Yesterday, the worst kind of history was made when a pro-Trump mobstormed the U.S. Capitol, breaching the doors of the hallowed chamber of the Senate in an attempted coup spurred on by President Trump.
On the very same day, there was another, very different, historic milestone, obscured by the haze of the tear gas wafting through the streets of Washington. A Jewish progressive and the Black pastor of Martin Luther King Jr’s church flipped both Senate seats in Georgia, giving the Democratic Party control of the Senate for the first time since 2014.
Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have dealt a massive upset to the U.S. political landscape by beating GOP incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Together with Biden's victory, the Democratic Party will now control the top three chambers of America’s government.
But this victory is perhaps less surprising than it seems. The two GOP candidates tied themselves tightly to Donald Trump’s mast, despite how deeply Georgia is suffering from his incompetent, alienated management of the COVID pandemic.
And Perdue and Loeffler took Trump’s racist and antisemitic dogwhistling and ran with it, even beyond the porous bounds of what the president has himself done in public. Georgia wasn’t impressed. Their answer: to vote in the deep south state’s first Black and first Jewish senators.
In his acceptance speech given over Zoom, Warnock declared: The 82-year-old that picked someone else's cotton went to the polls to pick her youngest son as the next United States Senator."
This historic result is even more profound when one considers these two were elected in a state that up until 70 years ago, within living memory, lynched Black people and 100 years ago lynched Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of a pencil factory who was wrongly accused of the rape and murder of a 13 year-old employee.
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Their win evoked memories of decades-long alliance between the Black and Jewish communities was at its strongest, during the civil rights movement.
Indeed, Ossoff told me in an interview just before the election that we were witnessing the "emergence of a [Black-Jewish] alliance coming out for health, jobs and justice for all people in this state. And that the standard bearers in these historic runoffs are a young Jewish son of an immigrant, mentored by John Lewis, and the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a Black preacher who holds Dr. [Martin Luther] King Jr’s pulpit and who pastored John Lewis, is a continuation of this tradition."
In Georgia, Democrats punched well above their weight. They benefited from the tailwind of Joe Biden’s determinedly centrist, calm and collected campaign. But the reason Georgia was even in play this cycle is thanks to both a major demographic shift in the South, and a massive grassroots effort to get out the vote, one that has been carefully cultivated over the past decade.
Since 2016, there has been a 20 percent increase of African American registered voters in Georgia and an 18 percent increase in Latino voters. This didn’t only result in more voters, but in more organizers fighting to overcome centuries of voter suppression, most recently in the last gubernatorial race of 2018 when then Secretary of State Brian Kemp steamrolled massive voter purges.
Driving through Georgia, you saw not only plenty of Warnock and Ossoff yard signs, but also "VOTE EARLY" and "YOU VOTE YOUR VOICE." After years of voter suppression, the biggest win of minority groups was simply being able to mail their ballots and getting to the polls.
And there hasn't been a more important person in turning Georgia into a viable state for Democrats than Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House who narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018. She founded the New Georgia Project that's credited with an estimated 800,000 new voter registrations. Abrams and other grassroots activists have laid the blueprint for a new ‘southern strategy’ not only in Georgia, but the entire South.
Another reason for the big win was the feeble and divisive campaign by the Republican candidates.
While David Perdue is a household name in the Republican Party and won his seat handily in 2014, Kelly Loeffler was a weak candidate. She had no prior experience in public service, or as an elected official at any level, Governor Kemp appointed her to the Georgia seat in January 2019, after the incumbent, Johnny Isakson, stepped down due to health reasons. Loeffler had to earn her seat, and she signally failed.
Both Loeffler and Perdue chose to align themselves completely with Trump. Building on Trump's strategy of engaging and enraging his base, both candidates chose to try and smear their opponents in one of the nastier political campaigns in recent years, descending into outright racist and antisemitic attacks.
Loeffler kicked off her campaign by attacking Warnock for "anti-Israel extremism" for what she accused him of support of the "anti-Zionist BLM movement" and for signing a letter comparing Israel’s occupation to South African apartheid.
Loeffler's gambit of trying to peel off a few thousand votes from the Jewish community failed. Warnock received endorsements from the entire gamut of the Jewish community who dismissively brushed off Loeffler’s accusations as unfounded and praissed Warnock’s deep friendship with the local Jewish community and his support for Israel.
At the end of it, Georgians cared far more about how many relatives they’d lost to coronavirus, and getting their stimulus checks, than a hyperpartisan outrage exercise about who can claim to be more "pro-Israel."
The whole "controversy" was also a useful demonstration of how far to the right the GOP has gone, when criticizing the settlements and Israel's policy in the West Bank — denunciations based on international law made by every President Democrat or Republican since Jimmy Carter — is now considered the position of a radical "extremist." It is no wonder then, that during the Capitol coup attempt in Washington, an Israeli flag also made an appearance.
It was no less galling that Loeffler, who paints herself as pro-Israel and whose husband is Jewish, has been associated time and time again with antisemitic white supremacists. As Ossoff took the opportunity to say on an impromptu Fox News interview: Loeffler "campaigned with a Klansman," referring to a selfie taken with Chester Doles, a longtime member of the KKK and other white supremacist groups.
Loeffler and Perdue’s racist, negative attacks backfired: By rejecting Trump in November, a majority of voters signaled that the strategy of division and distrust was not welcome in America anymore, and this runoff election showed the South is no longer immune to that trajectory either.
The contrast couldn’t be starker: on the one hand, a multiracial, multigenerational coalition working together under an umbrella of voter enfranchisement and shared values like social and racial justice, and on the other an anti-democratic death cult beholden to one person who at his whim, can direct them to tear down the same institutions they claim they hold dear.
The hypocrisy and mayhem of the mob invasion of the Capitol is the critical issue of the moment. The Georgia results should be the more lasting monument to American democracy.
The biggest loser of the night wasn't Loeffler or Perdue, but Trump. The outgoing president made a race that was supposed to be a cakewalk for Republicans into the GOP’s Waterloo.
Trump systematically suppressed the Republican vote - thanks to his own behavior. He attacked the integrity of the November elections, targeting with particular scorn Georgia’s Republican Governor Kemp and its Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. He, and his increasingly deluded surrogates, sent the clear message that there was no point voting in a "rigged" election.
And by going against his own party, aligning himself with a bigger stimulus check, a measure blocked by Senate Republicans but backed by Democrats – part of his base chose to stay home.
His riling up of his supporters who broke into the senate shows that the Republican Party doesn’t exist anymore; it’s the party of Trump, whose loyalty isn’t to party or to country, but to him alone.
After the 2008 GOP defeat, Mitch McConnell said the GOP needed to do an autopsy. After four years of Trump’s hatred, division, obfuscation, and unabashed hypocrisy, the GOP might need to do an exorcism. For a long time, Trump has cast a long shadow over the Republican Party; in Georgia, and later on the steps of Capitol Hill, his shadow obscured it completely, bringing the whole party down with him.
Georgia’s runoffs have resulted in a Senate that is a perfect reflection of America today: divided down the middle, and deeply distrustful of the other side.
But the Warnock-Ossoff win, a Black reverend and a Jew winning in a deep Southern state, signals the ascent of a different future for America’s governing institutions: diverse, highly engaged in issues of social justice, perhaps less keen to toe every party line, unapologetic for their progressive ideals, and willing to go to bat for issues like universal healthcare, climate change, and racial justice. In a Democratic-controlled legislature, they will push Biden to pass ambitious legislation. Time will tell if they will be successful in their efforts.
In less than two weeks, Biden will be sworn in. It won’t inaugurate a magic fix for America’s health crisis and political turmoil, but what Georgians have signaled is that they not only wanted Biden in the White House, they wanted him to actually govern.
Etan Nechin is a Brooklyn-based Israeli writer and editor for The Bare Life Review: a Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Literature. Twitter: @etanetan23