Last week, Raphael Warnock made history by winning a special senatorial election in Georgia, becoming the first Black Democrat from the south ever elected to the United States Senate. Warnock, the senior pastor of the same church Martin Luther King Jr once led, pulled off the upset thanks to high turnout among Black voters across the state, in metro and rural areas alike. While his victory may have the feel of an overnight success story to much of the nation, it is the product of voter engagement that’s occurred over the last decade.
The signs that Warnock could pull off an unexpected victory were all there. In 2018, Stacey Abrams came within 1.4 percentage points of becoming Georgia’s first Black governor and the first Black woman to be governor in the nation’s history. Then, last November, Joe Biden carried the state, becoming only the second Democrat to win it in more than three decades. And it happened by the slimmest of margins: Biden bested Donald Trump by just 11,000 votes when more than 5m were cast. After these two statewide contests, Democratic strategists were optimistic that strong turnout among Black Georgians would allow them to win both Senate seats up for grabs. Warnock’s victory is a culmination of that trend and sustained voter engagement work by figures such as Stacey Abrams and years of Democratic organizers.
As has been well-established, Black Americans are the most reliable Democratic voters in the country – for the last five decades, Democratic presidential and congressional candidates win about 90% of Black voters on average. This basically held true in Georgia in 2020, where Biden beat Trump among Black voters 88–11. Strategists understand that increasing Black voter turnout creates lopsided advantages for Democratic candidates for elected office. So in Georgia, where the number of Black Americans has steadily increased in recent years and presently makes up about a third of the state’s residents, Democrats recognized that a window of opportunity to win statewide contests would open.
Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign leveraged the work of grassroots voter mobilization and civic engagement efforts and directed resources to expand outreach, especially in communities of color. And though she lost that election in an outcome clouded by voter suppression, the playbook for how to increase turnout by educating Georgians about the voting process and getting disengaged citizens to show up on election day was well-established. And it worked.
Warnock beat Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat in December of 2019, by 75,000 votes in an especially high turnout election where 4.4 million Georgians participated. Black turnout exceeded nearly all projections. Initial analysis from the New York Times shows that turnout in precincts with a supermajority Black population only fell about 7 points from the presidential election whereas turnout in white working-class precincts – traditionally Republican strongholds – fell by 13 points. And Black precincts voted more for Warnock than they did for Biden by about 3 points.
The sustained engagement and mobilization strategies aimed at Black voters never let up after the presidential election; resources continued to flow. Black Georgians – who are disproportionately affected by long wait times to vote, polling station closures, and voter identification requirements – weathered attempts to complicate and discourage their participation. The outcome of these recent elections isn’t the product of a new movement, but rather the result of a long, steady build to increase and maintain Black turnout.
In addition to turnout, Warnock was also aided by his race and gender. Political science scholarship reliably shows that Black Democratic candidates increase both turnout and support for Democrats up and down ballot; it is no surprise that in Georgia’s other senatorial election, featuring two white men, the Democrat Jon Ossoff also outperformed Biden.
And my own research shows that Black men, in particular, are especially motivated by race and gender descriptive representation. That is, the opportunity to help a Black male Democrat make history is alluring to even Black Republicans or disengaged eligible Black male voters. So it makes sense that Warnock outperformed both Biden and Ossoff with Black men. According to exit polls, Biden won 83% of Black men in Georgia to Trump’s 16%, and Ossoff won 88% of them; but Warnock won 90% of this bloc – one in eight of all voters.
In this way, Warnock leveraged the momentum of other Black Democrats in the south running for statewide office, merging the appeal of descriptive representation to turn out and win more Black voters with policies that appeal to white Democrats who have become increasingly liberal over the last several years. Black candidates with progressive agendas in states with a significant Black population may become a winning formula. Warnock’s victory suggests that the close losses by Abrams and Florida’s Andrew Gillum in 2018 governors’ races were not flukes, but harbingers of what may come.
In the end, Black voters in Georgia not only delivered historic victories in last week’s Senate races, but they also completed a flip of the United States Senate back into Democratic control, with Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote.
The voter turnout work that began years ago in reliably Republican Georgia overcame efforts to suppress the votes of its Black citizens and managed to elect its first Black senator. Perhaps more importantly, those efforts not only changed the state, but they have the potential to shift the direction of the country after the Trump era.
Theodore R Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice
Theodore R Johnson