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Democrats Poised to Retake Senate, Buoyed by Black Voter Turnout

Mark Niquette and Gregory Korte
·7-min read
Democrats Poised to Retake Senate, Buoyed by Black Voter Turnout

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats were poised to take control of the U.S. Senate after high turnout among Black voters boosted their candidates in two runoff elections in Georgia.

Challenger Raphael Warnock beat incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler Wednesday to take one of the two seats. The race between Jon Ossoff and one-term Senator David Perdue was still too close to call, but Ossoff was leading by more than 17,000 votes and claimed victory.

President-elect Joe Biden celebrated Warnock’s win and anticipated Ossoff would take office as well, giving Biden a unified Democratic government. He said the results showed Americans want Washington to work on the twin crises of the pandemic and the economy.

“The American people demand action and they want unity. I am more optimistic than I ever have been that we can deliver both,” he said in a statement.

Two Democratic wins in a once reliably Republican state would be a rebuke of President Donald Trump’s incessant claims of voter fraud in the November election in Georgia, which he lost narrowly to Biden.

State election official Gabriel Sterling said Ossoff will likely have enough votes to avoid a recount. And while Trump continues to tweet without evidence that there was fraud in the election, including the discovery of 50,000 ballots late in the night, Sterling said there were no reports of fraud or found ballots -- only ballots cast.

“No evidence of any irregularities,” Sterling said during a briefing. “The biggest thing we’ve seen is from the president’s fertile mind, a finding of fraud where none exists.”

Republican turnout simply didn’t keep up with Democratic enthusiasm, driven largely by coordinated efforts to get Black voters to the polls led by former Georgia lawmaker Stacey Abrams.

In a video statement, Ossoff, 33, spoke as if he were headed to Washington, though no one had called his race against Perdue, 71, a first-term Republican senator and former corporate executive.

“I want to thank the people of Georgia for participating in this election,” he said. “Whether you were for me or against me, I will be for you in the U.S. Senate.”

To secure control of the chamber, Democrats need to win both seats, which would split the Senate 50-50 between Republicans and the Democratic caucus, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes.

Warnock, 51, is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the position once held by Martin Luther King Jr. He will become Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator.

“This is a wonderful day here in Georgia and I believe in America. I am an iteration and an example of the American dream,” Warnock told CNN on Wednesday.

The AP VoteCast survey of more than 2,700 verified Georgia voters found that Black voters made up 32% of the electorate — more than the 29% they were in November. And those voters opted overwhelmingly for the Democrats, by margins of 93% or more.

Of the 115,000 voters who voted in the runoff but skipped the November election, 40% were African-American, according to the Democratic voter data firm TargetSmart.

Perhaps no single person is more associated with Georgia’s shift to the Democrats than Abrams, who gained national attention with her unsuccessful run for governor in 2018.

Abrams’s efforts date back a decade, when she was minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, working to challenge restrictive voter laws and energize minority voters.

“Being a battleground means you have to fight for victory,” she told CNN Tuesday night. “Republicans, for 20 years, took for granted their successes.”

(Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, donated $5 million in 2019 to Fair Fight, the voting rights organization Abrams founded in 2018.)

Senate control, paired with the Democrats’ narrow majority in the House, would smooth the path for Biden’s nominees and allow him to implement major pieces of his agenda.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who stands to replace Mitch McConnell as majority leader if Ossoff wins his race, issued a statement calling it “a brand new day.”

“For the first time in six years, Democrats will operate a majority in the United States Senate -- and that will be very good for the American people,” Schumer said, noting that the country was enduring “one of the greatest crises we’ve ever faced.”

It could take days to get a final tally for the outcome of the race between Perdue and Ossoff. Sterling, the state election official, told CNN there were around 65,000 ballots still to be counted but said they were mostly from Democratic areas. About 17,000 military and overseas ballots, and some domestic absentee ballots, can still be counted as late as Friday.

Ossoff’s margin is larger than the 11,779-vote lead that helped Biden ultimately flip the state. A narrow result could spark legal challenges or a recount though Sterling said he believed Ossoff’s win would be bigger than that.

Georgia Republicans didn’t turn out in high enough numbers to tamp down overwhelming Democratic participation, said Kerwin Swint, director of the school of government at Kennesaw State University. Republicans needed 65% of the election day vote.

And some Republicans pointed fingers at Trump for damaging the party’s chances.

“It turns out that telling the voters that the election is rigged is not a great way to turn out your voters,” said Republican U.S. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a longtime Trump antagonist.

Loeffler showed no sign of conceding. “There are a lot of votes out there, as y’all know,” she told supporters. “And we have a path to victory and we’re staying on it.”

Trump Questions Results

The uncertainty over the Senate comes as Congress meets in a joint session on Wednesday to count Electoral College votes that will ratify Biden’s win, even as Trump urged Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers to overturn the results citing baseless claims of a “rigged” election.

Warnock called the move a “distraction” that could have cost Republicans the Georgia Senate seats.

“It’s a distraction. These senators know better, and the people that I’m talking to all across Georgia are concerned about their lives,” he said. “We need to be passing the $2,000 relief checks. Instead, the politicians are focused on their concerns, who’s winning and who’s losing.”

Fraud Claims

Fighting for party control of the Senate made the races important enough. But against the backdrop of Trump’s baseless claims of vote fraud and corruption by Georgia elections officials -- topped by his extraordinary hour-long phone call demanding that officials “find” enough votes to overturn the presidential election -- the races also became a test of Trump’s continued hold on the GOP.

If Perdue manages to pull out a win, Biden would face a still-GOP-controlled Senate largely unwilling to back many of his plans to develop a federal response to controlling the coronavirus pandemic, deliver more economic stimulus, or raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

Trump Allies

In almost every way, Perdue’s and Loeffler’s calculations were to stick tightly to the president, or at least not alienate Trump voters and the party’s base. The duo both called for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign after he dismissed Trump’s allegations of voter fraud, and both have backed the effort in the Senate to challenge the election results when Congress certifies the November election on Wednesday.

Both Republican senators described their foes as “dangerously radical” and warned Ossoff and Warnock would hand over power in Washington to “socialists” like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Ossoff and Warnock depicted their wealthy Republican opponents as out-of-touch multimillionaires. Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, recently became a billionaire and is the chief executive officer of Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange. Loeffler co-owns the Atlanta Dreams WNBA team and some players have campaigned against her.

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