Democrats won one U.S. Senate race in Georgia and surged ahead in another on Wednesday, moving closer to a stunning sweep that would give them control of the chamber and the power to advance President-elect Joe Biden’s policy goals.
Raphael Warnock, a Baptist preacher from the historic church of Martin Luther King Jr., beat Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler to become the first Black senator in the history of the deep South state. Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker who at 33 would become the Senate’s youngest member, held a narrow lead over incumbent David Perdue in the other race, with a final outcome not expected until later on Wednesday at the earliest.
The results were a repudiation of outgoing President Donald Trump in a state his Republicans have controlled for decades.
Trump campaigned for both Republicans in Georgia on Monday. But his support was overshadowed by the two months he has spent trying to subvert his own presidential election loss, with false accusations of fraud, including attacks on Republican officials in the state.
Later on Wednesday, Congress will meet to certify Trump’s election loss over the objection of a number of Republican lawmakers who have said they will try to reject some state tallies though there is no chance of success.
With 98% of votes counted, Warnock was ahead of Loeffler by 1.2 percentage points, roughly 54,000 votes, according to Edison Research. Ossoff led Perdue by more than 16,000 votes.
Winning both contests would give Democrats control of the Senate, creating a 50-50 split and giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote once 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 would 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.
Trump’s relentless but flailing efforts to overturn the election in Georgia and nationally will move to Congress on Wednesday, when Vice President Mike Pence presides over the counting of electoral votes to certify Biden’s victory.
Trump’s supporters plan to rally in the streets of Washington. Trump has repeatedly called on Pence to throw out the results in states he narrowly lost, although Pence has no authority to do so.
Trump’s attacks on the November election split his party and drew condemnation from critics who accused him of undermining democracy. Gabriel Sterling, a Republican and a top official in the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, told CNN that if Democrats won, the losses would “fall squarely on the shoulders of President Trump and his actions since Nov. 3.”
The victory by Warnock, a preacher at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church legendary in Georgia because of its role in the civil rights movement under King, was the first win by a Democrat in a U.S. Senate race in the state in 20 years.
The result underscored the state’s political transformation in recent years, made evident by Biden’s narrow statewide win over Trump in the Nov. 3 election – the first victory for a Democratic presidential candidate in Georgia since 1992.
“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 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.”
Most of the votes remaining to be counted were in counties Biden won in November, fueling Democratic optimism about Ossoff’s chance to complete the sweep. Both Democrats, particularly Warnock, won a larger share of the vote in county after county than Biden won in November.
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 Trump and Biden.
Fresh Democratic control of the Senate could facilitate the smooth confirmation of Biden’s Cabinet and federal judicial nominees. After securing control of both chambers of Congress in 2010, Republicans thwarted many legislative goals of Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Brad Heath, Michael Martina, Jason Lange and Dan Burns; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Graff)
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