Stunning democratic wins in Georgia defy history

Jon Ossoff, left, and Rev Raphael Warnock, have both won their respective Senate races. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP

As the world continues to reel from images of the outrageous assault of the US Capitol by Trump's goons, history was made in the southern US state of Georgia this month.

But first, a quick look at the past.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement, a bitter battle raged in the American south to re-enfranchise African Americans. In June 1964, white supremacists in Mississippi, chafing at attempts to register Black voters, accosted three activists in Neshoba County in Mississippi. Local law enforcement pulled over a car and confronted Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white Jewish activists from New York, who were with James Chaney, a young Black activist from Meridian, Mississippi.

The three men were later shot to death at close range. An FBI probe established that the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement were involved. The report sparked a national outcry that helped the passage of civil rights legislation in the US in the 1960s.

History has come full circle in neighbouring Georgia this month. A 51-year-old Black preacher and a youthful Jewish activist, whose joint campaign evoked memories of that historic multiethnic coalition of yesteryears, won a stunning victory in two critical US Senate races in Georgia. The win of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defied a decades-long tradition of Republican dominance in runoff elections.

Warnock is pastor of the storied Ebenezer Church in Atlanta. Civil Rights icon Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr once thundered from its pulpit. When he joins the US Senate this year, Ossoff, 33, will be its youngest member.

Their victories, which hand control of the US Senate to the Democrats, cements Georgia's transition from a solid red Republican state to a "purple" state, a term US political analysts use to describe states where elections can go either way.

Racist voter suppression has a long history in US politics, particularly in the American south with its legacy of ghastly Jim Crow laws. While federal civil rights and voting rights laws have made a huge difference, these efforts continue in subtler but no less real forms to this day.

Take the peculiar political confection known as the runoff race. This is an odd system widespread in the American South (there are only two non-South states which use this practice) where a plurality is not enough for electoral victory. If nobody wins a majority, the two frontrunners have to slug it out in a separate "runoff" race.

The situation gave (white) Republicans a lopsided advantage in Georgia.

"Only once since 1992 have Democrats done better in runoffs after a November election than they did in the general election. Over and over again, runoff turnout has favoured Republicans," The Washington Post reports.

In Georgia, "state representative Denmark Groover from Macon introduced a proposal to apply majority-vote, runoff election rules to all local, state, and federal offices" in the early 1960s, the news and analysis website Vox reports.

Experts quibbled on whether it was a racist ploy. Decades later, Groover did not beat around the bush: "I was a segregationist… If you want to establish if I was racially prejudiced, I was. If you want to establish that some of my political activity was racially motivated, it was."

Following the passing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, whites migrated en masse to the Republican Party, and Democrats struggled with statewide candidates. Their efforts to field candidates who could reconcile Democratic national priorities with local white sensitivities proved too difficult a needle to thread.

Enter Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic state lawmaker who nearly beat current Republican Governor Brian Kemp in 2018. An indefatigable voting rights activist, she came up with a different strategy: Dump the milquetoast strategy of appeasing rural whites and go for a bold, progressive platform targeting the base, with a laser-like focus on registering new voters.

The results are in. In November, Joe Biden became the first Democratic candidate to win Georgia in 28 years. Warnock and Ossoff are the first Democrats to be sent to the US Senate by Georgia since 2005.

To be sure, the Republican debacle in January was the result of multiple factors. Foremost among them was the 600-pound gorilla in US politics, President Donald Trump, whose support turned out to be a poisoned chalice. What Trump should have done was to make a focused attempt to rally Republicans. In reality, he was all over the place and a huge distraction. He falsely claimed to have won Georgia, bad-mouthed Republican Georgia Governor Brian Kemp for "losing" Georgia, made unsubstantiated claims of rigging and undermined the integrity of Georgia elections.

Kelly Loeffler, one of the Republican candidates, was hamstrung in the November general elections where she had to fend off attacks from the right by a fellow Republican contender. In a bid to brush up her conservative credentials, she claimed she was to the right of Attila the Hun (I am not making this up). You realise something is a bit off when a candidate has to use Attila as a character reference.

What happened to David Perdue, the other Republican candidate, is ironic. There was a certain poetic justice in the way Georgia Republicans got caught in a trap of their own making. Perdue had actually won in the November elections, but missed the 50 percent majority threshold by a whisker. Warnock beat him handily in the runoff. In the absence of the runoff, Perdue would have won, and Republicans would have had control of the Senate.

However, Democrats have little time to bask in the glory of their victories, sweet as it is. Come January 20, Trump will be gone, but his toxic political brew of white grievance, fact-free fantasies and mean spiritedness will continue to torment us. Democrats will have to gird their loins for the coming hard-fought battles. They can, however, draw some comfort from the fact that with hard work, a Democratic hope of victory is no longer the pipe dream it used to be in Georgia.


Ashfaque Swapan, an Atlanta-based writer and editor, is contributing editor for Siliconeer, an online South Asian publication.


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