There were no declared winners early Wednesday morning in the two Senate runoff races in Georgia, leaving control of the Senate hanging in the balance as election officials continued counting ballots and warned it may take several days to determine the final results.
With 97 percent of the vote counted, Democrat Raphael Warnock led incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler by 0.8 percentage points. Warnock released a brief video message in which he thanked supporters for sending him to the Senate, though he did not claim outright victory.
“Tonight we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible,” Warnock said.
Loeffler did not concede in a speech to supporters Tuesday, saying that she “had a path to victory and we’re staying” in the race.
Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican David Perdue remained tied with 50 percent of the vote apiece with 97 percent of the expected vote. But Ossoff, like Warnock, is expected to win once the remaining votes in left-leaning DeKalb County and other parts of the state are counted.
The outcome of the runoffs will have enormous implications for President-elect Joe Biden. Democrats must win both of the runoffs in Georgia to earn control of the Senate; two seats would secure a 50-50 split in the upper chamber with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in charge of the tie-breaking vote.
If Democrats control both the Senate and the House — where the party already has a slim majority in the new Congress — it would make it easier for Biden to push his agenda around the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, climate change and racial justice.
Biden’s legislative priorities would likely grind to a halt if Republicans hold onto the Senate. The party only needs to win one of the two Georgia runoffs to maintain control and keep Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in charge.
The power struggle in Washington placed additional pressure on the candidates in Georgia to deliver for their parties, and led to a flood of outside advertising during the runoffs and campaign visits from President Donald Trump, Biden, and other high-profile figures.
The national spotlight boosted turnout, as Georgia voters sent in ballots by mail and flocked to the polls in unusually high numbers for runoff elections, which tend to have less participation than a general election.
Roughly 3.1 million people in Georgia voted during the two-week early voting period that started in mid-December. More than 1.2 million additional voters cast ballots on Election Day. The high turnout was a marked contrast from the last Senate runoff in Georgia, in 2008, when turnout dropped nearly 50 percent from the general election.
Warnock, a senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is seeking to become Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator. The Senate currently only has three Black members, including Harris, who will step down to become vice president.
Ossoff would become the youngest member of the Senate if elected. The journalist and former congressional aide is 33 years old, nearly a decade younger than the current youngest member of the upper chamber, 41-year-old Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman who owns Atlanta’s WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream, was appointed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to serve the remainder of former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term after he stepped down in 2019. The winner of the race between Loeffler and Warnock will carry out the rest of Isakson’s term and be able to run as an incumbent for a full six-year term in 2022.
Perdue’s term expired on Jan. 3 when the new Congress was sworn in. The winner of that race will serve a full six-year term.
The candidates and their backstories were often overshadowed by Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in the general election.
Georgia is one of several battleground states Trump insists he won while claiming voter fraud resulted in the state going to Biden, though there is no evidence supporting his claim. Biden won Georgia by close to 12,000 votes and became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Nevertheless, the president has repeatedly criticized Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, who certified Biden’s victory in the state and has refuted Trump’s assertion that the election in Georgia was rigged.
Last Saturday, Trump called Raffensperger, a Republican, and asked him to “find” enough votes to overturn the general election results, a move many legal experts said violated state and federal law.
The president’s insistence that the election was rigged — in Georgia and across the country — put Perdue and Loeffler in a difficult position throughout the runoffs.
Both Republicans echoed Trump’s claims as they sought to shore up support with the GOP base, which remains deeply loyal to the president. About 9 in 10 voters who supported the Republican candidates weren’t confident votes in the general election were counted accurately, according to the AP VoteCast survey. But the strategy risked alienating moderate Republicans and independent voters who disapproved of the way Trump handled the election results.
According to VoteCast, 56 percent of Georgia voters in the runoff disapproved of the way Trump handled the election, compared to 43 percent who approved of the president’s handling of the results.
In contrast, 58 percent of voters said they approved of how Raffensperger handled the general election, compared to 41 percent who disapproved.
Ahead of Election Day, Loeffler doubled down on her support for Trump by saying she would join a group of Republicans planning to object to the certification of Biden’s Electoral College win Wednesday in Congress. Perdue also said he would support the effort, though he technically no longer holds the seat.
Trump cast a shadow over the runoffs in other ways, as well. Perdue and Loeffler portrayed their opponents as “radical left” Democrats beholden to the party’s progressive wing, using the same argument Trump made against Biden in the general election.
Ossoff and Warnock criticized Loeffler and Perdue’s close ties to Trump, and urged Democratic voters to show up to the polls to flip the Senate. The Democrats also slammed their opponents for making controversial stock deals last year as the economy sank in response to the pandemic.
Perdue was cleared of wrongdoing by Senate and Department of Justice investigations, and a Senate probe found Loeffler did not violate the law.