With U.S. Senate control at stake, Georgians vote in pivotal runoff elections

ATLANTA (Reuters) -Voters streamed to polling sites in Georgia on Tuesday in a pair of runoff elections to determine control of the U.S. Senate, a showdown crucial to the success of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda.

Republican senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler faced Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker, and the Reverend Raphael Warnock, a pastor at a Black church in Atlanta in a state Biden narrowly carried against President Donald Trump, a Republican, in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Democrats must win both Georgia races to seize Senate control from the Republicans. Failure to do so would make it much more difficult for Biden to enact new legislation in a bitterly divided Congress. Results are expected to be known by Wednesday morning.

No Democrat has won a Senate race in Georgia in two decades. Opinion surveys show both races as exceedingly close. The runoff elections, a quirk of state law, became necessary when no candidate in either senatorial race exceeded 50% of the vote in November.

Voters endured long lines at some polling sites and had no lines at others.

In Atlanta, Jonathan Temple, 57, said he backed the two Republicans.

“If we lose, we’ll get higher taxes for sure – you can bet on it,” Temple said. “We’ll have a runaway liberal agenda, runaway spending. That’s not good for America.”

Voting in Cobb County outside Atlanta, Roshard Tamplin, 42, said he supported the two Democrats, citing civil rights and voting rights as important issues.

“They’re trying to make it harder to vote, especially for Black people,” Tamplin, who is Black, said of Republicans.

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The final days of the tense contests, which set records for campaign spending and early turnout in Georgia, were dominated by Trump’s continued efforts to subvert the presidential election results.

On Saturday, Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, to “find” enough votes to reverse Biden’s victory, again 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.

Biden, due to take office on Jan. 20, was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in Georgia since 1992.

Trump and Biden campaigned in Georgia on Monday. It remains to be seen whether Trump’s claims about election fraud will dissuade Republicans from voting in Georgia, as some in the party have feared.

A double Democratic victory would split the Senate 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote giving Democrats control. Each of the 50 states is represented by two senators in the 100-seat chamber.

Democrats control the House of Representatives, with the number of seats allotted to states determined by their population. Democratic control of both chambers could boost Biden’s legislative agenda in areas such as economic relief amid the coronavirus pandemic, climate change policy, healthcare and policing reform.

Voting in Marietta, voter LaVonte Jackson, 42, supported the Democrats, saying, “Kamala and Biden have a lot of work to do, especially after four years of Trump. I don’t know if there’s been a more important vote.”

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Scott Sweeney, 63, backed Perdue and Loeffler to block the Democrats from capturing the Senate.

“I believe the two of them are consistent with my values,” Sweeney said in Cobb County. “Taxes for one, and traditional values.”

Wall Street’s main indexes rose after a weak start on Tuesday as investors awaited the outcome in Georgia.

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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.

Raffensperger told Fox News the election results will likely be known on Wednesday morning. Raffensperger said Trump’s false claims on voter fraud hurt voter confidence in the runoffs, adding, “I can assure you that it will be a fair and honest election, that it’ll be safe and it’ll be dependable.”

Polls are open until 7 p.m. EST (2400 GMT). Some 3 million ballots were cast in early in-person and mail-in voting, mirroring a pandemic-related trend seen in November.

Democrats were encouraged by the early vote, including strong numbers from Black voters, seen as crucial to their chances. Republicans have historically turned out in higher numbers on Election Day.

Speaking to reporters in Atlanta, Ossoff said Georgians want equal justice, economic relief, help fighting the pandemic and an end to Washington’s gridlock.

“That’s the kind of change that Georgia voters have been turning out in record numbers to demand,” Ossoff said.

Perdue and Loeffler have supported Trump’s unfounded fraud claims while arguing they represent the last barrier to unrestrained liberalism in Washington.

“We’ll look back on this day if we don’t vote and really rue the day that we turn the keys to the kingdom over to the Democrats,” Perdue, whose current term technically ended on Sunday, told Fox News on Tuesday.

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