Election Day in Georgia turned out to be Groundhog Day – a virtual repeat of the November presidential race that was too close to call in a bitterly divided electorate.
A repeat performance – once again Georgia is on the verge of providing a huge rebuff to President Donald Trump – with the preliminary verdict very possibly sending another Democratic shock wave, and two new Democratic senators, to Washington.
Two months ago, Georgia’s close-call election was a vital building block of president-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory that likely will be affirmed in the Capitol Wednesday. This week, an equally close election posed a grave threat to the GOP’s control of the Senate and put a sweep of the legislative and executive branches of the American government within the grasp of the Democrats.
Now the Republicans, on the defensive since Mr. Trump’s loss in the November election, face the growing likelihood that the Senate will have 50 lawmakers of each party. But if current trends continue, the balance of power will be in the hands of vice-president-elect Kamala Harris, who under the Constitution has the option of breaking a tie and whose presence in the vital process of organizing the Senate will transform Charles Schumer of New York into the chamber’s majority leader and permit Democrats to serve as chairs of all the Senate’s committees.
The narrow victory of Raphael Warnock over Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler and the fragile lead that Jon Ossoff holds over incumbent David Perdue nonetheless underlined how Georgia, like the country, is split into nearly equal camps – a phenomenon that has defined American politics for two decades and that shows no signs of dissipating.
But even as the votes were being counted and the totals were being adjusted through a long unusual January election night, another feature of contemporary American politics became apparent in sharp relief: the way Mr. Trump has dominated the civic life of the United States, motivating Republicans who revere him – but also mobilizing sufficient Democrats who revile him to tip the election.
If Mr. Ossoff’s lead persists, the results in Georgia will have a substantial effect on the Washington that Mr. Trump will leave behind, making it easier for his rival Mr. Biden to win confirmation of his Cabinet and judicial appointments and bolstering the agenda of House Democratic insurgents in energy, environmental and economic matters.
The triumph of Mr. Warnock, who occupies the Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit once held by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., was an important symbol in Georgia’s passage. He will be only the fourth Black senator from the South, and only the second since Reconstruction.
The lead shuttled back and forth between the two parties’ nominees all night Tuesday, with the two Democrats breaking out with substantial leads based on early and absentee voting and then the two Republicans closing the gap before gradually inching ahead as in-person votes were being tabulated. In the end, a large tranche of votes from DeKalb County tipped the election to Mr. Warnock and, perhaps, to Mr. Ossoff as well.
Georgia is experiencing diverging political mainstreams in a state that was both a symbol of post-Civil War revanchist impulses and the emergence of a “New South” based on economic growth. The state also reflected the way the Solid South was transformed from a Democratic bloc into a Republican redoubt.
It has not sent a Democratic senator to Washington for 15 years – prior to that, beginning in 1873, the party dominated both of the state’s two seats for more than a century. But Georgia was poised in the official Capitol counting of the Electoral College Wednesday to place its 16 votes in Mr. Biden’s column, despite Mr. Trump’s importuning the state’s election officials to “find” sufficient votes to reverse the November election results.
Georgia politics is the contemporary expression of the maxim proffered by William Faulkner, who in his 1951 “Requiem for a Nun” wrote that, in the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Runoff elections, common in dozens of countries, were instituted during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era to minimize the possibility of an election victory by a Black candidate. In Georgia, the runoff was instituted more than a half-century ago after a state senate candidate won the white vote in a primary contest but lost the Democratic nomination – the only one that mattered at the time – because the Black vote ran so heavily against him.
This election was conducted against the backdrop of a long heritage; Georgia’s senators long have been symbols. Walter George, who served for 34 years through 1957, did not resist the 1954 Supreme Court ruling on desegregation, while Richard Russell, who served 38 years through his death in 1971 and was a mentor to Lyndon B. Johnson, was a staunch supporter of racial segregation. The emergence of Gov. Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 became the 39th president, gave Georgia a modern, progressive face. And for a quarter-century beginning in 1972, Georgia was represented in Washington, and around the world, by Senator Sam Nunn, a technocratic Democrat with a global reputation on nuclear arms and disarmament.
Mr. Biden of course was pulling for Democrats to win both Senate seats, a result that will affect the shape of the Biden agenda.
If it turns out that the two Democrats prevailed, Mr. Biden will be under pressure from his party’s left wing to advance an agenda that is far more progressive than his instincts. He likely will be pressed to support measures that would pack the Supreme Court, defund the police and enact the more extreme elements of the Green New Deal proposal to battle climate change.
That, according to Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fiorina, would “split the party, and have far less appeal to defecting Republican suburbanites than getting rid of Trump did.” He explained that, in that circumstance, “if Congressional leaders fail to support the progressive agenda, that would disappoint and disillusion progressive activists.”
In the end, the races in Georgia determined more than the identity of the state’s delegates in the Senate.
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