US voters in the state of Georgia go back to the polls today. The outcome of November’s electoral races between Republican senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and their respective Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock was too close: no candidate in either race reached the percentage threshold they needed to win. And so, on Tuesday 5 January, Georgians must cast their votes once again.
If both Warnock and Ossoff win their elections, Democrats will take control of the Senate, which the Republicans have controlled since 2014. Democrats currently control the House of Representatives, and whether they also manage to take the Senate will not only determine the kind of relief they can provide to Americans for the duration of the pandemic, but also how much else president-elect Joe Biden will be able to accomplish regarding healthcare, changes to Senate procedure and even having his chosen appointments confirmed.
If either of the Democratic challengers lose and Republicans continue to control the Senate, there is little to suggest they will try to work with Joe Biden for the good of the country. Roughly a quarter of Republican senators currently in Congress have said they are planning to vote down the recent certification of the electoral college results, siding with Donald Trump and his baseless allegations of fraud over the democratic process.
Accountability is on the ballot, too. Both Republican senators have come under scrutiny for their stock trading. Perdue’s stock trades have included companies that fall under the oversight of committees on which he sits. He was reportedly investigated by the Justice Department for insider trading, though prosecutors ultimately decided not to bring charges. Loeffler, thought to be the wealthiest member of Congress, also had stocks traded on her behalf shortly after attending a coronavirus briefing in January.
But the very way in which these races have been run also gives us a sense of what, beyond control of the Senate, is at stake.
Ahead of the November election, Perdue ran a digital advert in which Ossoff, whose nose is enhanced in the image, appears with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. Schumer, like Ossoff, is Jewish. The campaign said the alteration of a nose was the result of a filter applied by an outside vendor, which, even if true, does not explain how a Jewish senator from New York also appeared. Perdue also appeared to mock the now vice-president-elect Kamala Harris’s first name. Since the election, Perdue has declined run-off debates. At one point, Ossoff debated an empty lectern.
Then there’s the race between Loeffler and Warnock. Shortly after the run-off was announced, the Democratic reverend put out an advert in which he warns he would be the victim of an unusually high level of smears and attacks by Republicans during the campaign, and is also seen cuddling a beagle. In a later advert, he pointed out that such smear ads had indeed been released, and said he hoped Georgia voters would see those attacks for what they were. The statement was followed by a clip of Warnock throwing away his dog’s waste.
— Reverend Raphael Warnock (@ReverendWarnock) November 24, 2020
It was a savvy move by Warnock, but it doesn’t change how vicious the attacks against him by Loeffler have been. Loeffler has attempted to paint Warnock – who is senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the former church of Martin Luther King Jr – as anti-white and radical. She has tried to insinuate that Warnock was connected to a child abuse scandal (in 2002, Warnock and another minister were charged with obstructing a police investigation into child abuse at a church-run summer camp; Warnock has maintained he wanted lawyers to be present during the interviews, and charges were later dropped). And Loeffler has said that Warnock “has a long history of anti-Israel extremism” and “has embraced the anti-Zionist Black Lives Matter organisation”, which appears to be an attempt to characterise her opponent as an anti-Israel anti-Semite.
This statement by Loeffler, who herself embraced the endorsement of a QAnon adherent and has been photographed multiple times with white supremacists (including a former Ku Klux Klan leader), has been denounced by 200 rabbis across Georgia, who asked that she refrain from trying to divide the black and Jewish communities. The racial politics – a white woman attacking a black man, who in turn is determined to show he loves puppies lest he seem aggressive – are all-American. There is, in this country, a long history of white women smearing black men. Loeffler didn’t invent these sorts of smears, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still damaging and divisive.
It is possible that both Loeffler and Perdue will lose. Warnock, in particular, has been polling ahead. Some die-hard Trump Republicans may stay home, convinced that Georgia Republicans didn’t do enough to support the president in his claims of wholly unproven electoral fraud that he insists cost him the election. In a phone call on Saturday, just days before the run-off election, the president – instead of focusing on helping Republicans keep the Senate – chose to badger Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” 11,780 votes and swing the election. We do not know yet whether this phone call, news of which was published on Sunday, will help or hurt the Republicans.
But if Loeffler and Perdue win, they will not win alone. They will bring obfuscation, divisiveness and racism back to the Senate with them.