Why the Runoff for Georgia Senate Matters

Can the Peach State wrestle Senate control from the GOP?

Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff (R) and Raphael Warnock (L) of Georgia hold a rally on November 15, 2020 in Marietta, Georgia. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

In the wee hours of the morning on November 6, three days after the election, something miraculous happened in Georgia. Joe Biden overtook Trump’s lead for the first time. The counties that helped deliver the votes during those final nail-biting hours included Clayton, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties — strongholds for minority voters. Military, provisional, and the final ballots to trickle in widened Biden’s lead over Trump to 14,000. For Georgia, though, this election was only Round One. Round Two, the U.S. Senate runoff race on January 5, will have far greater nationwide consequences than the state’s 16 electoral votes did.

First, some perspective — for the first time since 1992, in an election with historic voter turnout, a Democratic presidential candidate has beaten a Republican candidate in the Peach State. A look at the latest electoral college map underscores this stunning victory. A wide patch of red begins in Florida, and stretches north, almost uninterrupted to West Virginia and Ohio, and then winds itself west, and north again through the Great Plains to Montana and Idaho. The lone light blue state bobbing in a sea of southern red is Georgia. The win is all the more sweet given Democrats’ crushing defeat in the 2018 midterms, when then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who oversaw elections, also ran as the Republican candidate for governor. Amid a stunning degree of voter suppression, Stacey Abrams narrowly lost.

With two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs, all eyes are on Georgia. If Democrats Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock win, half of the 100-seat Senate will be held by Democrats, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes. With this makeup, and a House of Representatives still in Democratic control, President-elect Joe Biden can quickly sign a plethora of bills into laws, including a stimulus bill, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, the Dream Act to grant dreamers a path to citizenship, the expansion of the Affordable Care Act, and legislation to curb climate change.

McConnell has stonewalled some 400 bills during his tenure, including those with bipartisan support.

What’s more, a Democratic majority in the Senate would dethrone Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, the position that determines which bills come up for a vote. McConnell has stonewalled some 400 bills during his tenure, including those with bipartisan support. He blocked coronavirus relief bills. He also prevented President Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland from getting a hearing and rushed Trump’s three reckless appointments to confirmation, including, most recently, Amy Coney Barrett.

To say that the stakes are high for Democrats is an understatement. But getting both Ossoff and Warnock to Washington will be tough.

Ossoff will face Senator David Perdue, who is running for his second term. In the November general election, neither surpassed the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff election. (Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel received 2.3% of the vote.) And when the final votes were tallied, Perdue bested Ossoff by almost 90,000 more votes.

Warnock’s opponent, Senator Kelly Loeffler, was appointed by Governor Kemp last December to fill part of retired Senator Johnny Isakson’s term until the November special election. In a “jungle primary” with 21 candidates from all political parties, Warnock came out on top with 33% of the vote. Loeffler came in second with 26%. Warnock and Loeffler will now advance to the January 5 runoff. The winner will finish serving the remainder of Senator Isakson’s term.

What’s particularly interesting about this runoff election is the racist Georgia law that triggered it. The law stems from White lawmakers’ fears that in multiple candidate races, Black candidates would have an edge and possibly win elections if all Black Democratic voters mobilized behind them. The law worked precisely as intended in the jungle primary special election, where Warnock beat Loeffler by 7% of the vote but must face her again in January.

In the meantime, Loeffler and Perdue have tossed fuel onto an already raging fire. They alleged voter fraud and demanded that Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger resign from his position. Raffensperger balked, but then changed course. He demanded a hand recount of the state’s 5 million votes which must be completed by the November 20 deadline, despite the fact that a recount is very unlikely to change the outcome.

The candidates, their campaign staff, organizers, and volunteers on the ground, who have been working themselves to the bone for the past several months, haven’t had a second to breathe. They are restructuring, seeking resources and funds, and analyzing data to see where they need to concentrate their efforts the most. In the dead of winter, during the holidays, as the coronavirus continues to rage in a state with no mask mandate, they will have to find a way to close the gap and turnout Democratic votes in Georgia like they’ve never turned them out before.

Journalist, critic & columnist at ZORA. Essay collection SOUTHBOUND (UGA Press) & debut novel THE PARTED EARTH (Hub City Press), spring ’21. anjalienjeti.com.

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