Democrats take early leads in Georgia Senate races with Biden’s agenda at stake

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump departs on travel to West Point, New York from the South Lawn at the White House in Washington

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By Rich McKay and Nathan Layne

ATLANTA (Reuters) -Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock took early leads in two U.S. Senate races in Georgia that will decide which party controls the chamber and with it the ability to help or hamstring Democratic President-elect Joe Biden.

Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, and Warnock, a pastor at a historic Black church in Atlanta, are challenging Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

With about 49% of the estimated vote counted, Warnock led Loeffler by 6.8 percentage points, while Ossoff was ahead of Perdue by 6.4 percentage points, according to Edison Research. The early results still heavily reflect Democratic-leaning areas.

The races appeared headed to a close finish, with an Edison exit poll of more than 5,200 voters finding half had voted for Republican President Donald Trump in November and half for Biden. The voters were also evenly split on whether Democrats or Republicans should control the Senate.

The survey included both early voters and voters who cast ballots on Tuesday.

Democrats must win both contests in Georgia to take control of the Senate. 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 onto the Senate, they would effectively wield veto power over Biden’s political and judicial appointees as well as many of his policy initiatives in areas such as economic relief, climate change, healthcare and criminal justice.

The state already had relatively complete results for 27 counties in Georgia with about 197,000 total votes. Ossoff has done about 0.2 percentage point better than Biden did in those counties, while Warnock is doing about 0.8 percentage point better than Biden did.

The outcome may remain in doubt for days if the margins are razor-thin.

Both Biden and Trump campaigned in the state on Monday, underscoring the stakes.

No Democrat has won a U.S. Senate race in Georgia in 20 years, but opinion surveys show both races as exceedingly close. The head-to-head runoff elections, a quirk of state law, became necessary when no candidate in either race exceeded 50% of the vote in November.

Biden’s narrow statewide win in the Nov. 3 election – the first for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 – has given the party reason for optimism in a state dominated by Republicans for decades.

More than 3 million Georgians voted early by mail or in person, shattering the record for runoff elections even before Election Day arrived. The two races drew nearly half a billion dollars in advertising spending since Nov. 3, a staggering total that fueled a tsunami of television commercials.

In Smyrna, about 16 miles (26 km) northwest of Atlanta, Terry Deuel said he voted Republican to ensure a check on Democratic power.

“The Democrats are going to raise taxes,” the 58-year-old handyman said. “And Biden wants to give everyone free money – $2,000 each or something like that for COVID stimulus? Where are we going to get the money?”

Ann Henderson, 46, cast ballots at the same location for Ossoff and Warnock, saying she wanted to break Washington’s gridlock by delivering the Senate to Democrats.

“It’s the social issues – civil rights, racial equality, voting rights, pandemic response,” she said. “If we take it, maybe we can get something done for a change.”

U.S. equity market index futures were broadly weaker as the early results came in favoring the two Democratic candidates, signaling stocks could open on the soft side on Wednesday morning. The benchmark contract was down 0.3%, while futures tracking the tech-heavy Nasdaq were off by 0.7%.

TRUMP RAGES

The campaign’s final days were overshadowed by Trump’s continued efforts to subvert the presidential election results.

On Saturday, Trump pressured Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, on a phone call to “find” enough votes to reverse Biden’s victory, falsely claiming massive fraud.

Trump’s efforts to undo his loss – with some Republicans planning to object to the certification of Biden’s win when Congress meets on Wednesday to formally count the presidential vote – have caused a split in his party and condemnation from critics who accuse him of undermining democracy.

At Monday’s rally in Georgia, Trump again declared the November vote “rigged,” an assertion some Republicans worried would dissuade his supporters from voting on Tuesday.

His attacks appear to have undermined public confidence in the electoral system. Edison’s exit poll found more than seven in 10 were very or somewhat confident their votes would be counted accurately, down from 85% who said the same in a Nov. 3 exit poll.

If elected, Warnock would become Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator and Ossoff, at 33, the Senate’s youngest member. 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.

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