Steve Peoples, Bill Barrow and Russ Bynum
ATLANTA — 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 President-elect Joe Biden's legislative agenda.
The two Senate runoff elections are leftovers from the November general election, when none of the candidates hit the 50 percent 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.
Voting hours were extended less than an hour in a handful of precincts following a judge's order. While voting was strong in some spots, state election officials reported light turnout early in the day, including across the deeply conservative region where President Donald Trump held a rally Monday night to encourage GOP voters to turn out in force.
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 runoffs 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 assailed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, repeatedly this week for rejecting his fraud contentions and raised the prospect on Twitter that some ballots might not be counted even as votes were being cast Tuesday afternoon.
There was no evidence of wrongdoing.
In Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood, 37-year-old Kari Callaghan said she voted "all Democrat" on Tuesday, an experience that was new for her.
"I've always been Republican, but I've been pretty disgusted by Trump and just the way the Republicans are working and especially the news this weekend about everything happening in Georgia," she said. "I feel like for the Republican candidates to still stand there with Trump and campaign with Trump feels pretty rotten. This isn't the conservative values that I grew up with."
But 56-year-old Will James said he voted "straight GOP."
He said he was concerned by the Republican candidates' recent support of Trump's challenges of the presidential election results in Georgia, "but it didn't really change the reasons I voted."
"I believe in balance of power, and I don't want either party to have a referendum, basically," he said.
Even before Tuesday, Georgia had shattered its turnout record for a runoff with more than 3 million votes by mail or during in-person advance voting in December. The state's previous record was 2.1 million in a 2008 Senate runoff.
The early turnout was expected to benefit Democrats, as it helped Biden in November become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992. Republicans were counting on a big turnout on Tuesday to make up for the Democrats' perceived early vote advantage.
"GEORGIA! Get out and VOTE," Trump wrote Tuesday in one of several tweets encouraging his loyalists to vote for the two Republican candidates on the ballot.
Loeffler has pledged to join a small but growing number of GOP senators protesting Congress' expected certification of Biden's victory on Wednesday. She and her allies have seized on snippets of Warnock's sermons at the historic Black church to cast him as extreme. Dozens of religious and civil rights leaders have pushed back.
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. In that case, he would have little shot for swift votes on his most ambitious plans to expand government-backed health care coverage, address racial inequality and combat climate change.
A Republican-controlled Senate also would create a rougher path to confirmation for Biden's Cabinet picks and judicial nominees.
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 fueled 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 5 million cast in November.
While they have no merit, Trump's claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election have resonated with Republican voters in Georgia. About 7 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.
Even with Trump's claims, voters in both parties were drawn to the polls because of the high stakes. AP VoteCast found that 6 in 10 Georgia voters say Senate party control was the most important factor in their vote.
Democrats counted on driving a huge turnout of African Americans, young voters, college-educated Georgians and women, all groups that helped Biden win the state. Republicans, meanwhile, have been focused on energizing their own base of white men and voters beyond the core of metro Atlanta.
In downtown Atlanta, Henry Dave Chambliss, 67, voted for the two Republicans. He said he wanted Republicans to keep Senate control to ensure the incoming Biden administration doesn't slide "all the way to the left."
"I'm moderately successful and I know they will come after more of my money, which I've earned," Chambliss said. "I was born a Southern Democrat, and I just hope and pray that some moderate voices are heard and things stay more in the middle of the road."