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Four takeaways from Democrats’ big wins in the Georgia Senate runoffs

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised Democratic campaigns in the Georgia Senate runoff on Jan. 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a remarkable pair of elections for the Democratic Party, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff have upset two Republicans to be the next U.S. senators from Georgia. They will be the first Democrats elected to the Senate from that state in 20 years.

Here are four takeaways from the initial results.

1. Georgia is a purple state

Yes, Joe Biden won Georgia months ago, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate in decades to do so.

But below him on the ballot there, Democrats weren’t as commanding in November. Republicans running for Senate got more votes than Democrats (when you tally all the votes in the runoff race that Warnock just won). Democrats had to overcome a history of losses in statewide Georgia runoffs. And Democratic leaders in Georgia had to convince their base voters, quickly, that in this conservative-leaning state, your vote does matter, so much so that it’s worth voting twice in two months.

That’s not an easy thing to do without proof.

And now they have it. Georgia is a purple state that Democrats can win in statewide elections.

The dynamics of these two Senate races were so unique they may not be replicable — a pair of statewide races that come at the end of one of the most divisive presidencies in modern history, with the chance for Georgia Democrats to elect the state’s first Black senator, and with the balance of power in Washington hanging on the results.

But Democrats successfully figured out how to register and turn out voters, particularly Black voters in Georgia’s changing suburbs, in a way that will make Republicans have to work hard for future election wins in Georgia.

2. President Trump’s influence is waning

Georgia’s a purple state, but not by much. President Trump lost it by only about 12,000 votes, the closest electoral college battle in 2020.

Republicans had a historical and structural advantage going into these runoffs. As one Republican strategist working on Georgia said in November: If Georgia state law didn’t require a candidate to get to 50 percent of the vote to win outright, then David Perdue would be a senator right now. He won the most votes in November.

From there, the conventional political wisdom (including at The Fix) was that Republicans had the upper hand.

Trump played a big role in that for the party. He traveled to Georgia twice during the runoffs, holding large in-person rallies (despite the coronavirus pandemic). He urged people to vote despite his own and repeated false claims of election fraud in this state and others. He stood side by side with the Republican candidates (when they didn’t have to self-quarantine over coronavirus exposure). His message was contradictory, but at least he was there, helping motivate voters like no other Republican in recent history has been able to.

At the end of the race, privately and publicly, Trump lamented that if the Republican senators won, he wouldn’t get any credit. If they lost, he’d be blamed.

Blame is for the Republican Party to dole out. But Republicans’ losses are another data point in the question of how strong Republicans are without Trump on the ballot. His rallies and campaigning did not have the same effect as when he was actually running for president.

3. How much did allegations of election fraud dampen GOP turnout?

This is a question to which we may never know the answer, because evidence for it is so anecdotal. Reporters in Georgia during these runoffs said it was easy to find Republican voters who say the presidential election was rigged.

Trump went to the state Monday and said as much. “There’s no way we lost Georgia,” he said. “This was a rigged election.”

There isn’t as much anecdotal evidence that these same Republican voters stayed home in protest, as some Trump allies in Georgia have encouraged them to do.

But as I wrote Tuesday, this was a dangerous game for Republicans when turnout is key. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Perdue refused to acknowledge Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential win. Loeffler announced Monday that she’d challenge it in Congress. (Perdue, whose term technically expired Sunday, said he would if given the chance.)

This “election-was-rigged” drama may not be as pronounced in future elections as it has been in these runoffs, with Trump still in shock that he lost the state. But it could continue to be an issue in elections if the Republican Party stays divided on whether to indulge Trump’s fraud claims, even after he’s gone. How much are Republicans shooting themselves in the foot by promoting baseless fraud allegations, especially after the chaos and violence Wednesday when Congress met to confirm Biden’s win?

Some Senate Republicans are already pointing the finger at Trump, accusing him of costing them the Senate majority.

“Well, it turns out that telling the voters that the election is rigged is not a great way to turn out your voters,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters Wednesday.

4. ‘Radical’ attacks against Democrats didn’t work

Defund the police. Pack the Supreme Court. Socialism. Marxism. The end of freedom as we know it.

These are just some of the attacks — many of them misleading — that Loeffler, in particular, launched nonstop at Warnock. She took a page from Trump’s election playbook to demonize opponents, a playbook that centrist Democrats in other races across the country feared led to their losses in November.

Warnock, the only Black candidate in the race, was on the receiving end of most of the Republican attacks trying to pitch the Democrats as radical. As The Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. wrote, it’s in part because Republicans saw Warnock as the bigger threat to Republicans retaining control of the Senate.

Loeffler dug into his past sermons and church affiliations, most prominently noting that a church with which he was affiliated decades ago had invited Fidel Castro to speak.

Even after fact checks have determined that Warnock probably didn’t play a role in the invitation to Castro, Loeffler continued to attack her challenger as “Marxist.”

All this eventually drew condemnation from 100 faith leaders across the nation, who said her attacks against the pastor were akin to attacking the Black church.

Ossoff also pushed back on accusations that he wants to defund the police.

Well, the attacks didn’t work.