The runoff races for U.S. Senate in Georgia looked too close to call late on Election Day, though Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock held favorable positions with thousands of votes left to be counted in suburban Atlanta counties and Savannah.
With more than a dozen counties still outstanding by midnight, Warnock clung to a slim 35,000-vote lead over opponent Republican U.S. Kelly Loeffler. Ossoff was neck-and-neck with Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, with the senator leading by fewer than 2,000 votes.
More than 4 million votes had been cast in both races, which racked up historically huge absentee and early-voting turnout numbers. Several suburban counties that “likely lean toward Democrats” including DeKalb, Fulton and Chatham had not yet turned in final counts late Tuesday, said Georgia’s election manager, Gabriel Sterling.
“This is a contentious time,” Sterling said in a news conference just before midnight. “We want people to be patient.”
The runoffs have been among the most consequential in Georgia history, dominating airwaves and political talk for the past two months with control of the federal government hanging in the balance.
Wins by both Ossoff and Warnock would give Democrats control of both chambers of Congress and the White House following President-elect Joe Biden’s defeat of President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 general election.
More than $830 million was spent by the four campaigns and outside groups in both races, dwarfing previous fundraising records in American politics, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Celebrities and national politicians flocked to the state. Trump and Biden held rallies twice each.
The campaigns themselves were grueling affairs as Perdue and Loeffler cast their Democratic opponents as big-government socialists while Ossoff and Warnock framed the Republican incumbents as self-serving wealthy elites.
All four campaigns combed the state for every vote they could find after the Nov. 3 election saw Georgia flip for a Democratic candidate for the first time in a presidential contest since 1992, driven by strong gains in former Republican suburban strongholds like Gwinnett and Cobb counties.
Like the November election, vote-by-mail and early voting boosted turnout in the runoffs to record-breaking numbers as voters avoided long lines on Election Day due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. By Tuesday, more than 3 million ballots had already been cast by mail and during the three-week early voting period.
Coronavirus loomed large in the runoffs amid long-delayed negotiations between Senate Republicans and House Democrats over a second round of economic relief, as each side accused the other of delaying passage of a nearly $1 trillion legislative package.
A relief bill finally pushed through Congress that handed Democrats ammunition to continue attacking the Republican senators after Trump trashed the bill, calling it a “disgrace” for including $600 stimulus checks instead of the $2,000 checks he wanted.
Trump also sparked fears among Republican leaders with his relentless assault on Georgia’s election system since his November loss. They worried Trump’s influence risked depressing voter turnout in conservative parts of the state where the president’s loyal followers leaned toward believing his unproven claims of election fraud.
Both senators refused to acknowledge Biden’s win throughout the runoffs, with Loeffler going so far as to say she plans to join around a dozen other senators in contesting Congress’ vote on Wednesday to ratify the Electoral College results. Democrats accused her and Perdue of all but treason.
“If we win these races, we can turn the page on the last four years,” Ossoff said outside an Atlanta polling place on Tuesday.
Loeffler, who fended off Trump ally U.S. Rep. Doug Collins in a free-for-all Nov. 3 special election, dismissed concerns over the president’s influence ahead of Election Day, arguing Republican voters recognized her campaign and Perdue’s as a “firewall against socialism.”
“I’m proud of my campaign because we’ve shown Georgians the importance of this race, not just here in Georgia but to the entire country,” Loeffler said at a campaign stop Monday in Atlanta.
Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman, and Perdue, a former corporate executive from Sea Island, both faced allegations of insider trading in the pandemic’s early days. Though both insisted a federal probe cleared them of wrongdoing, Ossoff and Warnock used the controversy to portray the wealthy senators as out-of-touch with average Georgians.
“There are campaigns and there are movements,” Warnock said at a stop in Atlanta Tuesday. “And there is a sense in Georgia that so much is at stake.”
Perdue and Loeffler landed their own blows. Ossoff, who runs an investigative journalism company, was hit over a China-connected Hong Kong group’s purchase of a documentary his company made. Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist church, faced attacks for past comments on police and charges of interfering in a child-abuse investigation that he called a misunderstanding.
“If we don’t all get out and vote … everything President Trump has done to make America great again is gone,” Perdue said in a video that played at a Trump rally Monday in Dalton.
Ultimately, the two battling sides kept close to party positions on national issues. Perdue and Loeffler stressed pro-gun, anti-abortion and low-tax views while Ossoff and Warnock called for bolstering the Affordable Care Act and reforming use-of-force standards for police.