Democrats on the verge of retaking Senate: Warnock wins, Ossoff leads in Georgia runoffs

Democrats appear poised to make Mitch McConnell the Senate minority leader with mostly blue votes outstanding

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published January 6, 2021 9:35AM (EST)

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Democrats appear poised to recapture the Senate in dramatic fashion, with a clear victory in one Georgia runoff election and a likely win in the other. The Associated Press projected the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, as the winner of his runoff election against Sen. Kelly Loeffler, while Democrat Jon Ossoff holds a narrow lead over Republican incumbent David Perdue in their race, with most of the outstanding votes likely to come from heavily Democratic counties.

Warnock was projected to defeat Loeffler at around 2 a.m. Eastern time, and now holds a lead of around 52,000 votes with 98% of ballots counted. Warnock holds a 1.2% lead that The New York Times projects to grow closer to 2% once all of the results are in, putting the race well clear of recount territory.

Ossoff leads Perdue by a much narrower margin of less than 16,000 votes, or 0.36%, though the outstanding votes are expected to push his lead closer to 1%, according to the Times forecast. Perdue can request a recount if the race finishes within 0.5%. Decision Desk HQ, which provides election data to various news outlets, called the race for Ossoff at around 2 a.m. but the Associated Press and other major news sources still view the race as too close to call.

The night marks a stark reversal from November's election and from decades of the state's electoral history. Although President-elect Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in nearly 30 years, Perdue led Ossoff by about 88,000 votes in November but just failed to reach the 50% threshold needed to win outright. Biden's victory margin over President Trump was less than 12,000 votes, and it appears certain that both Democrats in the Senate runoffs will win by significantly more than that.

If Ossoff holds on, the Democrats would control 50 seats in the Senate. That would put them in the majority once Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes over as president of the Senate and will give Democrats control of both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since early in Barack Obama's first term.

"We were told that we couldn't win this election," Warnock said Tuesday in a victory speech delivered remotely on video. "But tonight we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible."

Loeffler also spoke to supporters in Atlanta and did not concede, claiming she had a chance to win despite Warnock's growing lead. "We have a path to victory," she said, "and we're staying on it. We're going to win this election."

It appears, however, that Loeffler's career in politics will be brief: She was appointed to the Senate by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in December of 2019, to replace Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican who was forced to resign for health reasons. This special election was held to fill the final two years of Isakson's term, and Warnock will be up for re-election in 2022. 

Ossoff's campaign manager Ellen Foster predicted that "when all the votes are counted we fully expect that Jon Ossoff will have won this election."

Perdue's campaign vowed to "exhaust every legal recourse to ensure all legally cast ballots are properly counted" and predicted that he would be "victorious."

Democrats were boosted by surprisingly high Election Day turnout after they ran up the count in the early mail-in vote. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said about 4.5 million votes were cast in the runoff, down only about 15% from November's turnout.

The two Democrats also significantly outraised their Republican counterparts, though outside GOP PACs leveled the playing field.

President Trump held a rally in the state on Monday but has spent most of his time since the November election baselessly sowing doubt in the state's voting and attacking Republican officials. The rally came after The Washington Post released audio of him pressuring Raffensperger to "find" him enough votes to overturn his November defeat. Loeffler has vowed to join a futile Republican challenge to the Electoral College results when she returns to Washington on Wednesday, likely for her final appearance on the Senate floor.

"This is the first indication of the damage [Trump has] done his own level of influence in the party in the last two months," wrote The New York Times' Maggie Haberman. "He's spent two months refusing to concede the election. It left a mark."

Many Democrats credited former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and other grassroots organizers whose work to turn out the vote helped give Warnock and Ossoff an edge.

Michael McDonald, who heads the US Elections Project at the University of Florida, said there were a lot of factors that influenced Warnock's win and Ossoff's lead. He pointed to "HUGE" Black turnout, more than 125,000 new voters who did not participate in the previous election, lower Republican turnout, and a changing electorate in the Atlanta suburbs.

Exit polls, although imperfect, show that Ossoff won Black voters by 76% in November but increased that margin to 86% on Tuesday. He won Hispanic voters by just 9% in November but improved to a 30% margin among those voters in this week's runoff.

Assuming the Democrats win both Georgia seats, the party will be posed for a critical Senate takeover when Biden takes office. Mitch McConnell's six-year tenure as Senate majority leader will come to an end; he will be replaced by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. Democrats would assume control of all Senate committees. In one striking example, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (although not technically a Democrat) would be in position to chair the Senate Budget Committee. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio would be in line to take over the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont would become chair of the Appropriations Committee. It's not yet clear who will chair the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, which must approve all judicial appointments, given Sen. Dianne Feinstein's decision to step down as ranking Democrat following a wave of criticism. Her likely replacement is Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who will also be Schumer's No. 2 in the Senate leadership.

Despite holding the slimmest possible Senate majority, Democrats would also be able to unilaterally roll back many of Trump's executive actions on climate change, immigration and health care.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the Democratic victory in Georgia "must lead to transformative change."

"Recurring survival checks, union jobs that pay a living wage, guaranteed health care, racial justice, voting rights, immigration reform, climate action, repro justice, education, and MUCH more," she tweeted. "It can't wait!"

Biden on Monday told Georgia voters that Warnock and Ossoff would help make the $2,000 checks rejected by Senate Republicans a reality.

Warnock reiterated that vow and promised his first priority would be to address the coronavirus pandemic in an interview with CNN Wednesday morning.

"We've got to respond in an intelligent and thoughtful way to this pandemic. We've got to get the vaccine safely and efficiently distributed and we need to get people the relief that they need," he said. "We ought to pass a $2,000 stimulus relief and give ordinary struggling people who are literally just trying to keep their head above water what they need, so that we can begin to get the economy going again."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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