Counting underway in high-stakes U.S. Senate elections that will shape path of Biden's presidency

Georgia officials began counting the final votes of the nation's turbulent 2020 election season on Tuesday night as polls closed in two critical races that will determine control of the U.S. Senate and, in turn, the fate of U.S. president-elect Joe Biden's legislative agenda.

Outcome of 2 Georgia run-off races will determine balance of power in Senate

A voter casts a ballot in Georgia's Senate run-off election on Tuesday, in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press)

Georgia officials began counting the final votes of the nation's turbulent 2020 election season on Tuesday night as polls closed in two critical races that will determine control of the U.S. Senate and, in turn, the fate of U.S. president-elect Joe Biden's legislative agenda.

The two Senate run-off elections are leftovers from the November general election, when none of the candidates hit the 50 per cent threshold. Democrats need to win both races to seize the Senate majority — and, with it, control of the new Congress when Biden takes office in two weeks.

Experts have warned that final results may not be known for days since counties have to count large numbers of mail-in ballots. During November's presidential race, Biden did not take the lead over incumbent Donald Trump in Georgia until days after the polls closed.

Absentee ballots must be received by the close of polls to be counted. Military and overseas ballots postmarked by Tuesday and received by Friday will be counted, and absentee voters also have until Friday to fix any problems so their votes can be part of the final tally.

As of late Tuesday night, the close races could not be called.

More than three million Georgians voted before Tuesday. That's more than 60 per cent of the nearly five million who voted in November's presidential election. 

Republicans David Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, on the left, and Democratic U.S. Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, on the right, are running in Georgia's two run-off elections on Tuesday. (Staff/Reuters)

2 run-offs

In one contest, Republican Kelly Loeffler, a 50-year-old former businesswoman who was appointed to the Senate less than a year ago by the state's governor, faced Democrat Raphael Warnock, 51, who serves as the senior pastor of the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and preached.

The other election pitted 71-year-old former business executive David Perdue, a Republican who held his Senate seat until his term expired on Sunday, against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former congressional aide and journalist. At just 33 years old, Ossoff would be the Senate's youngest member.

The unusual importance for the run-offs has transformed Georgia, once a solidly Republican state, into one of the nation's premier battlegrounds during the final days of Trump's presidency.

Biden and Trump campaigned for their candidates in person on the eve of the election, though some Republicans feared Trump may have confused voters by continuing to make wild claims of voter fraud as he tries to undermine Biden's victory.

The president has assailed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, repeatedly for rejecting his fraud contentions and raised the prospect that some ballots might not be counted even as votes were being cast Tuesday afternoon.

No significant polling issues

The Democrats secured a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, along with the White House, during November's general election.

Georgia's January elections have been unique for many reasons — not least because the contenders essentially ran as teams, even campaigning together sometimes.

State officials said there were no major problems with voting on Tuesday.

Gabriel Sterling, a top official with the Georgia secretary of state's office, said voting was smooth across the state with minimal wait times, though lines of around an hour built up in Republican-leaning Houston, Cherokee, Paulding and Forsyth counties.

Wins no guarantee for Biden agenda

Even a closely divided Democratic Senate wouldn't guarantee Biden everything he wants given chamber rules that require 60 votes to move most major legislation.

But if Democrats lose even one of Tuesday's contests, Biden would have little shot for swift up-or-down votes on his most ambitious plans to expand government-backed health-care coverage, strengthen the middle class, address racial inequality and combat climate change.

A Republican-controlled Senate also would create a rougher path for Biden's cabinet picks and judicial nominees.

Democratic candidate Warnock appears at a small rally with young campaign volunteers on Tuesday in Marietta, Ga., as Georgia voters cast ballots in U.S. Senate run-off elections. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

While they have no merit, Trump's claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election have resonated with Republican voters in Georgia. About seven in 10 agree with his false assertion that Biden was not the legitimately elected president, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,600 voters in the runoff elections.

Election officials across the country, including the Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, as well as Trump's former attorney general, William Barr, have confirmed that there was no widespread fraud in the November election. Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, where three Trump-nominated justices preside.

If Republicans win either seat, Biden would be the first incoming president in more than a century to enter the Oval Office facing a divided Congress. 

This week's elections mark the formal finale to the heated 2020 election season more than two months after the rest of the nation finished voting. The results also will help demonstrate whether the political coalition that fuelled Biden's victory was an anti-Trump anomaly or part of a new landscape.

Biden won Georgia's 16 electoral votes by about 12,000 votes out of five million cast in November.

Supporters of Republicans Loeffler and Perdue hold signs ahead of Georgia's run-off elections. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle/The Associated Press)