The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, will be the first Black senator from Georgia, CNN projected early Wednesday, a repudiation of Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her adherence to President Donald Trump.
The Democratic Party appears closer to retaking the US Senate, as Georgia Republican David Perdue narrowly trails in his fight to keep his seat against Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff. Both candidates claimed they would win after all the ballots had been counted, but CNN has not yet called the race.
Warnock is the first Georgia Democrat elected to the Senate in 20 years, and his election is the culmination of years of voter registration drives conducted by former state House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams and other activists. President-elect Joe Biden also won Georgia, the first time for a Democratic presidential candidate since the 1990s.
“I am an iteration and an example of the American dream,” the senator-elect told CNN’s John Berman Wednesday morning on “New Day.” He added, “When I think about the arc of our history, what Georgia did last night is its own message in the midst of a moment in which so many people are trying to divide our country, at a time we can least afford to be divided.”
After no Georgia Senate candidate received 50% of the vote in November, the races turned to two runoffs. While Ossoff and Warnock ran on a unity ticket, Trump refused to concede his own loss, sparking a fight within the Republican Party and disenchanting some of his supporters, who believed his false claims that the vote was rigged.
Trump’s ongoing onslaught against the Republican officials in charge of the elections pressured the two GOP senators to make a choice: Join the President in seeking to overturn the democratic outcome or risk losing Trump supporters, some of whom have become disenchanted with the electoral process. Trump recently appeared to pressure Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on a private call, urging him to “find” enough votes to reverse the results. Raffensperger refused.
But despite three recounts and no evidence of widespread fraud, Loeffler and Perdue decided to join the President in objecting to Congress’ certification of the Electoral College’s results in a final, deluded display of devotion to Trump supporters.
“The American people deserve a platform in Congress, permitted under the Constitution, to have election issues presented so that they can be addressed,” said Loeffler in a statement on Monday.
Asked if it was appropriate for her to vote against certification of the electoral votes, Warnock told CNN Wednesday that his opponent “has consistently put what she perceives to be her own short-term political interests over the concerns of ordinary people.”
“What is unfolding in the Senate today or in the House, what’s unfolding in this moment is a distraction. It’s a distraction,” he told Berman. “These senators know better and the people that I’m talking to all across Georgia are concerned about their lives.”
While Georgia is a rapidly diversifying state, the Republican candidates came into the Senate runoff elections with an advantage.
In November, Perdue received over 88,000 more votes than Ossoff, while Loeffler and the other Republican candidates received more votes than Warnock and the other Democratic candidates in the special election (Warnock received most of the vote – 33% – overall).
Republicans hoped their message that Georgia should be a check on Washington would prove successful, noting that if Warnock and Ossoff win, Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer will be in charge.
“We’re talking about the future of the country, and we can’t just turn it all over to one party,” said Eric Tanenblatt, who served as chief of staff to former Republican Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, before Election Day. “That could be wishful thinking on my part. But I do think that that’s going to be a big motivator.”
But Republicans are worried that Trump’s unwillingness to concede jeopardizes the party’s hold on the Senate, even though the state has not elected a Democrat to the chamber since 2000.
Heath Garrett, a campaign manager for former Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, told CNN that Trump’s attacks on Gov. Brian Kemp and Raffensperger were “counterproductive for trying to motivate grassroots, base Republicans to go vote,” and said they’ve threw Perdue and Loeffler “off message” in the final days of the campaign.
“Senator Perdue and Senator Loeffler are being whipsawed by the President on one side and by the Democratic money on the other side,” he said.
Perdue and Loeffler had attempted to avoid the intraparty feud sparked by Trump by focusing on Ossoff and Warnock.
Perdue’s closing message in a recent video was littered with attacks, saying that if Republicans lose, undocumented immigrants will vote, Americans’ private health insurance will be “taken away,” and Democrats will pack the Supreme Court and defund the police.
“We win Georgia, we save America,” Perdue told the camera.
The Democratic candidates counter that they would “demilitarize” rather than defund the police, create a legal pathway for undocumented immigrants and support a public option to decrease the number of uninsured. Neither Democratic candidate has advocated adding justices to the court.
They argued they would do a better job ending the health care crisis over the coronavirus, which has infected more than 20.8 million Americans and killed at least 354,000, in order to reopen the economy. They’ve pushed policy goals, including debt-free public college and a new Voting Rights Act. And they’ve attacked the Republican senators for their multi-million dollar stock transactions during the pandemic, alleging that they profited off it. The senators have denied any wrongdoing.
Warnock told CNN Wednesday that he believes tackling the pandemic by effectively distributing the vaccine and passing $2,000 stimulus checks should be the new Senate’s top priority.
The special election was particularly brutal, starting last year when GOP Rep. Doug Collins forced Loeffler, who Kemp appointed to the role in 2019, into a race to the right.
After no candidate received 50% of the vote, the runoffs turned even more vicious, as Loeffler portrayed Warnock an anti-police Marxist who would destroy America in the Senate.
“We have to have Georgians come out and vote because we know that Chuck Schumer’s radical agents of change are Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff,” said Loeffler on the campaign trail Monday. “They would defund the police. They would lock down our economy. And we have to make sure that we hold the line right here in Georgia.”
Warnock has in turn promoted his background from the Savannah projects to the pulpit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic church, while firing back at Loeffler.
“Kelly Loeffler spends tens of millions of dollars to scare you,” said Warnock in an ad. “She’s trying to make you afraid of me because she’s afraid of you. Afraid that you understand how she’s used her position in the Senate to enrich herself and others like her. Afraid that you’ll realize that we can do better.”
Perdue, a 71-year-old former Fortune 500 CEO, has dismissed Ossoff, a 33-year-old media executive, saying the Democrat does not know how to create a job. At their debate in the fall, Ossoff called the senator a “crook” who was “fending off multiple federal investigations for insider trading” while attacking “the health of the people” who he represents. Perdue snapped back that the Democrat had worked for “the mouthpiece of terrorism and Communist China” – claims Ossoff called “ridiculous.”
The Georgia US Senate races have attracted enormous attention due to the stakes for the first years of the Biden administration and the state’s shift from red to purple. Dr. Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor, told CNN that the Senate elections could be the first in which urban Georgia casts more votes than rural Georgia.
“We’ve seen tremendous enthusiasm in the early voting numbers, both in person and by mail, and we know that while Democrats will have a lead when polls open … Republicans are expected to have a strong Election Day,” said Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights organization founded by Abrams.
Political groups spent about $520 million to advertise in the two runoff races, according to Kantar Media/CMAG, averaging more than $8 million per day. Republicans outspent Democrats by tens of millions of dollars.
With the Senate on the line, Trump rallied his supporters in northwest Georgia on Monday, while President-elect Joe Biden held an event in Atlanta.
Biden said electing Ossoff and Warnock would end the gridlock in Washington and allow Congress to provide $2,000 stimulus checks to Americans. Trump urged the state to elect Perdue and Loeffler, and claimed that Biden would not take the White House.
“We’re going to fight like hell,” said the President.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s David Wright, Caroline Kenny, Kate Sullivan and Chandelis Duster contributed to this report.