As he prepared to claim the presidential victory he secured by more than 4 million votes, Joe Biden said, “What is becoming clearer each hour is that record numbers of Americans—from all races, faiths, regions—chose change over more of the same.” But his ability to deliver that change is still to be determined by the voters of Georgia.
Because the Democrats did not gain control of the US Senate on November 3, the defining moment for Biden’s presidency will come January 5, when a pair of runoff elections in Georgia could displace GOP incumbents and position Vice President–elect Kamala Harris to end Republican Mitch McConnell’s destructive tenure as Senate majority leader.
The Georgia runoffs give the Democrats a rare opportunity to finish the essential work of elections in which they fell short. The 2020 fight was always about more than defeating Donald Trump. McConnell had to be displaced, or Biden would serve as a virtual lame duck struggling to achieve incremental change with executive orders, tepid appointments, and a constrained agenda.
While Biden prevailed, the bid for Senate control stumbled. Instead of the net gain of four seats that they needed, Democrats beat Republican incumbents only in Arizona and Colorado, while Democratic Senator Doug Jones lost in Alabama. So many vulnerable Republican incumbents survived that it looked as if McConnell and the GOP could hang on to power with a 52-48 advantage.
There was plenty of blame to go around for what was clearly a disappointing result. Progressives complained that Biden ran a campaign so narrowly focused on upending Trump that it never developed the urgent issue agenda that could inspire full-ticket Democratic voting. But it was not just that. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put their thumbs on the scales for uninspired centrists who then disappointed. The most frustrating example was in the race against McConnell in Kentucky, where DC insiders favored Amy McGrath in the primary over Charles Booker, a legislator who had a far better plan for building an urban-rural Hood to the Holler movement in the state. Nearly $90 million was poured into McGrath’s campaign, yet she won just over 38 percent of the vote—not even 3 percentage points better than Tennessee progressive Marquita Bradshaw, whose insurgent Senate bid got little attention from DC Democrats.
Democratic strategists must get better at mounting coherent national campaigns that develop an issue-driven identity for the party. They must also learn to respect the wisdom of grassroots Democrats in the states rather than impose candidates from above. But political blame laying is of value only if it provides lessons for getting it right the next time. Luckily for the Democrats, the next time is now.
Georgia can prevent McConnell from becoming the grim reaper of Biden’s presidency. That’s because, unlike most states, Georgia holds runoff elections when no candidate receives a majority of the votes in the initial balloting. The state held two Senate contests this year: a regular race for the seat held by Republican incumbent David Perdue and a special election for the seat held by Kelly Loeffler, an extreme right-wing Republican who was appointed in 2019. It was immediately clear that the Rev. Raphael Warnock had finished ahead of Loeffler in a multicandidate contest and would face her again in a runoff. In Perdue’s race, the initial count had him finishing above the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff. But things turned Ossoff’s way in the same tabulation of absentee ballots that put Biden ahead in the state. Perdue dropped to 49.7 percent, and the Democrat declared, “We have all the momentum.” There are still hurdles for Ossoff. Perdue is likely to demand a recount in the hope of clawing his way over the 50 percent threshold. But recounts rarely work.
So this is the time for everyone who wants to see a successful Biden presidency to go all in for Warnock and Ossoff. Georgia is deep into a process of political transformation, thanks to demographic shifts and the remarkable voter mobilization work of Stacey Abrams and a new generation of multiracial, multiethnic grassroots activists.
Warnock and Ossoff are different candidates who have run distinct campaigns. Yet it’s likely they will rise or fall together in what could well be the most expensive Senate competition in American history. Loeffler is reputedly the richest politician on Capitol Hill, Perdue is a multimillionaire, and McConnell will steer every special-interest dollar he can find into Georgia. That money will fund vicious campaigning. In the run-up to the November elections, Perdue mounted attacks on Ossoff, who is Jewish, that were widely condemned as anti-Semitic. Loeffler is already signaling that she’ll attack Warnock, who is running to become Georgia’s first Black senator, for what she labels “his radical policies and his agenda.”
But these Democrats bring strengths to the competition. Ossoff, who built name recognition and fundraising prowess with a high-profile 2017 bid in suburban Atlanta’s Sixth Congressional District, shredded Perdue in a late-October debate. Ossoff still has high support in the Sixth, where he narrowly lost in 2017 but African-American gun-control activist Lucy McBath won in 2018 and 2020. Warnock, the senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., finished ahead of Loeffler, thanks to an urban-rural coalition with a proven capacity to mobilize voters. Former president Barack Obama has already campaigned for the Georgia Democrats, reminding an Atlanta crowd just before the November 3 elections, “You’ve got the chance to flip two Senate seats.”
Abrams agrees. She dismisses the notion that runoffs disadvantage Democrats just because the big top-of-the-ticket races are settled. “We will have the investment and the resources that have never followed our runoffs in Georgia for Democrats,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper. Ossoff and Warnock “are going to make certain that Joe Biden has the leadership, the support, and the congressional mandate that he needs to move this country forward.”
Ossoff told The Nation recently that his mentor Representative John Lewis, who died in July, urged him to work to revive the Black-Jewish electoral coalition that made major gains in Georgia in the 1960s and ’70s. Ossoff and Warnock, running as a ticket, could be precisely the team the Democrats need in 2021—working to win two races in Georgia and prevent McConnell from obstructing another Democratic presidency. n