Atlanta pastor Raphael Warnock has unseated Sen. Kelly Loeffler in Georgia’s runoff election, becoming the state’s first Black senator and delivering another blow to Georgia’s reputation as a Republcian stalwart.
The contest, along with a second runoff between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, had become a final referendum on President Donald Trump as he begrudgingly heads out of office. The runoffs took on added importance as Democrats failed to make inroads in several contested Senate races in November, leaving Georgia as the party’s last pathway to the majority.
The Loeffler-Warnock race placed heavy weight on two relatively untested candidates, neither of whom had ever won election before. The race had also been imbued with racial and gender political dynamics, and Warnock was attacked the most out of the four candidates in paid TV commercials during the Georgia runoffs, POLITICO reported earlier this week.
Speaking via livestream earlier on Wednesday before the race was called by The Associated Press, Warnock thanked the more than 2 million Georgians who voted for him in a message that hinted of a victory speech.
"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," Warnock said. "So 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."
Loeffler and Warnock emerged from a pack of 20 candidates to make it to the January runoff. Loeffler’s prime opposition came from former Rep. Doug Collins — a close Trump ally in the House who has since led the effort to challenge the president’s loss in the state — and the two Republicans engaged in a bitter fight with each other for months.
Warnock’s rise was less expected. The pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr. — is a first-time candidate who previously chaired the New Georgia Project founded by Stacey Abrams. He managed to consolidate support among Democrats and some independents while Loeffler and Collins split much of the GOP, and Warnock led with a plurality of voters in several public surveys prior to Election Day. (The polling industry, chastened from the November election, has largely sat out the runoff.)
Loeffler was long seen as the more vulnerable of the two incumbents, as she was appointed to the seat at the end of 2019 by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp against the wishes of Trump, who wanted Collins to land the seat.
She quickly worked to overcome skepticism of her among Trump’s base by positioning herself in lockstep with the president, and Loeffler made her voting record’s alignment with Trump “100 percent” of the time a regular feature on the campaign trail.
However, she also drew flack from Democrats for the lengths she went to protect that record, including missing last week’s vote to override Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act — the sole successful override during his presidency — and claiming to be unfamiliar with the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump vulgarly discussing women that surfaced in 2016.
Biden’s transition team had been hopeful that Warnock and fellow Democrat Ossoff would be able to knock off their Republican counterparts, but were also preparing for life with a GOP-controlled Senate — a scenario that is still possible if Ossoff does not win his runoff.
Biden and Trump were among the dozens of political leaders who descended on Georgia during the runoffs to try to pull their party mates over the finish line.