legislative agenda.
Warnock and Ossoff needed heavy turnout from African American voters, as did Biden two months ago, when his popularity with Black voters and other groups allowed him to capture Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by almost 12,000 out of 5 million votes cast.
Warnock’s win also crystalizes a years-long political shift in Georgia, where growing numbers of minorities and college-educated residents have helped turn the state from a longtime Republican stronghold into a swing state.
“Georgia is in such an incredible place when you think of the arc of our history,” Warnock said Wednesday on ABC’s Good Morning America. “This is the reversal of the old Southern strategy that sought to divide people.”
President-elect Biden was quick to commend Warnock and Ossoff on Wednesday, although Ossoff had not been declared the winner.
“I congratulate the people of Georgia, who turned out in record numbers once again, just as they did in November, to elect two new senators, demand action, and call on our elected leaders to end the gridlock and move us forward as a nation,” Biden said in a statement.
Going into Tuesday’s voting, Republicans controlled the 100-seat Senate with a 50-48 advantage, needing to win one of the Georgia contests to keep their majority and act as a bulwark against Biden’s legislative proposals after he is inaugurated January 20.
With Warnock’s victory, an Ossoff win would give Democrats a 50-50 split with Republicans and a chance for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will be able to preside over Senate proceedings when she chooses, to cast tie-breaking votes in Democrats’ favor.
Democrats already narrowly control the House of Representatives. With Democratic control of both houses of Congress, Biden would likely offer more sweeping proposals to bolster health care in the United States, tighten environmental controls that were eased during the four-year tenure of Trump and try to make it easier for immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship.
Conversely, Republican control of the Senate would make Biden’s political life more difficult and likely force protracted negotiations between his administration and Republican lawmakers on contentious issues.
The controlling party in the chamber also sets the legislative calendar, determining which issues are voted on while also holding a majority on each of the Senate’s issue-specific committees where potential laws are first considered.
The Perdue-Ossoff and Loeffler-Warnock contests were made necessary because none of the four candidates won a majority in the first round of voting in November.
Voter turnout was robust on Tuesday, with long lines of voters snaking into polling places, and came after nearly 3.1 million people cast ballots before the official Election Day. Five million votes were cast in Georgia in the November balloting that included Biden’s race against Trump.
Trump has repeatedly claimed without evidence that he was defrauded out of winning the state, pleading in an extraordinary phone call last weekend with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find him 11,780 more votes – enough to upend the Biden win by a single vote. But Raffensperger, a Republican, rebuffed Trump, saying he was “just plain wrong” in contending he was cheated out of a victory in the state.