ATLANTA, Georgia: Democrats and Republicans were locked in tight United States Senate races in Georgia on Tuesday (Jan 5) as final votes were counted in a showdown that will decide whether President-elect Joe Biden enjoys control of Congress or faces stiff Republican opposition to his reform plans.
The leads swung back and forth between Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and the Reverend Raphael Warnock.
With 96 per cent reporting, Warnock was ahead of Loeffler by less than a percentage point and Ossoff had pulled into a dead heat with Perdue, according to Edison Research.
Warnock and Ossoff made big gains on the Republicans after a batch of votes was reported from Democratic-leaning DeKalb County.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told CNN late on Tuesday that vote counting in the two races would stop overnight and resume in the morning, and that more should be known by noon on Wednesday (1am Thursday, Singapore time) about the results of the very close elections.
"They're probably going to take a break here, I think, in the next hour. Try and get as much work as they can done tonight ... At least, record exactly how many ballots are out there and then get as much scanning done tomorrow," he said.
"Hopefully by noon we'll have a better idea where we are."
Voting hours were extended less than an hour in a handful of precincts following a judge's order. While voting was strong in some spots, state election officials reported light turnout early in the day, including across the deeply conservative region where President Donald Trump held a rally Monday night to encourage GOP voters to turn out in force.
The two Senate runoff elections are leftovers from the November general election, when none of the candidates hit the 50 per cent threshold. Democrats need to win both races to seize the Senate majority - and, with it, control of the new Congress when Biden takes office in two weeks.
A double Democratic win would create a 50-50 split in the Senate and give Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote after she and Biden take office on Jan 20. The party already has a narrow majority in the House of Representatives.
If Republicans hold even one of the two seats, 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, climate change, healthcare and criminal justice.
No Democrat has won a US Senate race in Georgia in 20 years, but opinion surveys showed both races as exceedingly close.
In one contest, Republican Loeffler, a 50-year-old former businesswoman who was appointed to the Senate less than a year ago by the state’s governor, faced Democrat Warnock, 51, who serves as the senior pastor of a historic black church in Atlanta where Martin Luther King Jr grew up and preached.
The other election pitted 71-year-old former business executive Perdue, a Republican who held his Senate seat until his term expired on Sunday, against Democrat Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide. At just 33 years old, Ossoff would be the Senate’s youngest member.
The unusual importance for the runoffs has transformed Georgia, once a solidly Republican state, into one of the nation’s premier battlegrounds during the final days of Trump's presidency.
Biden and Trump campaigned for their candidates in person on the eve of the election, though some Republicans feared Trump may have confused voters by continuing to make wild claims of voter fraud as he tries to undermine Biden's victory. The president assailed Raffensperger, a Republican, repeatedly this week for rejecting his fraud contentions and raised the prospect on Twitter that some ballots might not be counted even as votes were being cast Tuesday afternoon.
There was no evidence of wrongdoing.
In Atlanta's Buckhead neighbourhood, 37-year-old Kari Callaghan said she voted "all Democrat" on Tuesday, an experience that was new for her.
"I’ve always been Republican, but I’ve been pretty disgusted by Trump and just the way the Republicans are working and especially the news this weekend about everything happening in Georgia,” she said. "I feel like for the Republican candidates to still stand there with Trump and campaign with Trump feels pretty rotten. This isn’t the conservative values that I grew up with."
But 56-year-old Will James said he voted "straight GOP".
He said he was concerned by the Republican candidates' recent support of Trump’s challenges of the presidential election results in Georgia, "but it didn’t really change the reasons I voted”.
"I believe in balance of power, and I don’t want either party to have a referendum, basically," he said.
Even before Tuesday, Georgia had shattered its turnout record for a runoff with more than 3 million votes by mail or during in-person advance voting in December. The state’s previous record was 2.1 million in a 2008 Senate runoff.
The early turnout was expected to benefit Democrats, as it helped Biden in November become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992. Republicans were counting on a big turnout on Tuesday to make up for the Democrats' perceived early vote advantage.
"GEORGIA! Get out and VOTE," Trump wrote on Tuesday in one of several tweets encouraging his loyalists to vote for the two Republican candidates on the ballot.
Loeffler has pledged to join a small but growing number of GOP senators protesting Congress’ expected certification of Biden’s victory on Wednesday. She and her allies have seized on snippets of Warnock’s sermons at the historic black church to cast him as extreme. Dozens of religious and civil rights leaders have pushed back.
If Republicans win either seat, Biden would be the first incoming president in more than a century to enter the Oval Office facing a divided Congress. In that case, he would have little shot for swift votes on his most ambitious plans to expand government-backed health care coverage, address racial inequality and combat climate change.
A Republican-controlled Senate also would create a rougher path to confirmation for Biden's Cabinet picks and judicial nominees.
This week's elections mark the formal finale to the heated 2020 election season more than two months after the rest of the nation finished voting. The results also will help demonstrate whether the political coalition that fuelled Biden's victory was an anti-Trump anomaly or part of a new landscape.
Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by about 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast in November.
While they have no merit, Trump’s claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election have resonated with Republican voters in Georgia. About 7 in 10 agree with his false assertion that Biden was not the legitimately elected president, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,600 voters in the runoff elections.
Election officials across the country, including the Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, as well as Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, have confirmed that there was no widespread fraud in the November election. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, where three Trump-nominated justices preside.
Even with Trump's claims, voters in both parties were drawn to the polls because of the high stakes. AP VoteCast found that 6 in 10 Georgia voters say Senate party control was the most important factor in their vote.
Democrats counted on driving a huge turnout of African Americans, young voters, college-educated Georgians and women, all groups that helped Biden win the state. Republicans, meanwhile, have been focused on energising their own base of white men and voters beyond the core of metro Atlanta.
In downtown Atlanta, Henry Dave Chambliss, 67, voted for the two Republicans. He said he wanted Republicans to keep Senate control to ensure the incoming Biden administration doesn’t slide "all the way to the left".
"I’m moderately successful and I know they will come after more of my money, which I’ve earned," Chambliss said. "I was born a Southern Democrat, and I just hope and pray that some moderate voices are heard and things stay more in the middle of the road."