U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock appear headed for a runoff in one of two hotly contested Senate seats in Georgia.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, the firebrand Republican challenging Loeffler for her seat in a free-for-all election, called Loeffler to concede and support her campaign around 10:30 p.m. on Election Day after results indicated she will advance to the runoff. His campaign confirmed the call.
Warnock, who has mustered a staunch coalition of Democratic support in Georgia and nationwide, was likewise well on his way to gathering enough votes to face Loeffler in what will be a closely watched runoff race in January.
Loeffler was expected to speak with supporters in Atlanta later Tuesday night.
Rallying with supporters Tuesday hours before results arrived, Warnock cast the special election for Loeffler’s seat and others Democrats are trying to claim as something of a spiritual as well as political quest.
“I know it’s been a long, dark night,” Warnock said. “But joy comes in the morning. And we are on the verge of morning in Georgia and in the United States of America.”
In a Twitter post just after 10:30 p.m., Collins said he will back Loeffler in her runoff campaign against Warnock.
“She has my support and endorsement,” Collins said. “I look forward to all Republicans coming together.”
The race for one of Georgia’s two Senate seats has been dominated for almost a year by the fierce intra-party battle between Loeffler and Collins, who repeatedly scorched each other in television attack ads and social-media posts.
All the while, Warnock has sought to take advantage of the Republican spat that has largely shielded him from direct campaign attacks and allowed him to broadcast consistent messaging on health care, voting rights, criminal justice and workers’ rights issues.
Speaking Tuesday, Warnock said he plans to stick with that campaign strategy while incorporating more ways to “draw a contrast between my record” and his runoff opponent.
Loeffler was appointed in January by Gov. Brian Kemp to hold the seat vacated by retired Sen. Johnny Isakson, who stepped down due to health concerns with three years remaining in his term.
Whoever wins the runoff in January and claims Isakson’s old seat will need to run again in 2022 for a full six-year Senate term.
The special election held Tuesday involved around 20 candidates including Loeffler all on the same ballot, marking a free-for-all ballot format that prompted the intense campaigning between Loeffler and Collins.
For months, the two Republicans opened fire on their personal and political records, each seeking to portray the other as the less conservative candidate while trumpeting loud support for President Donald Trump.
Loeffler, a wealthy Atlanta businesswoman, has touted legislation she filed on protecting local police budgets, prohibiting COVID-19 aid for abortion providers and barring transgender boys from playing in public-school girls’ or women’s sports.
She faced controversy in April amid allegations she made stock trades to isolate her and her husband’s assets from damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, shortly after she and other senators received a private briefing on the virus.
Though a federal investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, Collins and Democratic leaders frequently used the incident to bludgeon Loeffler as an out-of-touch elitist concerned more about her own financial interests than public service.
Loeffler, who has pumped $23 million of her own money into her campaign, embraced her wealth by portraying herself as a self-made political outsider in the mold of Trump who would not be shackled to any campaign donors.
Collins, a four-term congressman and U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain, pushed to chisel his image as the more grassroots conservative candidate compared to Loeffler, who he accused of being too cozy with the oft-vilified Planned Parenthood and Georgia Democratic star Stacey Abrams in her role as co-owner of the Atlanta Dream women’s professional basketball team.
But aside from sniping at each other’s personal backgrounds, Collins and Loeffler largely shared similar conservative views on key issues like abortion, gun rights and economic security from China.
By contrast, Warnock used his platform to condemn his Republican opponents for opposing the Affordable Care Act and supporting Trump’s latest U.S. Supreme Court justice pick following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September.
Warnock, who is the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, has pressed for boosting health-care access through Medicaid expansion and by shoring up the Affordable Care Act with a public option. He has also called for national rules on certain police activities including a ban on chokeholds and third-party probes of officer-involved killings.
Though the clear Democratic frontrunner in the race, Warnock was not immune to challenges from within his own party. In particular, he faced competition from educator and health-care consultant Matt Lieberman, the son of former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Lieberman, who drew a scant share of the vote Tuesday, refused to exit the race after many prominent Democratic leaders urged him to clear the way for Warnock in a bid to help the frontrunner gain enough votes – more than 50% of the total – to avoid a January runoff.
Former U.S. Attorney and state Sen. Ed Tarver also competed in the race as a Democrat. Former Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson also pulled a fair number of votes as a Democratic candidate.