Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff ousted two Republican senators in Georgia’s blockbuster runoff elections on Tuesday, delivering their party control of the chamber but only because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will hold the vote breaking a 50-50 tie.
It gives President-elect Joe Biden a path to enacting an aggressive agenda that includes amplifying the federal coronavirus response, a souped-up round of stimulus, a public health care option and raising taxes on corporations and high-income Americans. But the Senate still requires 60 votes to pass most legislation and the threshold may not be going anywhere.
Warnock, the senior pastor at an Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, beat Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler with 50.57 percent of votes to her 49.43 percent. Ossoff, a 33-year-old documentary film producer who would be the youngest senator since Biden took office at age 30 in 1973, beat David Perdue, whose Senate term ended Sunday, with 50.15 percent of votes for the Democrat and 49.15 percent for the Republican early Wednesday.
Decision Desk HQ, the Bangor Daily News’ national election results partner, called Warnock’s victory at 11:13 p.m. on Tuesday. It called Ossoff’s win at 2:14 a.m. on Wednesday.
A LOOK BEHIND THE SCENES
The result was a stunning blow to Republicans, who have controlled both of Georgia’s Senate seats for 15 years. The state has become increasingly competitive, and Biden defeated President Donald Trump here by a narrow margin — just under 12,000 votes — in November.
The outgoing president figures to catch blame within his party after making the state the center of his efforts to cast doubt on the outcome of that election, including a taped weekend call in which he asked the Republican secretary of state to “find” votes for him. Trump’s backers in Congress are expected to protest on Wednesday when results are counted in Washington, but they lack the power to alter the outcome.
Republicans lost the chamber despite winning virtually all of the most competitive Senate seats in the general election. One of their stars in that election was Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who beat back a nationalized challenge from Democrat Sara Gideon in a race in which the incumbent touted her incumbency and the fact that she was in line to chair the Senate’s powerful Appropriations Committee by 2023 under seniority rules if her party kept the chamber.
That was made more unlikely after the result on Tuesday, though she is still on track to be the top Republican on the panel if her party stays in the minority then. Collins is still likely to have a major role in the Senate as the most moderate member of her party. She could figure into key majority votes on Biden Cabinet appointees and judicial nominees while being one of the Republicans that Democrats turn to when trying to meet the 60-vote threshold for bills.
In this campaign, Democrats appear to have outperformed the GOP among the nearly 3.1 million Georgians who voted early, leaving Republicans reliant on strong Election Day turnout that did not materialize. Going into the race, there was just one thing everyone seemed to agree on: the results would be close.
Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman from Georgia’s 1st District, credited Democrats’ massive get-out-the vote machine. Republicans sent out fliers to potential voters, he said, while Democrats sent out handwritten letters. They also mailed voters requests for absentee ballots and offered them rides to the polls.
“The Democrats have worked their tails off,” he said.
Among the most promising signs for Democrats in Georgia was that their base of Black voters showed up in force early, representing 31 percent of the early vote as opposed to 28 percent in November. Warnock will be the state’s first Black senator.
The Republican campaign may have been hindered by an extraordinary level of internal fighting as Trump campaigned to reverse Biden’s victory in Georgia and attacked party officials for failing to do more to support his unsubstantiated claims of voting fraud in the state. Many Republicans worried that Trump’s efforts would discourage supporters from turning out.
With the stakes so high, the two sides spent more than half a billion dollars on the two-month runoff campaign, and each race broke the record for spending in a Senate race. In both, the Democratic candidates raised considerably more money than the Republican incumbents, but spending by outside groups gave the Republicans an overall advantage.
For weeks, Trump and the Republican candidates have warned that if the Democrats win both Senate seats, the party would have full control of both the White House and Congress, giving Biden a free hand to enact his agenda as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, switches positions with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
In reality, Biden still could be constrained, able to move no further than the most moderate Democrat would allow. That person may be Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who has said he would block some goals sought by most Democrats including eliminating the 60-vote filibuster threshold that Collins has also argued to maintain.
At the same time, Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, will be in the majority for only the second two-year stint since being elected in 2012. The sixth-most conservative member of the caucus, according to VoteView, he could factor into any group of dealmakers.
“The control there is going to really be in the hands of the moderates,” said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University.
Control of the Senate also gives Biden a clear path to filling vacancies in federal courts after McConnell blocked Senate confirmation of many judges chosen by President Barack Obama during his last two years in office, creating a large backlog that played a big role in Trump’s ability to appoint more than 220 federal judges, shifting the judiciary to the right.
Story by Los Angeles Times writers Jenny Jarvie and David Lauter and Bangor Daily News writers Michael Shepherd and Jessica Piper.