ATLANTA—Two months of nonstop campaigning, hundreds of millions of dollars, and countless angry tweets from Donald Trump later, Democrats have won both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff elections—giving the party unified control of the Senate, U.S. House, and White House for the first time in 10 years.
On Tuesday night, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA), bringing the balance of the chamber to a 50-50 split. With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker, Democrats functionally have a majority.
Warnock was the first through the tape: Early Wednesday morning, networks projected him the winner of his race, with his lead over Loeffler holding at 1 percent. Before the calls came, the Democrat declared victory in a triumphant speech just after midnight. “We were told we couldn't win this election,” he said. “Tonight, we proved that with hope, hard work, and the people by our side, anything is possible.”
Then, on Wednesday afternoon, Ossoff was projected the winner of his narrower race against Perdue, with CBS, ABC, and NBC calling the race for the 33-year-old. Like Warnock, Ossoff declared victory before any calls were made: Shortly after 8 a.m., he released a statement saying, “It is with humility that I thank the people of Georgia for electing me to serve you in the United States Senate.”
Loeffler and Perdue have not conceded and, echoing Trump’s rhetoric in fighting his own election defeat, have vowed to “count every legal vote.” Though over 98 percent of all votes have been tallied, there are still some outstanding ballots in Georgia, largely from heavily Democratic areas
It’s a remarkable turn of events for Democrats, who have never won a runoff election in Georgia and only just won a presidential race there after a 30-year drought. The GOP senators began this race as prohibitive favorites, and after a disappointing 2020 cycle for their Senate hopefuls, Democrats were feeling bearish about their chances.
But Biden’s 12,000-vote win over Donald Trump in Georgia on Nov. 3 proved to be the gift that kept on giving for Democrats. The outgoing president wittingly or unwittingly spent each day of the runoff campaign sabotaging Perdue and Loeffler, with his constant stream of complaints that the election was stolen from him and that Georgia’s GOP officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp, were complicit in a corrupt election system. Perdue and Loeffler had no choice but to validate Trump’s rhetoric or risk losing his base’s support.
For the entire campaign, Republicans worried that the constant stream of rhetoric undermining the voting process would suppress turnout for their side. Apparently it did, with the GOP senators lagging behind their November vote totals in counties around the state.
Trump, of course, has no plans to take responsibility. Several sources close to Trump and in his administration said Tuesday that if Republican officials or lawmakers try to blame him for any losses in Georgia, or use that as a pretext for attempts to marginalize him in his own party during his post-presidency, Trump won’t hesitate to use his considerable popularity with the conservative base to strike back.
“Based on my conversations with him [on this], he will go after them,” said one person close to the president. “At a minimum, he wouldn’t want to lift a finger to help them with anything. And why should he, if they think they can just do that to him?”
One source who spoke to the president recounted last month that they had reminded him that his calls for Congress to approve $2,000 direct checks as part of the COVID relief bill could hobble his allies in Georgia by giving Democrats valuable campaign ammunition. Trump replied, as the source paraphrased, “Well, that’s life.”
To be sure, it’s been clear for a while that this president’s primary concerns in Georgia had nothing to do with his party’s broader interests, and that he was comfortable dragging chunks of the GOP down with him. In the weeks leading up to the critical Georgia races, Trump had made clear to his advisers that he did not care if his conduct—which included incessantly telling his supporters that key GOP figures in the state had rigged the election against him—was making life harder for Republican leaders or the Senate candidates in Georgia.
At the same time as Republicans lagged from their November vote share, Warnock and Ossoff ran ahead of their November totals in many places—even flipping some counties they lost in the general election—thanks to an aggressive get-out-the-vote operation and a fired-up national liberal base that sent over $200 million to the campaigns.
Warnock, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church—the congregation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—is the first Black person ever to be elected to the U.S. Senate in Georgia. And Ossoff, at 33, will be the youngest U.S. senator since a 29-year old from Delaware—Joe Biden—was elected in 1979.
Though they ran essentially as a joint ticket during the runoff, their paths to the Senate were far from identical. Warnock, who ran largely untouched before Loeffler edged out former Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) in the Nov. 3 election, spent the runoff campaign under an all-out blitz of TV attacks from Loeffler and her GOP allies, who sought to portray Warnock as a far-left radical in ads that Democrats decried as racist. Warnock, meanwhile, hit Loeffler daily on her financial dealings. In March, The Daily Beast reported that Loeffler offloaded millions of dollars in stock holdings after senators received a private briefing about the coronavirus outbreak in January.
In the Nov. 3 general election, Ossoff trailed Perdue by just under 2 percentage points. The incumbent senator nearly avoided a runoff by clearing 50 percent of the vote, but with a Libertarian candidate on the ballot—and a strong performance from Ossoff in metro Atlanta and its suburbs—he was forced into the run-off.
Ossoff, no stranger to national scrutiny after his 2017 run for U.S. House commanded serious attention and fundraising, thrived under the pressure of the runoff. His campaign raised over $100 million, and he ran an aggressive media campaign, speaking frequently to various media outlets—including Fox News. The right-wing network cornered Ossoff at an event in the final week of the campaign, and the unfailingly on-message candidate used the exposure to ask for donations and to attack Perdue’s prior opposition to direct stimulus checks.
Republicans, who love to hate Ossoff, dismissed him as a lightweight, as they did during his 2017 run. But after an October debate in which Ossoff aggressively went after Perdue, the incumbent skipped their only scheduled debate for the runoff in December. Ossoff, speaking next to a vacant podium, had thirty minutes of free airtime to savage his opponent.
Perdue often said on the campaign trail that he’d already won this race, and was forced to win it again due to Georgia’s quirky election laws. But he spent much of the two-month campaign dogged by scrutiny of his extensive financial dealings, which included conspicuously timed stock transactions around the coronavirus outbreak, and in years before.
During the campaign, The New York Times reported that the senator came under investigation from federal authorities for his stock trading—forcing the senator to release TV ads in which he declared he was “totally exonerated.” He largely eschewed contact with the press, other than conservative media, during his campaigning in the state. In the final days of the campaign, Perdue was absent: Shortly after New Year’s, he announced he came into contact with someone who contracted the coronavirus.
Ossoff made hay with the revelations of Perdue’s extensive stock trades, using the news to paint the senator—who formerly was a CEO for companies like Dollar General—as the ultimate out-for-himself businessman.
It was hard for the GOP senators to escape Trump’s long shadow during the runoff campaign. The president’s constant attacks on Georgia’s election system after his November defeat in the state sparked fears within the GOP that conservative voters would not show up to participate in a “rigged” process.
Loeffler and Perdue, who worked assiduously to ally themselves with the president in the eyes of his base, frequently backed up Trump during his election tirades. In media appearances and even on the debate stage with Warnock in December, Loeffler declined to push back on Trump’s quest to destroy Kemp—who appointed Loeffler to the Senate—and Trump's open calls for the governor to be primaried.
In a rally featuring Trump on Monday night, Loeffler used her precious time to tell the crowd and cameras that she would fight to overturn Biden’s rightful victory by objecting to the Electoral College’s certification of the election results on Wednesday.
Though Warnock passed one grueling test, his next one begins almost immediately. Because this was a special election to fill the rest of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s (R-GA) term, Warnock will face voters again in November 2022 to earn a full six-year term in the chamber.