Democrats won one hotly contested U.S. Senate race in Georgia on Wednesday and pulled ahead in a second, edging closer to control of the chamber and the power to advance Democratic President-elect Joe Biden's policy goals when he takes office this month.
Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock beat Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, TV networks and Edison Research projected. Democrat Jon Ossoff held a narrow lead over Republican David Perdue in the other race, with a final outcome not expected until later on Wednesday.
With 98% reporting, Warnock was ahead of Loeffler by 1.2 percentage points, roughly 50,000 votes, while Ossoff led Perdue by more than 12,000 votes, according to Edison Research.
Democrats must win both contests to take control of the Senate. A Democratic sweep would create a 50-50 split in the Senate and give Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, the tie-breaking vote after 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 will 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.
Most of the votes remaining to be counted were in counties Biden won in November, with roughly 13,000 votes still to be counted in Democratic-leaning DeKalb County near Atlanta, according to Edison Research estimates, fueling Democratic optimism about an astounding Georgia sweep. No Democrat had won a U.S. Senate race in Georgia in 20 years.
"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, a Baptist preacher, 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."
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Warnock will become Georgia's first Black U.S. senator and Ossoff, at 33, would be the Senate's youngest member if he wins.
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 Republican President Donald Trump and Biden.
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.
The head-to-head runoff elections in Georgia, a quirk of state law, became necessary when no candidate in either race drew more than 50% of the vote in November's general election.
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.
Perdue is a former Fortune 500 executive who has served one Senate term. Loeffler, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, was appointed a year ago to fill the seat of a retiring senator.
With control of the U.S. Senate at stake, both Democrats and Republicans have used allegations of antisemitism and “anti-Israel” scandals as talking points for why their opponents are not fit for office.
Ossoff, has become one of the most high-profile Jewish Democratic politicians in America in recent months. He has long embraced his heritage, highlighting how growing up Jewish taught him to fight for social justice.
Over the summer, Perdue ran an attack ad appearing to digitally enhance the size of Ossoff’s nose, which his campaign termed an “unintentional error.”
“First, you were lengthening my nose in attack ads to remind everybody that I’m Jewish,” Ossoff told Perdue at a debate. “Then, when that didn’t work, you started calling me some kind of an Islamic terrorist. And then, when that didn’t work, you started calling me a Chinese communist.”
Ossoff later called Perdue a “virulent and unrepentant anti-Semite” after Perdue declined to issue a public apology. “A U.S. senator who uses ancient anti-Semitic imagery to inflame hatred against his Jewish opponent must be crushed by Jewish voters on Election Day,” Ossoff wrote about the incident last month.
In conversations Haaretz, Ossoff, who recently set the record for most funds raised in a quarter in U.S. history, highlighted the dangerous rise in right-wing extremism over the past several years and noting that the “renaissance of civic engagement rejects right-wing extremism and now has served to defeat (U.S. President) Donald Trump. The task at hand is to ensure that this movement blossoms and continues as more than mere opposition.”
Meanwhile, Perdue has highlighted his support for Trump’s Israel policies over the past four years – including U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the embassy there, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and the Abraham Accords peace deals with several Arab countries. Perdue also called fighting antisemitism “in all forms and at all levels” a top priority, arguing that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement “has served as a catalyst to the rising frequency of attacks against Jews.”
Perdue has also used Ossoff’s alliance with fellow Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock to urge Jewish voters to vote for Republicans. Perdue and his fellow Republican incumbent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, have made Warnock’s views on Israel as central tenants of their campaign.
“Jon Ossoff has chosen to stand side-by-side with and defend his running mate Raphael Warnock, whose unacceptable positions include comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, celebrating renowned anti-Semite Jeremiah Wright, and likening Israel’s sitting prime minister to segregationists,” Perdue wrote.
Warnock said in a 2016 sermon that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies were “tantamount to saying occupation today, occupation tomorrow, occupation forever,” echoing segregationist George Wallace’s comment of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” In past sermons, he has criticized the way the Israeli military handled Palestinian demonstrators during protests at the Gaza border.
“Rev. Warnock has a long history of anti-Israel extremism. He defended Jeremiah Wright’s antisemitic comments. He embraced the anti-Zionist Black Lives Matter organization. And he thinks Israel is an ‘oppressive regime’ for fighting back against terrorism,” Loeffler tweeted in November.
Like Perdue, Loeffler has similarly praised Trump’s Israel and Middle East policies and highlighted the BDS movement as a reason for the “exponential rise in antisemitic attacks across the nation over the last few years.”
In response, Warnock said that “My opponents are trying to use Israel as a wedge issue. I wish I were surprised. I do not believe Israel is an apartheid state, as some have suggested.”
He has since been endorsed by the Democratic Majority for Israel, a centrist pro-Israel political action committee, thanks to his support of U.S. military aid to Israel and his strong condemnation of the BDS movement. He has also said he has developed a greater understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, criticizing Hamas and rejecting any equivalency between Israel and apartheid.
There are about 100,000 registered Jewish voters in the state, with some 36,000 identifying as Democrats and a further 50,000 as independents. These Jewish voters could very well determine who wins the razor-thin majority which would decide if U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will have both houses of Congress by his side.