ATLANTA – The Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, defeated Sen. Kelly Loeffler in Tuesday's special election for an unexpired term for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. Warnock will become the first Black senator in Georgia history. It remains too early to call the second race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican David Perdue, who’s seeking a second term after his first term expired Sunday. Control of the Senate is in the balance.
Here are some key takeaways:
BLACK VOTERS TIP THE SCALE
Warnock, senior pastor of the church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached through the height of the civil rights movement until his assassination, made history with a surge in Black turnout.
To be sure, a narrow win out of 4.4 million votes involves plenty of variables. But Black voters were a force in the early vote and on Election Day. Notably, it wasn’t just in metro Atlanta, but also in rural and small-town counties across South Georgia, where Black turnout has historically lagged.
That means it was an alliance spanning from the most affluent Black residents of Atlanta, including recent transplants to Georgia, to those Black Georgia natives who hail from the most economically depressed pockets of the state.
This election cycle saw a confluence of factors for Black voters: 2020 offered the first general election after the disappointment of Stacey Abrams’ narrowly missing out in 2018 on becoming the first Black female governor in U.S. history, and it was the first election after the death of Rep. John Lewis, Atlanta’s civil rights icon who once marched alongside King.
Loeffler and her Republican allies used the two-month runoff campaign to hammer Warnock with ads calling him “dangerous” and “radical.” They used snippets of his sermons from Ebenezer Baptist Church to accuse him of “hate speech” and “racial” divisiveness.
But Black voters can point to Tuesday’s vote count and take credit for that strategy ending in defeat.
GEORGIA SHOWING BATTLEGROUND BONA FIDES
When President-elect Joe Biden won Georgia by 12,000 votes out of 5 million, plenty of observers assumed it was about a backlash to President Donald Trump. That certainly had something to do with it. But following it up with one Senate runoff victory and potentially a second, Democrats proved its status as a two-party battleground going forward.
TRUMP’S FALSE CLAIMS FIND FAVOR WITH GOP VOTERS
Trump may have lost the presidency, but his campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the election clearly succeeded with Republican voters in Georgia.
About three-quarters of voters who backed Perdue and Loeffler told the AP VoteCast survey that Biden was not legitimately elected in November. AP VoteCast interviewed more than 3,600 voters to measure the electorate’s views on a range of topics.
Roughly 9 in 10 of the Republicans’ backers said they lacked confidence that votes in November’s presidential contest were accurately counted. Half said they have no confidence at all in the vote count. That’s roughly five times as many Republicans who said in November they had no confidence that votes would be counted accurately.
That sentiment clearly tracks Trump’s false rhetoric about election fraud, a claim that has been rejected by Attorney General William Barr, dozens of federal courts and several prominent Republican senators. And the findings demonstrate Trump's continued hold on the Republican base, something his fellow GOP politicians will contend with even after he leaves office.
TRUMP STILL A TURNOUT DRIVER — FOR BOTH SIDES
Even though it carried risk, Perdue, who is trying to win a second term, and Loeffler, an appointed senator trying to win her first election, tethered themselves to Trump every step of the campaign.
Democrats were running stronger in the early voting than they did in November, and that had Republicans nervous. Those worries followed weeks of Trump railing that Biden stole the election, spurring GOP fears that he’d drive some of his loyalists to skip the runoff out of protest while also repelling moderate and GOP-leaning independents in urban and suburban areas.
GOP strategists felt somewhat better Tuesday as they watched turnout in conservative counties and across the outer ring of metro Atlanta where Republicans still have troves of votes.
But Democratic turnout stayed strong, as well, with Fulton and DeKalb in the core of metro Atlanta on pace to nearly match or exceed their general election turnout. That makes a steep hill for Republicans in the newfound swing state.
Even with Trump's steady drumbeat of falsehoods about the voting process, state elections authorities and officials from both parties said Tuesday’s voting and the count appeared smooth. There were no reports of hourslong lines. Elections officials also took advantage of rules changes since November that allowed advance processing of absentee ballots — so they can be counted more quickly. As the count moved into Wednesday, Georgia officials seemed to be managing the process without major issues.
KEMP FACES TROUBLE
Trump endorsed Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp during a contentious GOP primary in 2018, only to call him “incompetent” and promise to campaign against him in 2022 because he didn’t heed the president's demands to reverse Georgia's presidential results.
According to AP VoteCast, Republican voters are siding with Trump: About 6 in 10 approve of Kemp’s handling of the election aftermath. In November, AP VoteCast found about 9 in 10 Trump backers approved of Kemp’s overall job performance.
Kemp already was facing the prospect of a strong general election challenge from Abrams, the Democrat who is expected to seek a rematch of her 2018 loss. She would come into the race with a boost from all her voter registration work that paid off with Biden's and Warnock's wins. And now Kemp has to shore up his standing in his own party before thinking about Abrams or any Democrat.
DEMOCRATS' HIGH-TOUCH GROUND GAME
Democrats seem to have had a broader reach than Republicans in contacting voters. About 6 in 10 voters say they were contacted on behalf of Democratic candidates, compared with about half for Republican candidates.
Democrats’ ground game may have helped them turn out voters. Overall, about 4 in 10 said they were contacted and responded with a pledge or commitment to vote. These voters were more likely to favor Ossoff and Warnock than Perdue and Loeffler.
NEW RESIDENTS CHANGING POLITICS
AP VoteCast showed signs that newcomers to Georgia were more Democratic than longtime residents of the state. Those who have lived in the state for longer than 20 years leaned Republican, while those who have moved more recently favored Democrats.
Associated Press writers Josh Boak and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.