Democrats’ hopes for gaining control of the Senate hung Friday on the ballot count in Georgia, as the race between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff inched toward a Jan. 5 runoff.
After days of counting, Perdue had 49.8 percent of the vote to Ossoff's 47.8 percent on Friday morning, according to The Associated Press. Libertarian Party candidate Shane Hazel had about 2 percent. Georgia requires candidates to clear a 50 percent threshold to win, or the top two finishers go to a runoff.
Georgia was already facing a runoff for its other Senate seat and the addition of Perdue’s race would all but ensure an expensive two-month addendum to the exhausting and unpredictable ordeal that has been the 2020 election. On Thursday, for example, an anti-abortion group announced it would spend $4 million to back Perdue and GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who is battling Democrat Raphael Warnock in a special election runoff. Both parties are expected to throw all their resources into Georgia, and the Perdue and Ossoff campaigns were making blustery predictions.
Ossoff stood before a crowd of supporters at an outside event in Atlanta on Friday morning and announced that there would be a runoff. He invoked civil rights icon and longtime Rep. John Lewis, who died this year, and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams, who has become a voting rights advocate after her narrow 2018 loss to Republican Brian Kemp.
Ossoff said his campaign was built on their struggles to ensure all people had the right to vote.
"So we could have moments like this one where Georgians in their millions have said enough. Enough incompetence, deceit, corruption, division. Change has come to Georgia. Change is coming to America. And retirement is coming to Sen. David Perdue," he said.
Perdue's campaign manager, Ben Fry, said in a statement Thursday that when all votes cast are all counted, the incumbent would have "substantially more votes" than Ossoff.
"There is one thing we know for sure: Senator David Perdue will be re-elected to the U.S. Senate and Republicans will defend the majority,” Fry said.
If Joe Biden’s ticket wins, Democrats need a net gain of three seats to control the Senate. Currently, races called by AP have the parties deadlocked at 48 Senate seats each, with Republicans leading in uncalled races in North Carolina and Alaska. If those leads hold, Democrats would need both Georgia seats and Kamala Harris as their vice president breaking ties to control the chamber.
The ballot counting in Georgia stretched through a week of uncertainty about the country’s direction over the coming four years and the message voters intended to send about the Trump administration.
Perdue had hovered over the 50 percent threshold after polls were closed Tuesday night, causing a cascade of jubilant tweets from Republicans watching the race that it was all but over. But voters awoke Wednesday to news that the count had been delayed by a burst leak at a ballot-counting facility in left-leaning Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, and the needle began to swing slowly in Ossoff and Biden’s direction.
Republicans traditionally hold an advantage in runoff elections in Georgia, when turnout is typically low. But party strategists from both sides said that it was impossible to predict whether that trend would hold.
Georgia has long been considered a Republican stronghold, but dramatic demographic shifts combined with years of Democrats’ work to engage voters made races up and down the ballot competitive this cycle.
Polls in the lead-up to the election showed Warnock, a pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, with a slight lead over Loeffler in a hypothetical run-off. In the crowded special election field on Tuesday, Warnock led Loeffler 33 percent to 26 percent when the AP called that race shortly after polls closed.
Ossoff, a former congressional aide who owns a documentary film production company, has been hitting Perdue for a series of stock trades in the early days of the pandemic, attempting to portray the incumbent as corrupt. Perdue, a former CEO at Reebok and Dollar General, has countered that Ossoff can’t match his experience in brokering bipartisan deals.
Ossoff's campaign said Friday it planned to focus on the importance of protecting health care coverage for people with preexisting conditions and getting support to families and small businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic. They argue their case would be strengthened by voters' frustration with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"The argument that leaving McConnell and Republicans in charge of the
Senate to create more indecision and failure to act for the American people is not a winning argument," Foster said.
Ossoff is a veteran of another Georgia runoff that captured national attention as Democrats sought to wrest an Atlanta-area House seat from the GOP in the early days of the Trump administration. Ossoff spent more than $30 million on that 2017 special election in the 6th District, and outside groups from both sides threw in tens of millions more, making it the most expensive House race ever.
Ossoff lost, but his Republican opponent, former Secretary of State Karen Handel, served only one year before she was defeated in the 2018 blue wave. Handel ran for the seat again and lost on Tuesday.