Democrats were poised to take control of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday after high turnout among Black voters boosted their candidates in two runoff elections in Georgia.
Challenger Raphael Warnock beat incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler to take one of the two seats. The race between Jon Ossoff and one-term Senator David Perdue was still too close to call, but Ossoff was leading by more than 17,000 votes and claimed victory.
Two Democratic wins from a once reliably Republican state would be a rebuke of President Donald Trump’s incessant claims of voter fraud in the November election in Georgia, which he lost narrowly to President-elect Joe Biden.
Republican turnout didn’t keep up with Democratic enthusiasm, driven largely by coordinated efforts to get Black voters to the polls led by former Georgia lawmaker Stacey Abrams.
Benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury yields rose past 1% for the first time since March as traders evaluated the implications of potential Democratic control of the Senate, such as additional fiscal stimulus and tax increases. U.S. stocks were mixed.
In a video statement, Ossoff, 33, spoke as if he were headed to Washington, though no one had called his race against Perdue, 71, a first-term Republican senator and former corporate executive.
“I want to thank the people of Georgia for participating in this election,” he said. “Whether you were for me or against me, I will be for you in the U.S. Senate.”
To secure control of the chamber, Democrats need to win both seats, which would split the Senate 50-50 between Republicans and the Democratic caucus, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes.
Warnock, 51, is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the position once held by Martin Luther King Jr. He will become Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator.
“This is a wonderful day here in Georgia and I believe in America. I am an iteration and an example of the American dream,” Warnock told CNN on Wednesday.
The AP VoteCast survey of more than 2,700 verified Georgia voters found that Black voters made up 32% of the electorate — more than the 29% they were in November. And those voters opted overwhelmingly for the Democrats, by margins of 93% or more.
Of the 115,000 voters who voted in the runoff but skipped the November election, 40% were African-American, according to the Democratic voter data firm TargetSmart.
Perhaps no single person is more associated with Georgia’s shift to the Democrats than Abrams, who gained national attention with her unsuccessful run for governor in 2018.
Abrams’s efforts date back a decade, when she was minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, working to challenge restrictive voter laws and energize minority voters.
“Being a battleground means you have to fight for victory,” she told CNN Tuesday night. “Republicans, for 20 years, took for granted their successes.”
Senate control, paired with the Democrats’ narrow majority in the House, would give Biden a unified U.S. government, smoothing the path for his nominees and allowing him to implement major pieces of his agenda.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who stands to replace Mitch McConnell as majority leader if Ossoff’s race is called in his favor, issued a statement calling it “a brand new day.”
“For the first time in six years, Democrats will operate a majority in the United States Senate — and that will be very good for the American people,” Schumer said, noting that the country was enduring “one of the greatest crises we’ve ever faced.”
It could take days to get a final tally for the outcome of the race between Perdue and Ossoff. State election official Gabriel Sterling told CNN there were around 65,000 ballots still to be counted but said they were mostly from Democratic areas. About 17,000 military and overseas ballots, and some domestic absentee ballots, can still be counted as late as Friday.
Ossoff’s margin is larger than the 11,779-vote lead that helped Biden ultimately flip the state. But the narrow results will almost certainly spark legal challenges or a recount that also could delay a final determination of Senate control. The current margin would allow Perdue to request a recount if Ossoff is declared the winner, and he has indicated he will do so.
Georgia Republicans didn’t turn out in high enough numbers to tamp down overwhelming Democratic participation, said Kerwin Swint, director of the school of government at Kennesaw State University. Republicans needed 65% of the election day vote.
And some Republicans in the state pointed fingers at Trump for damaging their chances.
“When you tell people your vote doesn’t count and has been stolen and people start to believe that — and then you go to the two senators and tell them to ask the secretary of state to resign and trigger a civil war inside the Republican Party when you need Republicans to unite, all of that stems from his decision-making since the Nov. 3rd election,” said Sterling, a Republican who has aggressively refuted Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud.
Loeffler showed no sign of conceding. “There are a lot of votes out there, as y’all know,” she told supporters. “And we have a path to victory and we’re staying on it.”
The uncertainty over the Senate comes as Congress meets in a joint session on Wednesday to count Electoral College votes that will ratify Biden’s win, even as Trump urged Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers to overturn the results based on baseless claims of a “rigged” election.
Warnock called the move a “distraction” that could have cost Republicans the Georgia Senate seats.
“It’s a distraction. These senators know better, and the people that I’m talking to all across Georgia are concerned about their lives,” he said. “We need to be passing the $2,000 relief checks. Instead, the politicians are focused on their concerns, who’s winning and who’s losing.”
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.
If Perdue manages to pull out a win, Biden would face 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.
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 described 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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