Warnock and Ossoff won historic Senate seats because of rapidly shifting demographics in key Georgia counties and clear promises of $2,000 stimulus checks

John L. Dorman
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The Georgia runoff victories of Sen.-elect Jon Ossoff, left, and Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock, middle, will boost President-elect Joe Biden's legislative agenda. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
  • Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in Georgia's Senate runoff elections through a unique combination of demographic changes, Black voter mobilization, and an emphasis on economics.

  • Warnock and Ossoff ran strongly in the core Atlanta metropolitan area, solidifying Democratic suburban gains in former GOP bastions like Cobb and Henry counties.

  • Loeffler, who attacked several of Warnock's church sermons, was widely rebuked by Black religious leaders for her comments.

  • Black voter turnout surged across the state in the runoff elections, especially in rural counties across South Georgia.

  • Unlike Loeffler and Perdue, Warnock and Ossoff consistently supported $2,000 checks for taxpayers grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and didn't face internal division on the proposal that twisted Senate Republicans.

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For nearly 20 years, Georgia Democrats tried every conceivable strategy to win elections in a state that was becoming increasingly dominated by Republicans.

In 2010, Democratic voters nominated former Gov. Roy Barnes to reclaim his old job. Then in 2014, voters chose Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, to be the party's Senate nominee, and selected then-state Sen. Jason Carter, the grandson of native son and former President Jimmy Carter, as its nominee for governor.

Despite the high hopes, all three candidates lost.

In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who had spent years registering hundreds of thousands of new voters across the state, energized the party's base of minority and younger voters, but it wasn't enough - she was narrowly defeated by current Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

However, change was bubbling beneath the surface.

In the 2020 election, President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in Georgia, securing its 16 Electoral College votes and becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee to win the state since 1992.

Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, who were running for the US Senate against GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, kept both Republicans from winning 50% majorities in November, which triggered separate runoff elections on January 6.

Last week, Warnock and Ossoff won their races, handing control of the US Senate to the Democratic Party.

A closer look at the results reveal several notable shifts that allowed for victories by Warnock and Ossoff.

Warnock and Ossoff were dominant in Atlanta's suburbs

The city of Atlanta has long been a Democratic stronghold, but for decades, its suburbs were citadels of conservatism, which provided an electoral check on the Democrats' control of statewide politics.

Today, explosive growth, especially among racial minorities, has changed the calculus for any candidate running statewide, as politicians face legions of new voters who have little to no familiarity with longtime officeholders.

Atlanta proper went from roughly 427,000 residents in 2010 to an estimated 2019 population of nearly 507,000 residents, according to the US Census Bureau.

Meanwhile, the entire Atlanta metropolitan area, which includes its suburbs, grew from nearly 5.3 million people in 2010 to more than 6 million people in 2019. This increase in 730,000 residents in just under a decade made the Atlanta metropolitan area the fourth fastest-growing metro area in the nation, per the Census.

J. Miles Coleman, the associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that Democrats have benefited from the conglomeration of voters in population centers like Atlanta.

"The Democrats have done very well in states like Georgia where they have one metro that can dominate," he told Insider.

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Atlanta is the economic engine of Georgia and the American South. WIN-Initiative/Getty Images

In winning their Senate runoff elections, Warnock and Ossoff benefited from enormous turnout for a runoff election - around 4.5 million Georgia voters cast ballots in all - which represented nearly 90% of the state's November election turnout, according to CBS News.

Fulton County, anchored by Atlanta, as well as surrounding Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Clayton, Henry, and Forsyth counties, provided the nexus of Democratic strength in the runoffs.

In Fulton County, Democrats romped during this election cycle - Biden beat Trump countywide 73% to 26%, banking a nearly 243,000-vote margin on his way to winning the state by about 12,000 votes.

DeKalb and Clayton, with their large middle-class Black populations, have become growing Democratic bulwarks in statewide elections and gave both Ossoff and Warnock well over 80% of the vote in the runoffs.

However, Cobb, Gwinnett, and Henry counties, longtime Republican strongholds, and Forsyth County, which is still conservative, have undergone some of the most dramatic electoral changes in the entire state.

GOP strength has plummeted throughout the metropolitan core

Cobb, the third-most populous county in the state, was the one-time political base of conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who served in Congress from 1979 to 1999.

In the book "White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism," author Kevin M. Kruse described the political philosophy of the area 30 years ago.

"Newt Gingrich embodied the politics of the suburban Sunbelt, especially suburban conservatives' embrace of privatization, free enterprise, and local autonomy, as well as their antipathy to the federal government, public services, and the tax policies designed to support both," he wrote.

Last week, Warnock and Ossoff, who in all likelihood will provide key support for Biden's most ambitious spending proposals, both won the county by double-digit margins.

The pattern repeats itself all across the Atlanta metropolitan area.

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Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has led a life defined by his faith. Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool

Gwinnett County, which was nearly 90% white in 1990, has evolved into a multi-ethnic suburb that's now estimated to be 35% white, 30% Black, 22% Hispanic, and nearly 13% Asian. During that time, the population also grew from nearly 353,000 residents to over 936,000 residents as of last year.

Warnock and Ossoff both won the county by over 20 points.

Henry County, once a rural outpost southeast of Atlanta, has rapidly diversified and gave both Warnock and Ossoff well over 60% of the vote in the runoff elections.

"When Perdue won in 2014, it was a big disappointment for Democrats," Coleman said. "Perdue lost Henry that year, but he barely lost it. This year, he got blown out. Black voters have been very instrumental in pushing the area more Democratic."

Forsyth County, which violently drove out its entire Black population in 1912 amid a terror-fueled campaign and was for decades seen as a place hostile to minorities, is a place where Democrats are usually lucky to get 20% of the vote in elections. But in recent years it has grown tremendously, attracting high-income earners and boasting a population where 52% of residents possess a college degree.

In the runoff elections, Warnock and Ossoff both cleared 30% of the vote in Forsyth, which was far from a win, but reflective of the larger suburban shift away from the GOP.

Loeffler erred in politicizing the Black church

After emerging as the second-highest vote-getter in the November multiparty election, Loeffler quickly went on the attack against Warnock, the Black pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

She repeatedly condemned several of Warnock's past sermons, criticized him for his pro-choice views, and attempted to connect him with the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

An influential group of Black pastors wrote an open letter calling out Loeffler for making "reprehensible falsehoods" about Warnock and rebuking her criticisms as an "attack against the Black Church."

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Campaign ads for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are seen on a wall near the John Lewis mural in Atlanta. Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

"We call on you to cease and desist your false characterizations of Reverend Warnock as 'radical' or 'socialist' when there is nothing in his background, writings or sermons that suggests those characterizations to be true, especially when taken in full context," they wrote.

Loeffler's attacks appeared to backfire spectacularly.

Not only did Warnock maintain a strong connection with Black voters of faith on the campaign trail, but Black turnout surged across the state, especially in rural, majority-Black counties in South Georgia.

The stimulus debate sharpened the Democratic message

While Loeffler and Perdue were driven to support $2,000 stimulus payments after Trump's relentless pressure campaign, Warnock and Ossoff consistently supported larger direct payments to help Americans during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the $900 billion Consolidated Appropriations Act, which Trump signed into law in late December, $600 direct payments were a key part of legislation. However, Biden said that he would seek more aid as president, and both Warnock and Ossoff were fully onboard with the proposal.

Republicans were divided on the issue, with GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky refusing to conduct a standalone vote on the measure raising stimulus payments to $2,000 per taxpayer.

In the end, Senate Republicans, who punted on passing a second major relief package for months, never had a consistent message to counter that of the Democrats, which put Loeffler and Perdue in a serious bind.

Warnock and Ossoff used their populist pitch to appeal to voters still on edge about the state of the economy, a savvy move that helped them consolidate support across Georgia.

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