ATLANTA - Democrats won both Georgia Senate seats — and with them, the U.S. Senate majority — as final votes were counted Wednesday, serving President Donald Trump a stunning defeat in his turbulent final days in office while dramatically improving the fate of President-elect Joe Biden’s progressive agenda.
Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Democratic challengers who represented the diversity of their party’s evolving coalition, defeated Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler two months after Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992.
Warnock, who served as pastor for the same Atlanta church where civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, becomes the first African American from Georgia elected to the Senate. And Ossoff becomes the state’s first Jewish senator and, at 33 years old, the Senate’s youngest member.
This week’s elections were expected to mark the formal finale to the tempestuous 2020 election season, although the Democrats' resounding success was overshadowed by chaos and violence in Washington, where angry Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to stop Congress from certifying Biden's victory.
Wednesday's unprecedented siege drew fierce criticism of Trump's leadership from within his own party, and combined with the bad day in Georgia, marked one of the darkest days of his divisive presidency.
Still, the Democrats' twin victories in Georgia represented a striking shift in the state's politics as the swelling number of diverse, college-educated voters flex their power in the heart of the Deep South. They also cemented the transformation of Georgia, once a solidly Republican state, into one of the nation’s premier battlegrounds for the foreseeable future.
In an emotional address early Wednesday, Warnock vowed to work for all Georgians whether they voted for him or not, citing his personal experience with the American dream. His mother, he said, used to pick "somebody else’s cotton" as a teenager.
"The other day, because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton picked her youngest son to be a United States senator," he said. "Tonight, we proved with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible."
Loeffler, who remains a senator until the results of Tuesday's election are finalized, returned to Washington on Wednesday morning to join a small group of senators planning to challenge Congress’ vote to certify Biden’s victory. She didn't get a chance to vocalize her objection before the violent protesters stormed the Capitol.
Georgia’s other runoff election pitted Perdue, a 71-year-old former business executive who held his Senate seat until his term expired Sunday, against Ossoff, a former congressional aide and journalist.
"This campaign has been about health and jobs and justice for the people of this state — for all the people of this state," Ossoff said in a speech broadcast on social media Wednesday morning. "Whether you were for me, or against me, I’ll be for you in the U.S. Senate. I will serve all the people of the state."
Trump’s false claims of voter fraud cast a dark shadow over the runoff elections, which were held only because no candidate hit the 50% threshold in the general election. He raised the prospect of voter fraud as votes were being cast and likened the Republicans who run Georgia’s election system to "chickens with their heads cut off" during a Wednesday rally in Washington.
Gabriel Sterling, a top official with the Georgia secretary of state’s office and a Republican, said there was "no evidence of any irregularities."
"The biggest thing we’ve seen is from the president’s fertile mind of finding fraud where none exists," he said.
Both contests tested whether the political coalition that fueled Biden’s November victory was an anti-Trump anomaly or part of a new electoral landscape. To win in Tuesday’s elections — and in the future — Democrats needed strong African American support.
AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,700 voters in Tuesday’s contests, found that Black voters made up roughly 30% of the electorate, and almost all of them — 94% — backed Ossoff and Warnock. The Democrats also relied on the backing of younger voters, people earning less than $50,000 annually and newcomers to the state.
The Republican coalition backing Loeffler and Perdue was the mirror opposite: white, older, wealthier and longtime Georgia residents.
The coalition closely resembles the one that narrowly handed Georgia’s Electoral College votes to Biden in November, making him the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in almost three decades.
Trump’s claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election, while meritless, resonated with Republican voters in Georgia. About 7 in 10 agreed with his false assertion that Biden was not the legitimately elected president, AP VoteCast found.
Election officials across the country, including the Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, as well as Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, have confirmed that there was no widespread fraud in the November election. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, where three Trump-nominated justices preside.
Publicly and privately, some Republicans acknowledged that Trump’s monthslong push to undermine the integrity of the nation’s electoral system may have contributed to the GOP’s losses in Georgia.
"It turns out that telling the voters that the election was rigged is not a great way to turn out your voters," said Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican and a frequent Trump critic.
Even with Trump’s claims, voters in both parties were drawn to the polls because of the high stakes. AP VoteCast found that 6 in 10 Georgia voters say Senate party control was the most important factor in their vote.
Turnout exceeded both sides’ expectations. Ultimately, more people cast ballots in the runoffs than voted in Georgia’s 2016 presidential election.
Former President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, issued a statement praising the election of Georgia’s first African American senator and his ability to improve divisions in Washington.
"Georgia’s first Black senator will make the (Senate) chamber more reflective of our country as a whole and open the door for a Congress that can forego gridlock for gridlock’s sake to focus instead on the many crises facing our nation," Obama said.