Electoral History in the Eye of the Beholder
“A Black man and a Jewish man walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Hey, senators.’”
Various forms of that joke proliferated on social media as unofficial election results projected that Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Jon Ossoff, who became a bar mitzvah at The Temple, will be Georgia’s new U.S. senators.
As of Thursday afternoon, Warnock held a nearly 75,000 vote lead over interim Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a 50.8 percent to 49.1 percent advantage. The winner will serve the two years remaining in the term of retired Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson and face re-election in 2022. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler to the seat when Isakson stepped down in December 2019 in ill health.
Ossoff held a nearly 37,000 vote lead over incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue, an advantage of 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent. Perdue was elected to the Senate in 2014 and was seeking a second term.
The margins in both races exceed the threshold of 0.5 percent or less that allows candidates to request recounts under Georgia election rules. Dating back to 1992, Republicans had not lost a statewide runoff.
Georgia’s 159 counties have until Jan. 15, and the state until Jan. 20, to certify election results. Ballots cast by Georgians living overseas and Georgians serving in the U.S. military and deployed overseas were required to be postmarked by Election Day and received by today, Jan. 8.
The turnout of more than 4.44 million voters — roughly 89 percent of the nearly 5 million who voted in the general election — bucked the national trend of significantly reduced turnout in runoffs.
The national headline out of Georgia was that Democrats take control of the Senate, at least on a numeric basis. With Democrats (including two independents in their caucus) and Republicans each holding 50 seats, Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would break tie votes.
From a Georgia perspective, the 51-year-old Warnock becomes the state’s first African American senator. His pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist was once held by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.
Based on the available histories, the 33-year-old Ossoff would be the first Jewish person elected to represent Georgia in the Senate. In 1932, John Sanford Cohen, whose father was descended from Portuguese Jews that settled in Savannah, was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy resulting from the death of William J. Harris. Cohen, who served for a year and did not seek election to the office, identified with his mother’s Episcopalian faith.
The first Jew known to have won a statewide partisan race was Republican Sam Olens, who was elected attorney general in 2010 and re-elected in 2014. “As I have said previously, Jon was not going to win or lose based on his religion,” Olens told the AJT. “Quite frankly, the Georgia Democratic Party had a great ground game and the Georgia Republican Party and President [Donald] Trump were still fighting over the unproven ‘rigged’ November election.” As Republican Sen. Mitt Romney stated Wednesday, “It turns out that telling the voters that the election is rigged is not a great way to turn out your voters.’”
Olens continued, “I am very happy for both Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. I want them to succeed for our state and country. And I am proud that our state elected a Black minister and a Jewish person to this high statewide office.”
Also pleased was Michael Rosenzweig, a national board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “The election of Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock reverberates with profound historical and symbolic significance,” Rosenzweig said. “Seeing the state of Georgia elect two Democratic senators is inspiring, but far more inspiring is the fact that one is Black and the other a Jew. In many ways, this election marks the culmination and, importantly, the continuation of the historically strong relationship between the Black and Jewish communities in Georgia, our mutual embrace of our shared legacies. Rev. Warnock expressed these feelings eloquently when he remarked that Martin Luther King, Jr. and [Rabbi] Abraham Joshua Heschel are smiling down on all of us.”
On the other hand, Dan Israel, an Atlantan active in the Republican politics, was disappointed and concerned about the future. “I think it really demonstrates that the tight embrace of the Trump cult does not generate the victories that are going to get Republicans into office in Georgia,” Israel said.
He noted that in winning his runoff and re-election to the Georgia Public Service Commission, incumbent Republican Lauren “Bubba” McDonald received more votes than Loeffler or Perdue. “There were Republicans who hated Trump, who didn’t vote for the two candidates associated with him, but still stuck to a Republican that seemed to be identified by conservative values, but not by Trump,” he said.
Israel said he worried about how closely Warnock and Ossoff might “hue themselves” to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, an element that he views as a problem facing President-elect Joe Biden.
Two issues topped Israel’s concerns about the new senators. First, “If they endorse a return to the Iran [nuclear weapons] deal, that is not acceptable.”
Secondly, while “overwhelmingly the Jewish community the United States hates Trump,” Israel said that the administration’s success engineering diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and Arab nations shows that “the path to peace in the Middle East is not through the Palestinians.” Furthermore, the Republican activist said that he feared “a return to the old Democratic playbook of thinking that peace in the Middle East comes through pressuring Israel to do a deal with the Palestinians.”
While the Democrats celebrate wins in Georgia by Biden, Warnock and Ossoff, the state government, from Kemp down through both chambers of the General Assembly, remains in Republican hands. Not only Warnock, but also Kemp and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will be up for re-election in 2022. Both have been repeated targets of Trump’s public ire, highlighted by the 62-minute phone call in which Trump pleaded with Raffensperger to find 11,780 votes to reverse his loss to Biden in Georgia.
Originally published at https://atlantajewishtimes.timesofisrael.com on January 7, 2021.