ATLANTA — January 5 marks one year since Georgia made political history, electing Democrats Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate. Ossoff is the first Jewish senator from Georgia, and Warnock is the first Black senator representing the Peach State.
In winning their respective runoffs, Ossoff and Warnock shifted the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Both Republicans and Democrats had 50 seats in the chamber, giving a decisive tiebreaking vote to Democrat Vice President Kamala Harris.
11Alive spoke with Emory University political science professor, Dr. Andra Gillespie, and GOP strategist Brian Robinson to get perspective on the last year following the historic milestone of the two Democrats' election.
“It solidified our stance as a competitive state, which we had not been seen as even going into 2020," Robinson said. “It’s made Georgia the center of attention nationally, which is a cool spot. It means there will be a lot of money spent here in 2022, that a lot of outside groups from the rest of the country will take an interest in us.”
Robinson said Ossoff and Warnock were part of a recent trend of Democrats closing the gap with Republicans in statewide races. Robinson also credited lower voter turnout from Republicans in the January runoff, fueled by unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, as the reason Ossoff and Warnock were able to make history.
“Republican turnout was suppressed," Robinson said. "There was a lot of doubt sown among Republican voters about the legitimacy of the vote and elections.”
Gillespie said years of Democratic organization and mobilization also lifted Ossoff and Warnock to victory, and over the last year, the two senators have been supportive of President Biden's political agenda. Each were key votes in passing the president's American Rescue Plan and a historic infrastructure bill.
"They have been present at events across the state, they've tried to be responsive to rural voters," Gillespie said. "Senator Warnock will need that as he runs outright for his seat."
Ossoff won a six-year term last January, while Warnock won a special election to fill former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson's seat. At least seven candidates, including former UGA football star Herschel Walker and Agriculture Secretary Gary Black, have already entered the senate primary race, which will be held in May.
"Whoever the Republican nominee is, they are going to hope to ride a wave of discontent and disappointment with the Democratic party," Gillespie said. "You've also got the historical trend that the incumbent party, the president’s party, tends to lose seats in midterm elections.”
Gov. Brian Kemp is also running for reelection, but first he faces a primary challenge from former Sen. David Perdue. Perdue lost to Ossoff last January in his bid for another term in the senate. Democrat Stacey Abrams is also running for governor. Despite last year's historic milestone, any momentum gained by Democrats in the 2020 election cycle might come at a minimum in the 2022 cycle, per Robinson.
"Senator Warnock has as slight advantage being an incumbent," Robinson said. “But Republicans are doing better on generic ballot polling than they have in the history of that question being asked. Biden’s numbers are in the tank and getting worse. Americans blame him for inflation and I think they blame him for some of the ongoing economic challenges the nation is facing.
"There’s obviously still a bit of COVID fatigue. Last year, it was Republicans’ problem. Now, it’s Biden’s problem. All of those things combined have produced a toxic atmosphere for Democratic candidates," Robinson said.
Still, the significance of the election of Ossoff and Warnock has taken a backseat, Gillespie said, to the following day.
"In many ways, January 5 gets overshadowed by January 6," Gillespie said. "There would have been a lot more discussion about the significance of the outcome had the Capitol insurrection not occurred the next day. But these things are inextricably linked."
For more on Ossoff and Warnock's election, check out 11Alive's special "Inside the Senate" here.