Senators Warnock and Ossoff set historic cultural firsts, shift Senate control to Democrats
On Wednesday, the state of Georgia made history by electing its first Black U.S. Senator and also the first Jewish U.S. Senator from a southern state since the 1800s. The election of Raphael Warnock, a Morehouse-educated baptist minister, and Jon Ossoff, a Georgetown-educated entrepreneur, also precipitated a significant power shift in the United States Senate, giving Democrats a majority in the upper house.
This week’s closely watched runoff election served as a reminder that there are no guarantees in politics. During the November 3 general election, neither Warnock or Ossoff, or their respective opponents, were able to garner 50% of the vote. In instances where no candidate receives at least half of all votes, the state of Georgia mandates a runoff. With two valuable senate seats left vacant in the state that could decide the balance of power during the upcoming presidential cycle, Georgia and its candidates have spent the last two months in the national spotlight.
Both Democratic challengers faced well-funded and well-known Republican opposition. Kelly Loeffler, Warnock’s opponent, is a Fortune 500 CEO and professional sports team co-owner. David Perdue, Ossoff’s opponent, is the former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General.
Warnock, 51, narrowly defeated Loeffler in a race defined by accusations of racism, socialism, and radicalism. Loeffler raised eyebrows early during her campaign after her team posted two attack ad videos to Facebook depicting Warnock with digitally altered skin that is noticeably darker. The ads were entitled, “Too Radical, Too Corrupt” and “Beyond Radical Raphael.” In the ads, a narrator describes Warnock as being “educated by Marxists,” and a “dangerous” threat. She also drew criticism after posing with Ku Klux Klan wizard and white supremacist, Chester Doles. Warnock and his supporters, including Ossoff, called out Loeffler's association with racists, describing her as being out of touch and disconnected from Georgia's voters. Although Warnock ultimately prevailed in the race, the final election numbers and the runoff, itself, suggest that a sizeable population of Georgia's voting public, nearly half, supported Loeffler.
The historical significance of Warnock's victory featured heavily in his celebratory speech. As the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock honored the legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the church’s former pastor, and Representative John Lewis, a longtime member of the church, as he accepted his win. Fittingly, several aspects of Warnock’s political platform mirrored the work and values of both civil rights leaders, centering primarily on voting rights, education, and criminal justice reform. Warnock also honored his mother alongside Lewis and King, highlighting the hope, progress, and possibility of America.
“My mother, as a teenager growing up in Waycross, Georgia, used to pick somebody else’s cotton. But the other day, because this is America, the 82-year old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator," said Warnock, adding, "We proved that with hope, hard work, and the people by our side, anything is possible.”
Ossoff, like Warnock, also claimed his Senate seat in an extremely close race. The two Democrats campaigned together extensively, joined by closely aligned political values and a shared emphasis on issues of healthcare, labor, and the environment. Ossof, too, faced race-based attacks during the campaign from his incumbent opponent. Perdue, 71, ran a controversial campaign ad last summer that pictured Ossoff with an elongated and widened nose. Perdue’s campaign eventually pulled the ad and attributed the caricature of Ossoff to an “error.” In a statement, Ossoff noted the predictability of such a racist attack.
“Sitting US Senator David Perdue’s digital attack ad distorted my face to enlarge and extend my nose. I’m Jewish. This is the oldest, most obvious, least original anti-Semitic trope in history,” said Ossof.
The outcome of the race also highlights a significant shift away from the traditional archetypes associated with elected officials from a southern state. Warnock, a Black, Ph.D-holding, baptist minister, does not fit the established mold of United States Senator from Georgia, in fact, Warnock is the first Black senator from Georgia since Reconstruction. Ossoff, a Jewish American, documentary filmmaker and graduate of the London School of Economics, likewise, stands outside of the traditional profile of southern U.S. Senator. Ossoff, 33, is also the youngest Democrat since Joe Biden to be elected to the United States Senate.
Since the start of the Trump presidency, Georgia, a reliably Republican state, has been experiencing an accelerated political identity crisis thanks to the rise of an energetic, committed, and engaged Democratic base alongside the rise of a vocal, identity-driven, and conservative Republican base.
Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial race — which saw Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, lose by a razor thin margin to current governor Brian Kemp — also galvanized many citizens to become more civically engaged. Abrams’ Fair Fight organization has been a major driver of voter turnout for Democrats, raising nearly $40 million to support voter registration and mobilization in the state. On the opposite side, Abrams’ influential rise galvanized the Georgia GOP and conservatives nationwide to contribute fundraising dollars toward combating Democratic gains in the state.
Additionally, Georgia is experiencing a shift in its political geography as the state’s growing Black, Asian, and Latinx communities gradually move into long held Republican strongholds making them less red. Young voters (ages 18-29) in Georgia are also impacting the state’s political identity. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning Engagement (CIRCLE), young voters represented one-fifth of Georgia’s electorate during November’s general election. Registered voters between the ages of 18 and 24 have increased by 35 percent in the peach state since 2016.
Now that the Georgia runoffs have delivered control of the Senate to Democrats, the outlook for Joe Biden’s presidency has new prospects. Democrats have faced major legislative challenges since the 113th United States Congress when they last held a majority in the Senate. Former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), has openly blocked Democratic-supported legislative initiatives as well as Democratic appointments, famously rejecting Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and more recently wielding his power in the Senate to reject a proposed $2000 increase in stimulus relief funds for Americans. Democrat Charles Schumer (D-New York) will now replace McConnell as Senator Majority Leader.
With the election of Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the makeup of the Senate is now evenly split with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, giving Democrats an upper hand in Congress’ upper house. In the event of a 50-50 vote, the tie-breaking vote is cast by Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who, as Senate President, will be the highest presiding official in the United States Senate.