ATLANTA — Georgia voters appeared to pick Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock Tuesday, which would make him the state’s first Black senator and solidifying the party's hold on one of two Senate seats that will decide the fate of the upper chamber.
The Savannah native and senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, had a solid lead Wednesday morning over Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp, in Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff.
After weeks of speculation on the highly publicized race, a Warnock victory would mark a historic end to a seemingly endless campaign cycle. Candidates ran a nine-week political sprint after the November general election to turn their bases out to the polls.
Provisional and overseas ballots must be tabulated in the coming days and the vote certified before the results are official.
Warnock’s lead over Loeffler came around 11 p.m. on election night after a large batch of votes was uploaded from DeKalb County — one of the bluest counties in the state. Nearing 1 a.m., Jan. 6, Warnock declared himself the victor and addressed Georgia — and the closely watching nation.
"We were told that we couldn’t win this election. But tonight we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible,” he said. "Georgia, I am honored by the faith that you have shown in me. And I promise you this tonight. I am going to the Senate to work for all of Georgia."
The Baptist preacher became the primary target of Republican attacks early on from both his challenger and Perdue after emerging as the Democratic frontrunner in the crowded field of 21 candidates all running for the seat left vacant by former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson; his longtime advocacy for expanded health care and his faith were staples of his campaign.
Warnock was aided by visits from high-profile Democrats such as former President Barack Obama and the future presidential administration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Political pundits suspect Warnock drove a surge in Black voter turnout which became consequential for Biden’s victory over Trump during the presidential contest in November. After both Senate races were determined to be headed for runoffs, Warnock and fellow Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff paired up and moved forward campaigning essentially as a Democratic ticket.
Warnock’s lead was proceeded by a year that thrust the country's racial divide into the spotlight — especially in the South.
The streets of Atlanta were filled during the summer months with demonstrators calling for racial justice and Georgia’s iconic civil rights leader, John Lewis, died, leaving a legacy to fill. Harris made history just months ago for becoming the first female vice president-elect and Black woman elected to the second highest office in the United States.
Warnock directly addressed voters who did not cast their ballots for him in the divided runoff election in his remarks early Wednesday morning.
"Whether you voted for me or not know this,” he said. "I hear you. I see you. Everyday I'm in the United States Senate, I will fight for you."
But the state's flip from red to blue — voters apparently backed a Democratic candidate for president for the first time in 12 years — has Democrats proclaiming a “new Georgia."
The outcome of Georgia’s dual Senate races will also decide the majority hold of the upper chamber of Congress and will determine the course of Biden’s policy agenda. If Ossoff defeats Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. David Perdue, the upper chamber would be split down the middle between Democrats and Republicans, giving Harris the tie-breaking vote on legislation.
Georgia's other Senate contest between Perdue and Ossoff was even closer than the Warnock-Loeffler race, making it too close to call in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The race remained tight, only about 9,500 votes separating the two around 2:30 a.m.
Both the Democrat and Republican released statements early Wednesday morning stating that they believe when all the votes are counted, the results will swing in their favor.