Overshadowed by the riot at the U.S. Capitol last week was the remarkable turn of events the day before in Georgia, where the not-so-long-ago heavily Republican Southern state gave both of its U.S. Senate seats to Democrats.
That, coupled with Donald Trump’s narrow loss in Georgia that he still can’t get over, caught me by surprise.
I had grown so used to the Deep South being solidly red that I chalked up Trump’s narrow loss in Georgia as a fluke, a rejection of his personality rather than of Republican ideology.
I expected that Georgia, which had not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 20 years, would return to the GOP fold in the Jan. 5 runoffs if, for no other reason, to keep a check on both Joe Biden in the White House and the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
Looking back at the first round of balloting in November, though, the runoff victories by Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff do not seem such a surprise.
The GOP appointee, Kelly Loeffler, and the third-place finisher, Doug Collins, a fellow Republican and even bigger Trump loyalist, combined for almost 46% of the vote in the first round of the special election. Warnock was at 33%.
That seemed like too much ground to make up in a two-person runoff with Loeffler.
However, if you look at the vote by party affiliation for all 21 candidates who were initially in the field, it was much closer. Six GOP candidates accounted for 49.3% of the vote, and eight Democrats got 48.4%. The remaining 2.3% was divided among six third-party or independent candidates.
The November breakdown in the much less crowded field for the other Senate seat was about the same: 49.7% for the Republican incumbent, David Perdue, 47.9% for Ossoff and 2.3% for a Libertarian longshot.
In both contests, the Democratic challengers showed they had a viable path to victory, which would give their party control of the Senate, too.
There is no single factor to explain what a few months ago would have seemed like an improbable Georgia sweep. Warnock and Ossoff were strong candidates. They attracted a ton of campaign money. And they benefitted from the voter registration and turnout efforts of Stacey Abrams, who, after barely losing the Georgia governor’s race in 2018, set about getting likely Democratic voters energized for the 2020 election cycle.
The biggest boost for Warnock and Ossoff, though, might have come from Donald Trump.
The president’s terminal case of sour grapes turned into an attack on Georgia’s governor and secretary of state, both Republicans, thus dividing the party internally.
He spent so much time claiming — without proof — that the Georgia results were fraudulent that it further motivated the Democratic opposition and demoralized the Republicans.
With Georgia now decidedly “purple,” it didn’t take much to tilt the outcome in the Senate contests. Loeffler and Perdue both made the critical mistake of not realizing that a seething Trump, in a closely divided state, was more of a liability than an asset. They went all in with backing his fabrications, and they suffered the same fate: narrow losses in a state that previously could be counted on as a lock for the GOP.
Will another solidly Republican Southern state, Mississippi, soon follow this pendulum shift of political power?
While Georgia has been growing, attracting people from all around the country to Atlanta and its other urban centers, Mississippi remains largely rural and isolated. It’s not the “closed society” it was during the era of segregation, but it still is fairly tribal. The political parties are largely identified along racial lines, and voters and officeholders are both expected to conform with their respective tribes.
There are a few hopeful cracks. Sen. Roger Wicker, for example, the state’s senior Republican in Congress, courageously broke ranks and voted to recognize Biden’s victory as legitimate. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol, maybe that won’t cost him as much as it otherwise could have.