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.
And yet the deferred result in twin legislative races that will determine control of the Senate did render a verdict after all: Georgia, like the rest of 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.
And as the votes were being counted, another feature of contemporary American politics became apparent in sharp relief: the way Donald Trump has dominated the civic life of the United States, mobilizing Democrats who revile him – but also motivating Republicans who revere him.
The state’s two incumbent Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, were facing challenges from Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The lead shuttled back and forth between the two parties’ nominees all Tuesday night, 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.
If the Republicans eventually hold at least one of the two seats being contested, they will retain power of the Senate in a capital where the Democrats will control both the presidency and the House of Representatives. That would provide the GOP with a virtual veto over the priorities and proposals of president-elect Joe Biden and place a sobering check on the progressive political reflexes of the House.
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.
Georgia 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 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 would produce a 50-50 tie in the chamber where vice-president-elect Kamala Harris would have the power to break a tie. Republican control of the Senate would constrain him legislatively. But it also likely would affect the shape of the Biden agenda.
With Democrats holding the balance of power in the Senate, Mr. Biden would be under pressure from his party’s left wing to advance an agenda that is more progressive than his instincts. He would be pressed to support measures that would pack the Supreme Court, defund the police and enact elements of the Green New Deal proposal to battle climate change.
That, according to Stanford political scientist Morris 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.”
With a Republican Senate, however, Mr. Biden would be forced – or relieved – to pursue a moderate path and shape his proposals in ways that might attract a handful of GOP votes in the Senate. In the end, the races in Georgia will determine more than the identity of the state’s delegates in the Senate.
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