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ATLANTA (Reuters) — Democrats on Wednesday completed a sweep of the two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs in runoff elections in the state of Georgia, giving the party control of the chamber and boosting the prospects for President-elect Joe Biden's ambitious legislative agenda.
Raphael Warnock, a Baptist preacher from Martin Luther King Jr.'s former church, beat Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler to become the first Black senator in the deep South state's history while Democrat Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker who at 33 would become the Senate's youngest member, beat Republican David Perdue.
The results would give Democrats narrow control of both chambers of Congress, making it easier to appoint liberal-leaning judges and advance legislative priorities from coronavirus relief to climate change when Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
"Georgia's voters delivered a resounding message yesterday: they want action on the crises we face and they want it right now," Biden said in a statement. He said he would work with both parties to confirm key administration officials quickly.
The Georgia result is a final repudiation of outgoing President Donald Trump, who stands to be the first U.S. president since 1932 to lose the White House and both chambers of Congress in a single term.
Trump held rallies for both Republican candidates, but overshadowed the campaign with false accusations that his own loss in the November presidential election in Georgia was tainted by fraud, repeatedly attacking Republican officials in the state. Hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday in an attempt to force Congress to undo Trump's election loss.
With 98% of the vote counted, Warnock led Loeffler by 1.5 percentage points and Ossoff led Perdue by 0.6 percentage points, according to Edison Research. Both are expected to win beyond the margin that would require a recount.
Winning both contests would hand Democrats narrow control of the Senate by creating a 50-50 split and giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote from Jan. 20. The party already has a thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Republicans would retain control of the Senate if they held on to at least one of the Georgia seats.
The campaign's final days were overshadowed by Trump's attempts to pressure Republican Georgia officials to "find" enough votes to overturn Biden's win in the state, as well as his unfounded fraud accusations. He has yet to admit defeat.
"We will never give up, we will never concede," Trump told thousands of supporters at a rally.
'Not a great way to turn out your votes'
Some Republicans blamed Trump for the loss.
"It turns out that telling the voters that the election is rigged is not a great way to turn out your voters," Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of Trump's few Republican critics in Congress, told reporters.
The election signaled a shift in the politics of Georgia and the wider deep South. At least 4.5 million voters participated, smashing earlier turnout figures for runoff races. Democrats have worked hard to increase turnout among Black voters, their most reliable supporters in the region.
It turns out that telling the voters that the election is rigged is not a great way to turn out your voters.
–Sen. Mitt Romney
More than 129,000 voters in the runoffs did not vote in November, according to state data.
Most of them were Democrats, Gabriel Sterling, a Republican state election official, told a news conference: "While Republicans were busy attacking the governor and my boss, Democrats were knocking on doors and getting out the vote."
In a video message, Warnock, whose Ebenezer Baptist Church is legendary in Georgia because of its role in the civil rights movement under King, recalled his humble upbringing as one of 12 children of a woman who worked in cotton fields.
"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," he said.
Declaring victory, Ossoff said he looked forward "to serving you in the United States Senate with integrity, with humility, with honor."
Both Republican senators, following Trump's lead, vowed to fight on. "We will mobilize every available resource and exhaust every legal recourse to ensure all legally cast ballots are counted," Perdue said in a statement.
During the campaign, Republicans had painted Ossoff and Warnock as radicals who would pursue a hard-left agenda. That message failed to resonate with many white suburbanites who have increasingly abandoned the Republican party under Trump.
Trump pressed Vice President Mike Pence to throw out election results in states he narrowly lost when he presides over the counting of electoral votes to certify Biden's victory. Pence has no authority to do so. The joint session of Congress was disrupted by Trump supporters and it is unclear when it will be completed.
Some Republican lawmakers have said they will try to reject some state tallies, which could drag out the certification process but stands no chance of succeeding.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Andy Sullivan and Steve Holland; Writing by Andy Sullivan, John Whitesides and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)