In the early hours of Wednesday morning, it remained just about possible that the Republican Senate majority would survive by a margin of one. At midnight the incumbent David Perdue maintained a narrow lead of a few thousand votes over Jon Ossoff, his Democratic opponent. Two hours later, Ossoff pulled ahead.
This story should be familiar by now. So too should the transposed numbers and other live reporting errors and one county’s bizarre decision to stop counting ballots around 11:00 p.m. President Trump was ready with accusations of fraud just in time for the morning papers. Anyone hoping that the run-off elections would be a smoother affair than those held two months ago is likely to be disappointed.
It is still too early to say why the results in the two Senate races were so divergent. Split-ticket voting is not unheard of in this country, especially when presidential candidates are on the ballot. But in a double run-off featuring two incumbents from the same party one would expect roughly similar showings.
This is not what seems to have happened in Georgia. As of Wednesday morning, whatever the outcome of the Perdue-Ossoff contest, the special election had been called for Raphael Warnock, who appears to have defeated the appointed incumbent Kelly Loeffler. The likeliest explanation for the discrepancy is that Warnock, a Baptist clergyman, is already a well-known public figure, while Loeffler is among the least popular sitting politicians in the United States. It is impossible to overstate the significance of his victory. Warnock is only the second African-American candidate to be elected to the Senate by a former Confederate state since Reconstruction. (His immediate predecessor is Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican.) He is also an enthusiastic supporter of abortion and same-sex marriage in what has long been considered among the most socially conservative states in the country.
One thing we learned on Tuesday is that Democrats no longer believe, if indeed they ever did, that there is anything wrong with knocking on doors in the middle of what we are told is the most serious public health emergency of our lifetimes. Over and over again during the presidential election we were told by establishment Democrats that it was simply not worth the risk. Stacey Abrams knew better. In 2020, grassroots turnout groups were responsible for 800,000 new voter registrations, many times Joe Biden’s eventual margin of victory in the state; in the two months that followed the same organizations carried out one of the farthest reaching and most effective physical canvassing operations in recent American history.
Meanwhile, there is every reason to believe that we are seeing the end of a half decade of Republican control of the Senate. Even if it did survive, its ability to frustrate Biden’s governing agenda would be limited. A single defection or absence would send a vote to Kamala Harris to break the tie. No matter what happens, Biden is likely to be able to appoint a Cabinet of his choosing and even to nominate a replacement if Stephen Breyer chooses to retire from the Supreme Court.
A victory for Ossoff gives the Democrats a de facto if exceedingly thin majority. Statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico would be on the table, which would in turn give Democrats control of the upper chamber for the foreseeable future. The filibuster would also likely be abolished. Ideological outliers like Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, and Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, would become kingmakers. The best hope for Republicans is a last-minute reversal of fortune for Perdue and four years of divided government with a Democrat in the White House, a split Congress, and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.