Democrats won one hotly contested US Senate race in Georgia on Wednesday and pulled ahead in a second, edging closer to control of the chamber and the power to advance Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s policy goals when he takes office this month.
Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock beat Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, TV networks and Edison Research projected. Democrat Jon Ossoff held a narrow lead over Republican David Perdue in the other race, with a final outcome not expected until later on Wednesday.
With 98% reporting, Warnock was ahead of Loeffler by 1.2 percentage points, roughly 50,000 votes, according to Edison Research.
Ossoff on Wednesday claimed victory on Wednesday morning as he held a slight lead of about 16,000 votes in a race that was still too close for major news organisations to call. “It is with humility that I thank the people of Georgia for electing me to serve you in the United States Senate,” Ossoff said in a video statement.
Democrats must win both contests to take control of the Senate. A Democratic sweep would create a 50-50 split in the Senate and give vice president-elect Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, the tie-breaking vote after she and Biden take office on January 20. The party already has a narrow majority in the US House of Representatives.
If Republicans hold the second seat, they will effectively wield veto power over Biden’s political and judicial appointees as well as many of his legislative initiatives in areas such as economic relief from the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, healthcare and criminal justice.
Most of the votes remaining to be counted were in counties Biden won in November, with roughly 13,000 votes still to be counted in Democratic-leaning DeKalb County near Atlanta, according to Edison Research estimates, fuelling Democratic optimism about an astounding Georgia sweep. No Democrat had won a US Senate race in Georgia in 20 years.
But it could take days to get the final tally, as thousands of military and overseas ballots can still be counted as late as Friday. The narrow results will almost certainly spark legal challenges or recounts that also could delay a final determination of Senate control.
“We were told that we couldn’t win this election. But tonight, we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible,” Warnock, a Baptist preacher, told supporters in a livestream message.
“I am going to the Senate to work for all of Georgia, no matter who you cast your vote for in this election.”
Warnock will become Georgia’s first Black US senator and Ossoff, at 33, would be the Senate’s youngest member if he wins.
The critical races drew an estimated 4.5 million voters — a record for a runoff — along with nearly half a billion dollars in advertising spending since November 3 and visits on Monday by Republican President Donald Trump and Biden.
Even if they manage to secure a slim Senate majority, Biden and Democrats could find it difficult to advance some legislative priorities in the Senate, where most bills need to clear a 60-vote procedural threshold in the 100-seat chamber.
The head-to-head runoff elections in Georgia, a quirk of state law, became necessary when no candidate in either race drew more than 50% of the vote in November’s general election.
Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger said election officials would take a break overnight but resume counting on Wednesday morning. “Hopefully by noon we’ll have a better idea where we are,” he said on CNN. Perdue is a former Fortune 500 executive who has served one Senate term. Loeffler, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, was appointed a year ago to fill the seat of a retiring senator.
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