Control of the Senate hung in the balance on Friday in Georgia after Senator David Perdue, a Republican, fell just short of the majority of votes he needed to win re-election, setting the stage for a second January runoff in the rapidly changing state.
With the Senate narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats, the twin rematches scheduled for just two weeks before Inauguration Day will almost certainly determine which party comes away with the power to shape the fate of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s agenda if he prevails to win the White House, as expected.
Facing such extraordinarily high stakes, both parties were quickly positioning themselves for a nine-week, year-end sprint that could cost another $100 million and amount to a referendum on the outcome of the presidential election. The runoffs promised to thrust a quickly evolving Georgia into the center of the nation’s political fray and test the extent of Democrats’ emerging strength in what was once a Republican stronghold in the Deep South.
Georgia’s special Senate election has been destined for a runoff since Tuesday, when the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, emerged as the top two vote getters in a crowded field vying to replace the retired senator Johnny Isakson.
But Republicans had hoped they could stave off a second such contest in Mr. Perdue’s case. By the time his race was called Friday night after a protracted count, though, Mr. Perdue had a razor-thin lead over Jon Ossoff, his Democratic challenger, and neither candidate claimed the majority of votes required under Georgia law to avoid a rematch.
Two other Senate races, in North Carolina and in Alaska, had not yet been called on Friday night. But Republicans were leading in both and expected to win, which would put them at 50 seats to the Democrats’ 48.
If Democrats took both of Georgia’s seats, they would draw the Senate to a 50-50 tie, effectively taking control of the chamber if Mr. Biden won the presidency, given the vice president’s power to cast tiebreaking votes. But that was a tall order in a state with deep conservative roots, and Republicans felt reasonably confident they could hang onto at least one of the seats needed to deny Democrats the majority, especially if January turnout slumps.
For Democrats, who have struggled in the past to turn out voters in runoffs, it will be a bank-shot attempt to harness total control of Washington after a spate of otherwise disappointing congressional elections. They were already so preoccupied with the task that in Washington, Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Democratic lawmakers in a private call on Thursday to mind their messaging in the weeks ahead or risk alienating swing voters in Georgia.
Should Mr. Biden win, as appeared increasingly likely on Friday, Republicans will be motivated to deny him the majority, holding onto considerable power to shape at least the first two years of his term and thwarting liberal ambitions. A super PAC associated with Susan B. Anthony List, the anti-abortion group, already pledged on Thursday to spend $4 million for Mr. Perdue and Ms. Loeffler.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, the runoffs were a clear sign of Democrats’ growing power in Georgia. After years of predictions, the mobilization of Black voters and movement toward Democrats by educated white women in Atlanta’s suburbs signaled that Georgia’s status as a true battleground state might have finally arrived.
“Change has come to Georgia,” Mr. Ossoff predicated at a rally on Friday, “and Georgia is a part of the change coming to America.”
Mr. Perdue’s campaign made clear immediately that he would seek to nationalize the race, saying that a vote for Mr. Ossoff would be “a vote to hand power to Chuck Schumer and the radical Democrats in Washington.” Republicans were ready to try to harness the grievance among President Trump’s most ardent supporters, hoping that the president’s baseless claims of fraud and a backlash to his likely loss could power them to a win in January.
With Mr. Trump defying the election results, it was hard to predict how involved he might be in the Senate races. But early Friday morning, he insinuated in a tweet that Democrats were still trying to claim power through nefarious means so they could reverse Republican policies.
“Would End the Filibuster, ‘Life’, 2A, and would Pack and Rotate the Court. Presidency becomes even more important,” he wrote. “We will win!”
Ms. Loeffler, for one, rushed to court the president, repeatedly tweeting support for him and donating to his cause.
“Praying for four more years of @realDonaldTrump!” she wrote in one tweet.
For all of the national overtones, the races could also be a defining moment for Georgia, a battle between the New South represented by Atlanta and its increasingly diverse suburbs and the Old South dominated by rural and business conservatives.
Mr. Perdue, 70, a former chief executive of Reebok and Dollar General who beat his Democratic opponent by eight points in 2014, was initially expected to have an easy road to re-election.
But he was weighed down by voters’ displeasure with Mr. Trump’s coronavirus response — and by his own missteps. He faced accusations of anti-Semitism after running a Facebook advertisement that enlarged the nose of Mr. Ossoff, who is Jewish, a move his campaign blamed on a vendor. He struggled to keep up with Mr. Ossoff’s prodigious fund-raising, which exploded in mid-October after Mr. Perdue publicly mocked the first name of Senator Kamala Harris, his colleague in the Senate for nearly four years and the Democrats’ nominee for vice president.
“Kah-MAH-lah or KAH-mah-lah or Kamamboamamla — I don’t know,” he said at a rally for Mr. Trump in Macon, Ga. Mr. Perdue’s campaign said he had “simply mispronounced” the first name of Ms. Harris, a Black woman of Indian and Jamaican descent. Mr. Ossoff called it bullying and suggested it was racially insensitive.
As in his 2014 race, Mr. Perdue ran as a Washington outsider, campaigning in a denim jacket rather than the expensive tailored suits he wears in the Senate. The case was harder to make this time given his six-year record there. But he tied his campaign closely to another onetime outsider, Mr. Trump, and pushed ahead.
Mr. Perdue pounded Mr. Ossoff as too extreme for the state, distorting many of the Democrat’s positions on policing, health care and a range of other issues to try to scare moderate voters to his side. He praised Republicans’ tax and regulatory cuts, as well as the popular programs Congress approved to help unemployed Americans and small businesses weather the pandemic.
In a good sign for Republicans approaching the runoff, Mr. Perdue outperformed Mr. Trump in Tuesday’s voting, and Mr. Ossoff trailed Mr. Biden.
Mr. Ossoff, 33, tried to portray Mr. Perdue as a flunky for special interests who failed Georgia in a time of crisis and was putting people’s health care at risk by pressing to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Citing reports that Mr. Perdue was trading stocks early in the pandemic, Mr. Ossoff accused the senator of having been more interested in his own financial success than that of Georgians.
“Retirement is coming for Senator David Perdue,” Mr. Ossoff said on Friday. “A senator who saw fit to continue to attack our health care in the midst of a pandemic. A senator who told us that this disease that has taken a quarter of a million lives was no deadlier than the ordinary flu while he looked out for himself.”
The special election has followed a similar course thematically, but pits two very different candidates against each other. Dr. Warnock, 51, who emerged as the front-runner after Tuesday’s voting, is the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once led.
Ms. Loeffler, 49, is a businesswoman and the richest member of the Senate. She overcame a stiff challenge from Representative Doug Collins, a fellow Republican. She poured more than $20 million of her own fortune into the race and had the backing of the state’s Republican governor and Senate Republicans’ campaign apparatus, who believed Ms. Loeffler’s record as a businesswoman could win back independent suburban voters, particularly women.
But the fight to edge out Mr. Collins turned bitter and personal, driving Ms. Loeffler to the hard right. She courted the support of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon conspiracy theorist who won a House seat on Tuesday in Georgia, and took other positions that could be hard to walk back in January even as she tries to reorient the campaign around her success as a businesswoman and record in Washington dealing with the coronavirus crisis.
On Thursday, she had already begun attacking Dr. Warnock, giving a glimpse of a playbook that will try to mine his messaging from years on the pulpit and liberal policy positions to portray him as a pastor in the mold of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the former pastor of former President Barack Obama, whose “God damn America” sermon was used to attack the former president.
But Republicans are getting a late start. Consumed for much of the year with holding off Mr. Collins, Ms. Loeffler left Dr. Warnock largely untouched as he introduced himself to voters on purely positive terms as a pastor and healer.
Anticipating a barrage, Dr. Warnock used his first advertisement of the runoff, a spoof of a campaign-style attack ad released on Thursday, to try to prime voters for what was ahead.
“Get ready, Georgia, the negative ads are coming,” he says. “Kelly Loeffler doesn’t want to talk about why she’s for getting rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic, so she’s going to try and scare you with lies about me.”