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On The Trail: Eight takeaways from Georgia's stunning election results

Georgia voters on Tuesday turned out in massive numbers to decide control of two U.S. Senate seats, and with them majority control of the upper chamber in what became the most expensive statewide political battle ever waged in American history.

The results delivered the political equivalent of an inside straight, as the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D) became only the second Black man to win a Senate seat in a Southern state since Reconstruction, and his fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff appearing poised to become the first member of the Millennial generation to win election to the Senate.

Here are eight takeaways from last night’s results:

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Black voters delivered the Senate

When President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors Biden celebrates vaccine approval but warns 'current improvement could reverse' MORE gives his inaugural address later this month, he might acknowledge that his vice president, Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisDwayne 'The Rock' Johnson vs. Donald Trump: A serious comparison Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren To unite America, Biden administration must brace for hate MORE, will preside over a Senate majority made possible by Black voters.

From the moment Ossoff forced David PerdueDavid PerduePlease, President Trump: Drop your quest for revenge and help the GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan Georgia's GOP-led Senate passes bill requiring ID for absentee voting MORE (R) — whose Senate term officially ended Sunday — into a runoff in November’s elections, Democrats knew they had to deliver Black voters to the polls in record numbers if they were to have any chance of bucking an historical trend of Republicans winning runoff elections. 

They succeeded — in record numbers. Once the final votes are counted, it is likely that more Black voters will have cast a ballot in the runoff election than in any other statewide contest in the history of the United States, with the lone exception of the November election that handed Biden the state’s electoral votes.

The support of a leading Black elected official, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), put Biden on the path to the Democratic nomination for president. High turnout of Black voters elected him in November. Even higher turnout of Black voters gave him a Democratic Senate to work with. They are the core of the Democratic base.

Mobilization matters

The four campaigns and their outside allies spent more than $830 million, much of it on television advertising. But perhaps the most important money spent over the last two months was on unprecedented field programs aimed at mobilizing voters who might otherwise have stayed home.

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Republicans mounted what may be the single largest field program in their history. One top Republican source said last week the party had more than 1,000 staffers on the ground working to get voters to the polls.

Democrats doubled that figure — and then some. Ossoff’s campaign alone hired 2,000 organizers, mostly young Black men, the campaign said. The campaign made a million phone calls on Saturday to voters who had not yet voted early or returned their absentee ballots. Then on Monday, they made 1.5 million calls. A coalition of outside groups knocked on 12 million doors in the last seven weeks, according to a source who oversaw that side of the field program.

The Democratic turnout targets extended to younger voters and a not-insubstantial Asian American community that lives in Georgia. They spent money running advertising on platforms like Snapchat, and they built a substantial following on TikTok. And their voters showed up — Ossoff received 93 percent of the total vote he earned in November, while Perdue won 89 percent of his November total.

Warnock’s margin is tougher to compare to his November result, given the all-party primary he and Loeffler won to advance to the runoff — but Warnock had the coattails that delivered Ossoff’s win. Warnock received 2.23 million votes on Tuesday, with some mail-in ballots left to count, running about 19,000 votes ahead of his expected seatmate.

Trump was the elephant in the room

President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE’s two visits to Georgia went just about as badly as Republican strategists feared.

He spent more time talking about his own electoral loss and the debunked conspiracy theories floating on the fringes of the internet than he did about Perdue and Loeffler. He was present in the minds of voters in a state he had just lost, and he helped undermine confidence in the elections that Perdue and Loeffler would need to win.

In the closing days of the race, both Perdue and Loeffler spent as much time deflecting questions about Trump’s defeat and the Electoral College votes to be counted Wednesday as they did addressing their constituents.

“He got in the way of any real conversation that Republicans wanted to have with Georgia voters,” one top Democratic strategist crowed Wednesday morning.

Republicans should have learned from Jack Bogle

The late investor Jack Bogle revolutionized the average American’s relationship with the stock market. Bogle, who founded The Vanguard Group, preached a kind of passive investing in which customers would buy slices of the entire market, rather than try to pick the individual stocks that would outperform the market.

Loeffler and Perdue, two of the wealthiest members of the Senate, should have followed his advice. Instead, Perdue and Loeffler’s husband, who heads the New York Stock Exchange, made a series of very active trades early in 2020, after an all-Senate briefing on an emerging pathogen coming from Wuhan, China.

Neither Perdue nor Loeffler were charged with wrongdoing, but the Democratic advertisements wrote themselves: The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 11,000 Georgians and left hundreds of thousands more out of work, but Perdue and Loeffler were busy making money off the stock market. 

If incumbent senators learn anything from Georgia, they might want to stick with an extremely passive investing strategy while in office.

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Republicans have a suburban problem

Democrats reclaimed control of the House in 2018 on the strength of their appeal to suburban voters — including in suburban Atlanta, where Rep. Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathSix ways to visualize a divided America Lawmakers commemorate one-year anniversary of Arbery's killing House Judiciary Democrats ask Pence to invoke 25th Amendment to remove Trump MORE (D) picked up a Republican-held seat. Two years later, another suburban Atlanta district elected Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D), a rare bright spot in an otherwise crummy year for House Democrats.

Republicans blamed President Trump and his lousy approval ratings among those voters. Without him on the ballot, cautious suburbanites would be willing to vote for divided government and preserve a Republican Senate.

That’s not the way it worked out. Ossoff won a greater share of the vote in the counties around Atlanta on Tuesday than he did in November — and Warnock did even better than Ossoff.

The conventional wisdom is that the suburban vote can be rented, but it cannot be bought. Some Republican sources on Tuesday morning fear that Democrats may have just signed a long-term lease.

Republicans have a base problem

At times over the last four years, Republican strategists have marveled at President Trump’s hold on a substantial segment of the GOP base. That has worked to their advantage in 2016, when they won the White House, and to a lesser degree in 2020, when they won back seats in the House.

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But Trump’s continued hold on the party has been a bandage covering a deeper wound: The Trumpiest voters are not necessarily Republican. They see Washington Republicans as swamp creatures just as much as they see Democrats as swamp creatures.

The zeal with which Trump’s biggest fans have attacked standard conservatives in Washington who have the audacity to acknowledge they cannot overturn a free and fair democratic election, the cheers they gave Trump when he promised to work to defeat Georgia Gov. Brian KempBrian KempGeorgia teachers to be next in line in state for coronavirus vaccine The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan Lawmakers commemorate one-year anniversary of Arbery's killing MORE and the polls that show more than half of Republican voters feel more aligned with President Trump than with the Grand Old Party all show the long-term challenge Republicans will have in fashioning a post-Trump coalition.

In a speech to a rally in Washington on Wednesday morning, Donald Trump Jr. put it most succinctly when he addressed the Republican members of Congress who will vote to certify Biden’s victory: “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.”

Trump at the top of the ticket was a blessing and a curse. His absence from a party that increasingly relies on voters who have only turned out in recent years because of him could become simply a curse.

The future of the runoff is in jeopardy

Georgia is one of a handful of states that require a runoff election if no candidate hits a certain threshold in a general election. All but two of the 10 states that require runoffs are in the South, and most of those laws have roots in the white backlash against Reconstruction or the Civil Rights Era. 

Georgia created its runoff system in the 1960s, after the Supreme Court ruled against an antiquated system that gave rural — and mostly white — counties a disproportionate amount of power to decide gubernatorial elections. 

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Without the runoff rule, Perdue would have already taken his oath of office for a second term; he finished the November general election about 88,000 votes ahead of Ossoff, and just 13,603 votes shy of the 50 percent he would have needed to avoid a runoff.

Republicans control Georgia’s state legislature and the governorship. Expect them to consider revising their runoff rules, or doing away with it altogether.

Time to rethink 2022

As Democrats digested election results in November, a grim melancholy set in: The party had not taken full advantage of its opportunities to reclaim the Senate, build its majority in the House, and win back state legislatures across the country. And the 2022 midterm elections were going to be brutal.

History says a president’s first midterm is rough on his party. But there are exceptions, especially after moments of national unity. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats gained House seats in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression. George W. Bush’s Republicans picked up seats in 2002, after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Biden will preside over the rollout of a coronavirus vaccine and an economic rebound, likely buoyed by $2,000 checks sent to struggling Americans and billions more to state and local governments. 

At the same time, the Republican Party’s soul-searching threatens a brutal primary season rife with an all-out war between Trump backers, ideological hardliners and the more traditional country club, Chamber of Commerce Republicans who may have already abandoned the party in the age of Trump.

The conventional wisdom holds that the midterms will be rough for Democrats. But conventional wisdom also argued against a Black man winning a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia.