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Ossoff has small lead in Georgia races that put Democrats on the verge of Senate control

Raphael Warnock.
Raphael Warnock.Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg

ATLANTA — Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Kelly Loeffler early Wednesday in one of Georgia’s crucial Senate races as Democrat Jon Ossoff pulled ahead in the other, putting the party on the verge of Senate control.

As midnight came and went, election officials tallied the crush of ballots after voters in this swiftly changing state, riven not just by partisanship but fundamental questions about American Democracy, broke turnout records in contests with the power to shape President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda and the legacy of President Trump.

The races, in which Republicans Loeffler and David Perdue tried to hold off challenges from Warnock and Ossoff, will determine the balance of power in the Senate. If Democrats win both, they will have 50 seats and gain control by the slimmest of majorities —Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.

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With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Warnock had a lead of 1 percentage point over Loeffler while Ossoff led Perdue by about 9,500 votes. Ossoff’s campaign manager said they expected to win given the location of the outstanding votes. Perdue’s campaign vowed to exhaust all their legal options and said they would prevail.

Warnock, who will be Georgia’s first Black senator, declared victory early Wednesday. The Associated Press later called the race at 2 a.m.

“I am going to the Senate to work for all of Georgia,” said Warnock, who is senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, once the church of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 11th of 12th children, he paid honor to his Georgia roots and his parents.

“The other day,” Warnock said of his mother, “because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.”

Both Republicans were thought to have a structural advantage in a historically red state — and their under-performance could force the party to reckon with the perils of yoking itself to a defeated President Trump. The high-stakes campaigns were defined less by Biden and the Democratic agenda than by Trump’s false insistence that he won this state in the presidential race and his audacious efforts to overturn the election results here.

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After becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to lose Georgia since 1992, Trump has ceaselessly attacked the statewide officials of his own party who have stood by Biden’s 11,779-vote victory. Loeffler and Perdue decided to back the president’s claims in the hopes of securing the support of his base.

It has all given a rapidly diversifying state enormous sway over the future of the country. At a moment when Georgia is shifting away from its longtime status as a solid Republican stronghold, Democrats saw the Senate races as an opportunity to vanquish Trump and Trumpism. Republicans were worried his election-denial drama would turn off moderates and even keep his base voters at home.

“Voting is fighting back,” said Delores Perry, 63, a private caregiver from Kennesaw, who backed the Democratic candidates on Tuesday in the hopes that her party’s control of the Senate would clear the way for expanded health care.

And in the same northwest Georgia town where Trump urged his diehard fans on Monday night to show up for Loeffler and Perdue, his supporters filed into the polls — but repeated his false claims about voter fraud that have opened a major rift in the Republican Party.

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“We’ll get cheated again, I’m sure, because we got cheated the last time,” grumbled Larry Zuspan, 57, a Republican who sells technology to hospitals. Still, he said, it was worth turning out to vote for Loeffler and Perdue to prevent Democrats from having “total control over our lives.”

No candidate won a majority in the November elections for the two Senate seats, which under Georgia law forced both pairings into a runoff.

Loeffler, the incumbent Republican, defended her seat in a special election. Governor Brian Kemp appointed her last year to fill the seat of Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired for health reasons, hoping the millionaire Atlanta socialite would appeal to the suburban women with whom Republicans have struggled in the Trump era. But her embrace of Trump to hold off a primary challenge may have eroded any advantage.

She faced Warnock, a progressive pastor will make history as the first Black Democratic senator from the South. He has borne the brunt of the attacks in the campaign, and Republicans’ ceaseless characterization of him as “un-American” have been criticized by many Democrats as racist.

Ossoff, a 33-year-old who became the head of a documentary film company, would be the youngest senator in decades. His opponent, Perdue, is a millionaire former business executive.

The Democrats and Republicans have essentially run as a team. On the campaign trail, Ossoff and Warnock have made a policy-focused argument about the expansion of health care, voting rights, and civil rights that Democrats could achieve with control of the Senate. They have cast Perdue and Loeffler as out-of-touch elites and played up the scrutiny on some of their stock trades.

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Loeffler and Perdue have made an argument about raw political power, casting themselves as a “firewall” against “socialism” and essentially urging their supporters to empower them to obstruct Biden.

Democrats have historically underperformed in Georgia runoff elections, but they went into Tuesday with a considerable advantage. Three million people had already voted early, and turnout was especially high in Democratic strongholds like DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton counties, in or near Atlanta. Black voters, who were a key driver of Biden’s November victory here, had also turned out at high rates.

Republicans needed a strong turnout on Election Day to make up the difference, and they hoped Trump’s visit Monday would boost particularly weak turnout levels in conservative northwest Georgia.

Conversations with dozens of voters between the conservative mountain territory of Dalton and deep blue Atlanta did make one thing clear: The runoff election, and Trump’s grievance-stoking role, has hardened this state’s political divisions by leaving his own followers deeply committed to the fantasy that he defeated Biden. For them, Trump’s war over election integrity loomed much larger than Loeffler or Perdue.

“I believe that there are instances of voter fraud, I believe he just can’t prove them,” said Amy Grammer, 46, a certified financial planner from Dalton. “Our system is corrupt.”

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She was resigned to the idea of Biden becoming president, though and wanted to vote Loeffler and Perdue into office as a check on his power. Susan Head, 57, said she voted for the Republicans in person on Tuesday because she no longer trusted early voting after Trump’s claims of fraud.

”They’re really high today,” she said of the stakes, “but the last one was important too.”

Yet in Dalton, where a quarter of the population is foreign born, there were signs of the growing diversity that has helped put the whole state in play.

Irma Debora, 61, voted for Ossoff and Warnock in the hopes that full Democratic control in Washington will lead to immigration reform. She came to the United States from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant and has since gotten citizenship; her brother, however, was deported.

“I feel like a change up of everything,” she said.

Oscar Lopez, 23, said he had urged his friends to vote and made sure they registered. He said he had faced “more open racism” during the Trump presidency.

“Turning Georgia blue is something we really need,” he said.

Back in Atlanta, Kennetta Young, 43, had already voted for the Democrats, hoping they would expand health care and help her autistic daughter. She said a victory for Ossoff and Warnock would be an enormous testament to the power of Black voters, like herself.

“We can change a lot if we get out,” Young said, “like we’re supposed to.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated one of the candidates Irma Debora voted for. She voted for Ossoff and Warnock.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.