Democrats’ Senate Bid Hangs in Balance With Georgia Down to Wire
(Bloomberg) -- Democrat Raphael Warnock edged ahead of incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler in one of Georgia’s two Senate runoffs on Tuesday, lifting the party’s hopes for retaking the chamber from the GOP even as the two races remained too close to call.
Warnock declared victory even as media organizations delayed calling the close race and Loeffler refused to concede.
“Georgia, I am honored by the faith you have shown in me and I promise you this tonight: I am going to the Senate to work for all of Georgia, no matter who you cast your vote for in this election,” he said.
Jon Ossoff, the Democrat seeking to unseat Senator David Perdue, trailed the incumbent by 1,200 votes with nearly all the vote counted.
The two Georgia runoff races will determine control of the U.S. Senate and the fate of President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda and inspired record-breaking turnout and intense national interest under the specter of President Donald Trump’s push to overturn his Nov. 3 loss.
Loeffler showed no sign of giving up. “There are a lot of votes out there,” she told supporters. “And we have a path to victory.”
Warnock noted that his 82-year-old mother, who had once picked cotton, “picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” a nod to Warnock being Georgia’s first Black senator.
For Democrats to take control of the Senate, both Warnock and Ossoff would need to win. That would split the Senate 50-50 between Republicans and the Democratic caucus, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes. Republicans only need to win one seat to hold the majority.
The ongoing results were reminiscent of the November election, which Trump appeared to be winning early in the night before Biden ultimately won with about 12,000 more votes out of 5 million cast.
Decision Desk, an election analysis firm, projected Warnock would win. Treasuries traded near a session low early Wednesday after the two races tightened, and Nasdaq E-Mini contracts paced declines for U.S. stock futures. Bitcoin jumped, blowing past $35,000 for another record high.
Trump challenged the results as Democrats’ gained ground and votes were still being counted. He tweeted that “they are setting up a big ‘voter dump’ against the Republican candidates,” and that Democrats “just happened to have found another 4,000 ballots from Fulton County,” which includes the Democratic city of Atlanta.
Democrats seemed to have the advantage in precincts yet to be counted.
In the 30 counties that supported Biden in November, 57% of precincts had reported results as of 10:04 p.m. In the 129 counties that supported Trump, 87% of precincts were reporting.
“I think Republicans have a turnout problem,” tweeted Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report.
Republicans needed a strong turnout of voters on Tuesday to overcome an expected Democratic advantage in early and mail-in ballots. That may have been hampered by Trump’s false insistence that the results in Georgia in November were so tainted that they needed to be thrown out. Loeffler and Perdue issued a rare statement in the late afternoon pleading with their supporters to go to the polls before they closed.
There were reports of strong in-person turnout in some counties on Tuesday after almost 3.1 million Georgians cast ballots beforehand. Because of the high number of absentee ballots, there is a chance the winners will not be determined for days if the race is close as all outstanding ballots are counted.
“It’s going to be a nickel and dime scratching and clawing over the next several hours,” state elections official Gabriel Sterling told reporters. Still outstanding are “big tranches of votes for Democrats and lots and lots of little tranches for Republicans. It’s going to be a long night for all the campaigns here.”
Smaller counties are expected to finish counting Tuesday night and the majority should be done by Wednesday afternoon, depending on how close the margins are, Sterling said.
Fighting for party control of the Senate made the races important enough. But against the backdrop of Trump’s baseless claims of vote fraud and corruption by Georgia elections officials -- topped by his extraordinary hour-long phone call demanding that officials “find” enough votes to overturn the presidential election -- the races also became a test of Trump’s continued hold on the GOP.
The races also will determine Biden’s power to advance his agenda, as Democrats need victories in both seats to leave the Senate with a 50-50 split, enabling Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to cast tie-breaking votes. If either Republican wins, Biden faces a still-GOP-controlled Senate largely unwilling to back many of his plans to develop a federal response to controlling the coronavirus pandemic, deliver more economic stimulus, or raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
Perdue, 71, a first-term Republican Senator and former corporate executive, is seeking re-election against Ossoff, 33, a documentary filmmaker who gained national attention in a 2017 special election for an Atlanta-area House seat.
And Loeffler, 50, the wealthiest member of Congress, is trying to hold on to her seat against a challenge from Warnock, 51, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a position once held by Martin Luther King Jr.
In an unusual joint statement issued about 3/12 hours before the polls closed, Perdue and Loeffler called on Republican voters in Georgia to turn out. After noting that they were “encouraged by reports of high voter turnout across the state,” they pivoted to urge more Republicans to show up at polling places.
“This generational election will be decided by the votes cast in the next few hours -- no one should be sitting on the sidelines,” they wrote in the statement sent at 3:39 p.m. “Go vote!”
Voter turnout in DeKalb County, a Democratic stronghold, on Tuesday exceeded levels seen in the Nov. 3 general election, a county spokeswoman said. While turnout numbers weren’t available early Tuesday evening, a strong total in the metro Atlanta county would likely benefit Warnock and Ossoff. The county supported Biden over Trump in November by a margin of 83% to about 15%.
Georgia’s rapidly changing demographics are making the state competitive for Democrats.
White voters opted for Loeffler with 72% and Perdue with 73%, according to AP VoteCast, a phone and online survey of more than 2,700 verified Georgia voters conducted over the past eight days. Black voters, who made up almost a third of the electorate, went overwhelmingly for Ossoff, 94%, and Warnock, 93%. Latino voters went for Ossoff with 55% and Warnock with 57%, the survey showed.
Democratic wins would mark the first time Georgia elected a senator from the party in two decades, and if Warnock defeats Loeffler, he would be state’s first African-American U.S. senator.
The races also smashed Senate-race spending records, together nearing a half-billion dollars spent since the Nov. 3 general election, on top of the $205 million spent before that, according to Rick Dent, a political consultant who tracks campaign spending.
Perdue and Loeffler, and Ossoff and Warnock, essentially ran as party tickets in their unprecedented all-or-nothing runoff, with good reason. History suggested they would be joined at the hip in the eyes of voters, anyhow.
In almost every way, Perdue’s and Loeffler’s calculations were to stick tightly to the president, or at least not alienate Trump voters and the party’s base. The duo both called for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign after he dismissed Trump’s allegations of voter fraud, and both have backed the effort in the Senate to challenge the election results when Congress certifies the November election on Wednesday.
Both Republican senators describe their foes as “dangerously radical” and warned Ossoff and Warnock would hand over power in Washington to “socialists” like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ossoff and Warnock depicted their wealthy Republican opponents as out-of-touch multimillionaires. Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, recently became a billionaire and is the chief executive officer of Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange. Loeffler co-owns the Atlanta Dreams WNBA team and some players have campaigned against her.
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