After four bruising years under Donald Trump, Democrats woke up elated on Wednesday, finding themselves on the precipice of taking control of the United States Senate.
Democrats appear on the verge of winning two stunning victories over incumbent Republican senators in closely watched runoff elections in Georgia. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King once preached, won his race over Kelly Loeffler. In the second race, Jon Ossoff narrowly led David Perdue, his Republican opponent, by about 17,000 votes on Wednesday morning, and declared victory.
It is a moment laden with historic significance. The 51-year-old Warnock, who was born when Georgia was represented by two segregationist senators, becomes the first Black Democratic senator to be elected from the south and Georgia’s first ever Black senator.
“The 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” he said.
The significance of his win extended beyond the race for Democrats. The same day, the US Congress was set to formally recognize Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential race – the last formal hurdle before his inauguration as America’s 46th president on 20 January. Even though several Republicans were prepared to object to the vote, Democrats already had the numbers to override those objections.
There is likely to be soul-searching over whether Trump’s refusal to concede defeat in November’s presidential race, and his continuing attempts to overturn the results of the election, damaged the party’s standing among moderate Republicans.
If Ossoff holds on in his race, as was expected, it splits the US Senate 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. But Democrats will control the chamber because the vice-president, Kamala Harris, will cast the tie-breaking vote.
Democratic control of the Senate would give the party full control of the US Congress, and greatly expands what Biden can achieve in the next four years of his presidency. Democrats will have the power to pass policies to dramatically expand voting rights and protect the environment, among other measures. It remains unclear how ambitious they will be, given their slim majority.
Biden congratulated Ossoff and Warnock in a statement on Wednesday morning, but also pledged to work with both parties.
“Georgia’s voters delivered a resounding message yesterday: they want action on the crises we face and they want it right now. On Covid-19, on economic relief, on climate, on racial justice, on voting rights and so much more,” he said. “They want us to move, but move together.”
The Georgia results solidify the astonishing transformation that has seen the state reshape itself from a southern Republican stronghold into a diverse and increasingly progressive state, just two months after Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win there in almost three decades. That transformation comes as minority voters have made up more and more of the electorate.
Organizers, led by Democrat Stacey Abrams, have spent nearly a decade registering and mobilizing those voters, harnessing the changing electorate into a political force.
“Once again, the nation is realizing what we have known all along: Georgia is a battleground state thanks to the relentless work done toward investing in and turning out voters of color,” said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the New Georgia Project, which Abrams started in 2014, and that works on registering and mobilizing new voters. “We are undoing a history of voter suppression and injustice in Black and brown communities..”
At the polls on Tuesday, voters were also jubilant about knowing their voices could transform the country.
“Everyone is really excited. Especially like because Georgia is not really a state that I think people feel like if they vote blue they’re going to get heard, until now.” said Caroline Mangum, 23, who voted on Tuesday in Smyrna, a city just outside Atlanta.
Underlining the significance of the two Georgia Senate runoffs more than 4 million Georgians cast ballots in the two races, exceeding the number of votes cast in the state during the 2016 presidential race.
Significantly, voter turnout in rural, white counties where Republicans needed a strong showing appears to have struggled without Donald Trump on the ballot while Black voters appear to have been energised by the momentum of Trump’s defeat in November when Biden became the first Democrat to carry the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Eva Bellamy said it had been several years since she voted, but that she felt compelled to go to the polls after hearing others around her talk about the election.
“My business colleagues, they’re like, ‘Did you vote?’ I’m not a good liar. I was like, ‘You know what, they’re right. That’s God talking to me,” she said.