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Less than one week into 2021, the U.S. political landscape underwent a seismic change. On the same day that rioters supporting President Trump stormed and vandalized the U.S. Capitol, history was also made in Georgia, where Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, the two Democrats on the Georgia Senate runoff ballot, defeated the Republican incumbents, putting control of the Senate in Democratic hands and likely enabling President-elect Joe Biden to confirm his Cabinet and pass the liberal legislative agenda that had been stalled for years by Senate Republicans.
Georgia had been represented by Republicans in the Senate since 2005, and has been a reliably Republican state for at least that long, until Biden narrowly defeated President Trump in the Nov. 3 election.
One week after Democrats pulled off their improbable feat, Georgians reflected on the impact of the historic win.
“Winning the U.S. Senate runoffs means that Georgians — specifically Black Georgians in southwest Georgia — finally have two U.S. senators to fight for them,” Hillary Holley, organizing director for Fair Fight, told Yahoo News on Tuesday. “During a time of economic decline and a global pandemic, winning these elections means that we helped save lives, not only in Georgia but across America.”
Fair Fight, a national voting rights organization started by former Georgia House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams in 2018, is one of the organizations many experts believe is largely responsible for flipping Georgia blue not only in the Senate, but also the White House for the first time since 1992. Fair Fight, along with a number of other groups that were led by Black organizers and focused on motivating Black voters — including the New Georgia Project and Black Voters Matter — adopted various strategies, from the tried and true (radio ads, door-knocking) to the novel (food giveaways), which helped put Ossoff and Warnock over the top.
These efforts were noticed by Republicans.
“I definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, believe that the ground game of the Democratic Party here in Georgia, absolutely outworked, out-strategized and obviously outperformed the state Republican Party here,” Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told Yahoo News.
While disappointed in the results of the Senate race, Duncan says he believes that “Georgia is still a Republican state.”
“Our politics got caught up in national politics, and that’s not Georgia politics,” he said. “We've got to move ahead and we've got to work towards the future of our Georgia.”
With 99 percent of the vote in, Ossoff beat out first-term incumbent David Perdue by more than 55,000 votes and Warnock defeated Kelly Loeffler, who had been appointed to her seat by Gov. Brian Kemp to a term that ends in two years, by nearly 100,000 votes. These numbers far exceeded the general election totals in which Biden beat Trump by roughly 12,000 votes.
The implications of the victories by Ossoff and Warnock extend well beyond the next two years, especially for Black and poor Georgians. Many Democrats are looking forward to reinstating the Voting Rights Act and mitigating Republican efforts to suppress the vote, which will be priorities for the two senators. Georgians can look forward to passage of a new stimulus bill that would give much needed relief in the form of $2,0000 individual stimulus checks to those who need it most.
Other Republicans in the state believe their loss reflected a flawed strategy as much as the Democrats’ organizing efforts.
“When Warnock and Ossoff won, it was not surprising given national political consultants' decision to demonize the Democrats instead of discussing how Republican principles help lives,” Alex Johnson, President of the Georgia Republican Assembly, a grassroots conservative organization, told Yahoo News. “If the current Republican majority in the State House and Senate stand for actual Republican principles of lower taxes, less regulation and individual rights, including the right to self-defense, it will show voters how Republican principles improve society.”
In addition to expansive mobilization efforts that helped put Democrats over the top in Georgia, many critics blame the loss on Trump’s divisive insistence on advancing baseless charges of election fraud, in the face of denials by Kemp and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Reluctant to alienate Trump’s strong base of support in the state, Perdue and Loeffler refused to disavow the president’s assertions that the election had been rigged, which appears to have held down Republican turnout in the runoff.
“President Trump caused a massive negative effect on this race,” Duncan said. “The misinformation, the election fraud and conspiracy theories had no legs, no merit and no reality. It was a complete side show and it was a distraction from the conservative wins that we've been putting on the board here in Georgia for a long time.”
But Johnson disagrees.
“Those saying that it’s Trump’s fault are ignoring their own failure to stand for the Republican principles of limited rights and personal responsibility for the past decade, if not longer,” he said.
Because of Democrats’ success in the state, Holley, from Fair Fight, says that Republicans are already working harder to suppress turnout by Black voters in future elections.
“Because of our success helping Black and brown voters navigate voter suppression and learn how to vote by mail, Republicans are even more eager to restrict access to the ballot,” Holley said.
On Monday, Kemp and Raffensberger announced plans to push for adding photo ID requirements for absentee ballots for future state elections. Although there is no evidence of fraud, Republican leaders want to enact additional criteria for voting, which would disproportionately disenfranchise communities of color.
“This is a clear indication that their strategy is simply to make it harder for people to vote,” Holley added. “It is critical that we continue to fight voter suppression so that Georgia voters can continue to use their power at the ballot box.”
For some Georgians, on a personal level, Wednesday’s wins were as symbolic as they were monumental. Warnock became the first Black senator in the state’s history and Ossoff became its first Jewish senator.
After helping lead strategy and field operations for the Young Democrats of Georgia, Jaylan Scott, the executive vice president of the organization, believes Warnock and Ossoff showed him what is possible.
“[Warnock’s] victory alone for me meant a lot,” Scott said. “Not only because of the fact I'm a Black man. ... I realized this is possible.
“When I first got into politics, I remember thinking, I want to be the first Black senator,” he added. “And so now I realize, even though I can’t be the first, now I know it’s at least possible for it to happen.”
Now Georgians turn to what’s next. Warnock has just two years until he will be up for reelection, taking over the seat of former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who stepped down in 2019 for health reasons. Also, in 2022, Kemp will be up for reelection as many believe Abrams — who narrowly lost to him in 2018 — will run once again.
Duncan suggests Republicans need to think of themselves as GOP 2.0, a party that is more representative of the country.
“The president captured the world’s attention with ‘Make America Great Again,’” Duncan said. “I think GOP 2.0 needs to be focused on making Americans great again because it’s inclusive. It reaches deeper.”
Scott, from Young Democrats, says he’s focused on reaching out to more Georgians.
“I think now it’s time for us to be able to use that hope that's been created and opportunities that were created to go into communities that we don't often go into and actually talk to people, actually figure out like, ‘What can we do for you?’” Scott said.
“Stacey Abrams had a vision a while ago,” he added. “We know it works and she’s done that by mobilizing people who have never been involved in the political process. … It’s really our time to adopt that philosophy and continue it because we know it works.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
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