ATLANTA (Reuters) - Democrats won one hotly contested U.S. 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, while Ossoff led Perdue by more than 12,000 votes, according to Edison Research.
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 Jan. 20. The party already has a narrow majority in the U.S. 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, fueling Democratic optimism about an astounding Georgia sweep. No Democrat had won a U.S. Senate race in Georgia in 20 years.
“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 before he was projected the winner.
“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 U.S. 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 Nov. 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.
Biden’s narrow statewide win over Trump in the Nov. 3 election - the first victory for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 - gave the party reason for optimism in a state dominated by Republicans for decades.
In Smyrna, about 16 miles (26 km) northwest of Atlanta, Terry Deuel said he voted Republican to ensure a check on Democratic power.
“The Democrats are going to raise taxes,” the 58-year-old handyman said. “And Biden wants to give everyone free money - $2,000 each or something like that for COVID stimulus? Where are we going to get the money?”
Ann Henderson, 46, cast ballots at the same location for Ossoff and Warnock, saying she wanted to break Washington’s gridlock by delivering the Senate to Democrats.
“It’s the social issues - civil rights, racial equality, voting rights, pandemic response,” she said. “If we take it, maybe we can get something done for a change.”
U.S. equity market index futures were broadly weaker as the results turned in favor of the Democrats, signaling stocks could open on the soft side on Wednesday morning. The benchmark S&P 500 e-mini futures contract was down 0.6%, while futures tracking the tech-heavy Nasdaq were off by 1.3%.
TRUMP PRESSURED GEORGIA OFFICIALSThe campaign’s final days were overshadowed by Trump’s efforts to subvert the presidential election results.
On Saturday, Trump pressured Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, on a phone call to “find” enough votes to reverse Biden’s victory, falsely claiming massive fraud.
Trump’s bid to undo his loss - with some Republicans planning to object to the certification of Biden’s win when Congress meets on Wednesday to formally count the presidential vote - have split his party and drawn condemnation from critics who accuse him of undermining democracy.
At a rally in Georgia on Monday night, Trump again declared the November vote “rigged,” an assertion some Republicans worried would dissuade his supporters from voting on Tuesday.
His attacks appear to have undermined public confidence in the electoral system. Edison’s exit poll found more than seven in 10 were very or somewhat confident their votes would be counted accurately, down from 85% who said the same in a Nov. 3 exit poll.
Reporting by Nathan Layne and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Brad Heath, Michael Martina and Dan Burns; Writing by Will Dunham, Joseph Ax and John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Scott Malone and Howard Goller
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