Democrats inch closer to retaking the U.S. Senate as Warnock declared the winner in Georgia runoff and Ossoff pulls ahead

Marquise Francis, Jay Busbee and David Knowles

ATLANTA — Democrats were on the verge of taking control of the U.S. Senate early Wednesday morning after Raphael Warnock was declared the winner in his Georgia runoff election with GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and Jon Ossoff pulled into the lead in his race with Republican Sen. David Perdue.

An African American pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church — the Atlanta church made famous by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., — Warnock was declared the winner by the Associated Press with just over 97 percent of the votes counted. He delivered a victory speech shortly after 11:30 p.m. in a videotaped message delivered from his home in Atlanta.

“Georgia, I am honored by the faith you have shown in me. And I promise you this tonight, I am going to the Senate to work for all of Georgia,” Warnock said.

Minutes earlier, Loeffler, who was appointed to her Senate seat in 2019 by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, gave an impromptu speech but did not concede the race despite trailing Warnock by more than 35,000 votes with 97 percent counted.

“It’s going to be another late night,” she told a gathering of her supporters. “There are a lot of votes out there, as you all know. We have a path to victory, and we are going to stay on it.”

The campaign of Ossoff, a Jewish American activist and documentary film producer, also saw victory on the horizon early Wednesday, minutes before the vote count showed him surpassing Perdue. The race remains too close to call.

Ossoff offered brief remarks declaring victory in a video message released later in the morning.

“Whether you were for me, or against me, I’ll be for you in the U.S. Senate,” he said. “I will serve all the people of the state.”

In a state where Joe Biden defeated President Trump by roughly 12,000 votes, both Senate contests were also close. While none of the major television networks or the Associated Press initially called Warnock’s race when he first pulled into the lead, multiple news organizations determined that the remaining votes to be counted would be coming from Democratic-friendly districts.

As the vote tally played out in real time, Trump, without evidence, fired off more claims of fraud.

Should the Democrats pull off both runoff victories, they would earn a 50-seat tie with Republicans in the U.S. Senate, leaving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to cast any deciding votes. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would also be denied a return to the role of Senate majority leader, which would fall to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

A potentially seismic power shift, the Senate wins would mean that Republicans would not be able to block Biden’s Cabinet from being confirmed, nor would they be able to halt the Democrats’ ambitious agenda outright. Yet the final results of Ossoff’s race, as of early Wednesday, had yet to be determined.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images, Paras Griffin/Getty Images, Jessica McGowan/Getty Images, Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
From left: Raphael Warnock, Jon Ossoff, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images, Paras Griffin/Getty Images, Jessica McGowan/Getty Images, Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

That Democrats had managed to force two runoff elections, as well as Biden’s victory, had already come as something of a surprise in Georgia, a state that had reliably voted Republican for decades. With several third-party candidates in the race, none of the major-party Senate candidates cracked 50 percent in the Nov. 3 election, forcing runoffs. (Georgia is one of a handful of states that require an absolute majority in state elections.)

In pushing his claims of electoral fraud, Trump drove a wedge into the state’s Republican Party. He spent weeks angrily attacking Kemp and Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, accusing both of turning a blind eye to voting irregularities.

But Georgia held two separate recounts of the statewide results and conducted signature verifications of mail-in ballots in Cobb County that found “no fraudulent absentee ballots.” Those efforts did little to mollify Trump, who on Monday night railed against the vote tallies and promised to campaign against a governor who he had once endorsed.

“I’ll be here in about a year and a half campaigning against your governor, I guarantee you,” Trump said of Kemp.

The two Republicans in the race likewise offered voters a mixed message, agreeing with Trump that the November election had been “rigged” while urging supporters to the polls in the runoffs.

Loeffler announced Monday that she would object to the certification of the Electoral College vote in Congress on Wednesday. Perdue said he also supported that effort, but while quarantining would not be in the chamber to offer his objection.

In many ways, the two races were run in tandem, with the Republican candidates accusing the Democrats of being “radicals” and “socialists,” while Warnock and Ossoff countered that Loeffler and Perdue were the “Bonnie and Clyde of corruption.” Both were accused of making profitable stock trades at the start of the pandemic at a time when most Americans had little idea of the impending devastation. Neither has been charged with a crime

Democratic candidates for Senate Jon Ossoff (L) and Raphael Warnock (R) bump elbows on stage during a rally with US President-elect Joe Biden outside Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 4, 2021. - President Donald Trump, still seeking ways to reverse his election defeat, and President-elect Joe Biden converge on Georgia on Monday for dueling rallies on the eve of runoff votes that will decide control of the US Senate. Trump, a day after the release of a bombshell recording in which he pressures Georgia officials to overturn his November 3 election loss in the southern state, is to hold a rally in the northwest city of Dalton in support of Republican incumbent senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Biden, who takes over the White House on January 20, is to campaign in Atlanta, the Georgia capital, for the Democratic challengers, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Ossoff and Warnock at a rally in Atlanta on Monday. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Some voters told Yahoo News that they hoped their vote would help break the political gridlock in Washington.

“We definitely had to get rid of that president, and now we have to give this president an equal chance,” said Atlanta resident Tobias Brown, 56. “We learned from Obama that unless we give the president the Congress he needs, you don’t get anything done.”

Others said the presidential election and the runoffs had left them feeling weary.

“To be honest, I didn’t want to come back out, but I’ve always voted in every election since I’ve began voting, so I feel like my vote counts at some point,” said Bernita Banks of Atlanta.

The races also turned out to be the two most expensive Senate elections in U.S. history, with nearly $470 million poured into the Perdue-Ossoff contest and $363 million spent on the matchup between Loeffler and Warnock, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Atlanta resident Jason McClendon told Yahoo News that he found the constant phone calls and text messages from the campaigns “really annoying.”

“It’s been quite the experience to not be able to watch any television shows without seeing four political ads, receiving five texts messages and two phone calls an hour,” said McClendon, who declined to reveal who he voted for. “I think it’s so unfortunate that so much national money is being brought into [this election].”

With control of the U.S. Senate in the balance, high-ranking politicians from both parties traveled to campaign in the state, including Biden, Harris, Vice President Mike Pence and Trump.

The biggest homegrown star may have been Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the race for governor in 2018 and told Yahoo News Tuesday that the runoff elections were “just the beginning” of a larger effort to register more minorities and young people and elect Democrats. She acknowledged it would not be easy.

“Georgia is a divided state,” Abrams said. “We are 50-50. My point is that the 50 percent that share Democratic values — making sure certain people have access to health care, jobs and to justice — their voices need to be heard.”

Cover photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Brandon Bell/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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