ATLANTA – Democrats have captured both of Georgia’s seats in the U.S. Senate for the first time in nearly 20 years, a momentous feat that gives the party control of Congress and the White House.
Several media outlets declared Democrat Jon Ossoff the winner Wednesday afternoon in Tuesday’s tight runoff contest against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue. Ossoff took 50.3% of the vote to 49.7% for Perdue, apparently just above the 0.5% margin of victory that under state law would have allowed Perdue to request a recount.
Rev. Raphael Warnock captured Georgia’s other Senate seat earlier in the day when the Democratic challenger was declared the winner over incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Warnock prevailed by a slightly wider margin, 50.7% to 49.3%.
The Senate runoff results solidify Georgia’s position as a battleground state with closely fought elections for at least the next decade, said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.
“This is yet another election that confirms Georgia isn’t reliably Republican anymore,” Gillespie said Wednesday. “It has become purple and it has the potential to be very competitive for the next few election cycles.”
The two Democrats’ wins “feel bigger than Obama,” said Georgia political strategist Fred Hicks, commenting on former President Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008 as the country’s first Black commander-in-chief. Warnock becomes Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator and Ossoff is the state’s first Jewish senator.
“There’s never been this kind of a get-out-the-vote effort statewide launched by Democrats and Democratic-affiliated groups,” Hicks said. “This was the first time that people went out to vote all over the state, not just metro [Atlanta] ... And in a game of margins, that made the difference.”
Georgia has not been represented by two Democratic senators simultaneously since 2002, when former Sens. Max Cleland and Zell Miller both held office before Cleland’s reelection loss that year.
Turnout in the Jan. 5 runoffs is set to hover around 4.5 million as counting continued Wednesday, marking record-breaking turnout driven by huge vote-by-mail, early voting and Democratic enthusiasm over President-elect Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 general election.
Close to $1 billion was spent by the four campaigns and outside groups in both races, dwarfing previous fundraising records in American politics, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Celebrities and national politicians flocked to the state. Trump and Biden held rallies twice each.
Beyond the cash and cameos, Democratic operatives in Georgia also managed to “absolutely perfect get-out-the-vote” with wide canvassing efforts and “a more hopeful, optimistic message” than the fearful tone set by the senators’ campaigns, said Buzz Brockway, a former Republican state lawmaker and former Gwinnett County GOP chairman.
“Fear only goes so far,” Brockway said. “Obviously, there are people who think the world ended last night, but there are a lot who don’t.”
Democrats managed to hold the same margins or better that Biden saw in his win over Trump in Georgia despite a 10% drop in turnout in the runoffs compared to the Nov. 3 general election, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.
Bullock, who has tracked elections in Georgia for decades, said Wednesday he did not see a path forward for Perdue and Loeffler in the runoffs.
“Democrats in the past have lost these general-election runoffs because they didn’t come back to the polls,” Bullock said. “That wasn’t the case this time.”
Much of the credit for Tuesday’s results and the presidential election flip went to Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate and rising Democratic star who has led voter registration and turnout efforts since her loss to Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018.
Abrams took to Twitter late Tuesday night to laud her voting rights group Fair Fight’s staff and volunteers for helping put Ossoff and Warnock on a “strong path” to victory.
“Across our state, we roared,” Abrams said.
Georgia GOP leaders are now left to wonder what could have been if not for the influence of Trump, who served up more distraction than motivation for crucial conservative voting blocs by insisting the state’s election system was “rigged” after his loss on Nov. 3, according to several analysts.
Blame for Perdue’s and Loeffler’s potential losses should fall squarely on the president, said Georgia’s election system implementation manager, Gabriel Sterling.
“When you say your vote doesn’t count … then you spark a civil war within a GOP that needed to be united to get through a tough fight like this in a state that has been trending in the other direction for years now,” said Sterling, who is a Republican and a former Sandy Springs city councilman.
Officials have seen no evidence of widespread fraud in the runoff elections, Sterling said. That’s despite Trump’s assault on the state’s election integrity as he lobbed unproven fraud claims Wednesday and declared Perdue and Loeffler “never had a shot” – though neither senator has conceded defeat.
As Trump raged, Biden praised Georgia voters and Democratic leaders for sending “a resounding message” that looks to ease the way for his incoming administration to appoint Cabinet members and push through legislative initiatives for at least the next two years.
“After the past four years, after the election … it’s time to turn the page,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday. “The American people demand action and they want unity. I am more optimistic than I ever have been that we can deliver both.”