The runoff Senate races in Georgia were still so close on Tuesday night that networks and news agencies remained reluctant to declare winners. But after midnight the trend was clear: Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both had the lead over their Republican rivals, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Warnock was on a path to a substantial victory; Ossoff’s race was more of a squeaker.
Still, a victory is a victory, and in fact much more than two Senate seats were at stake. Post-election, there was a striking array of winners and losers.
The winners were:
Raphael Warnock. The first African American to be elected to the Senate from Georgia and only the second to be elected from a Southern state since Reconstruction ended in the late 19th century. Even more impressive is that the only other Black senator from the region in modern times is Tim Scott of South Carolina, who was initially appointed for his position in 2013 before winning a special election in 2014 and reelection in 2016. Unlike Scott, Warnock ascended to his position without appointment but strictly by election. He also did so in the face of an incendiary racist campaign by his opponent Kelly Loeffler.
Jon Ossoff. At age 33, Ossoff will be the youngest senator by far and become one of the emerging leaders of the party. The Democrats are increasingly an alliance between African Americans and college-educated suburban whites. If Warnock brought the activism of the Black church to the table, Ossoff is emblematic of the party’s increasing strength in the suburbs. This is the coalition that the party will be building on for future success.
The Black church. One hallmark of Kelly Loeffler’s campaign was her accusations that Warnock’s sermons as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta were “radical” and “socialist.” This tactic seems to have backfired, since it provoked a rebuff from Black ministers who decried Loeffler’s words as an attack on the African American religious tradition. The increased turnout of Black voters almost certainly helped both Warnock and Ossoff. Nor was this simply a matter of symbolism. Warnock ran as a movement leader, highlighting the importance of civil rights. As Ryan Grim of The Intercept notes, “Ossoff and Warnock ran on a new civil rights act and didn’t let up on it even after Biden told civil rights leaders not to talk about police reform until after the Georgia elections.”
Stacey Abrams. Unsuccessful in her 2018 bid to become governor of Georgia, a defeat due to voter suppression, Abrams has more than vindicated herself as political actor by her work in organizing Georgia Democrats. More than anyone else, her efforts have flipped the state, preparing the way for the triple victories of Joe Biden, Raphael Warnock, and Jon Ossoff.
Stimulus spending. Warnock and Ossoff took advantage of Senate Republicans’ roadblocking the $2,000 stimulus checks that had cleared House of Representatives and had the support of Donald Trump. The Democrats argued, quite accurately, that Mitch McConnell was the major barrier to this form of direct stimulus spending. Now it’s incumbent on Democrats to deliver.
Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. With the dual victory in Georgia, Democrats will control the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate (which will be divided 50-50 but with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes). This enormously expands the ability of the Biden administration to govern effectively. Biden will be able to pick nominees without having to worry about Republicans’ blocking them. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who is 82 years old, can retire knowing Biden can pick and get confirmed a nominee. Biden can fill the broader courts. Although he’ll be hampered by conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin, Biden can expect to pass many economic measures, including much-needed stimulus funding for states and municipalities. In short, it is much more likely now that Biden can have a successful presidency.
The losers of the night were:
Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Loeffler ran a virulently racist campaign, which should forever tar her reputation. Both Loeffler and Perdue were hurt by corruption scandals, with both senators guilty of insider trading. It’s difficult to imagine any future in American politics for either.
Mitch McConnell. He’ll now become Senate minority leader, which will severely hamper his ability to do what he loves best, obstructing Democratic presidents. He’ll also face the unenviable task of managing an increasingly divided caucus, with hard-core Trumpists like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz fighting with moderates like Susan Collins. McConnell is now a much-diminished political figure.
Donald Trump. One major reason for the Georgia loss was surely the divisions Trump had created within the Republican Party by his refusal to concede defeat and his clownish attempts to overthrow the election. These efforts put him into direct conflict with Georgia Republicans and McConnell. They presage a future where Trump will become an ever-heavier anchor on the Republican Party, dragging it down with his conspiracy theories, his lawlessness, and his narcissism.
Yet Trump’s loss is ambiguous. It’s true that he hurt the GOP in Georgia. But another lesson the party could draw is that they did better when he was on the ticket than when he wasn’t. Because of his celebrity and charisma, Trump draws out many marginal voters, especially non-college-educated white voters, who don’t come out for regular Republicans. The GOP’s strength in 2016 was the combination of these new Trump voters with standard Republican partisans. This combination also helped the GOP, although not Trump himself, in 2020. The Republicans did notably well down-ballot. But in the 2018 midterms and in the Georgia special elections, there was no such advantage, because Trump was not on the ballot.
One reasonable inference is that the Republican Party still needs Trump—even when he hurts them. So it could be the biggest loser of the election was the Republican Party.