WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Joe Biden's hopes of enacting major Democratic priorities like expanding healthcare access, fighting climate change and providing more coronavirus aid are going to hang on a pair of U.S. Senate races in Georgia in January.
Democrats fell short of their goal of taking a Senate majority and actually lost seats in the House of Representatives, making Republicans well positioned to block major Biden legislative initiatives.
That leaves Biden's party with the daunting task of trying to unseat two incumbent Republican senators in the traditionally Republican-leaning state, where Biden himself holds just a narrow lead over President Donald Trump as vote-counting continues.
"We take Georgia, then we change the world," Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer declared in New York on Saturday. Georgia's Republican Governor Brian Kemp also heralded the high-stakes January voting, calling on Republicans to unite and saying "the fight is far from over."
Republicans appear poised to hold at least 50 of the Senate's 100 seats next year, presuming that leads in North Carolina and Alaska hold. That makes winning the two Georgia runoffs pivotal in getting control of the Senate for Democrats. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be able to cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
Georgia Republican Senator David Perdue, who is seeking a second term, received 49.8 % of the vote, compared to Democrat Jon Ossoff, who got 47.9%.
In the other contest, Black Democrat Reverend Raphael Warnock got 32.9% to Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler's 25.9%. A third Republican, Representative Doug Collins, failed to make the runoff after coming in third with 20%.
DEMOCRATS HAVE A CHANCE
Georgia has not elected a Democratic senator for two decades, but changing demographics and the gradually improving Democratic performances in recent contests suggest the party has a chance at winning the Jan. 5 runoffs, political scientists say.
But those odds will largely depend on keeping voters engaged, said Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University.
"Whichever party has the better turnout operation is the one that wins," Gillespie said.
Voter mobilization efforts have boosted Democrats' fortunes, she said. Registration campaigns, like the one led by Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the governor's race in 2018, helped register thousands. But it remains to be seen if Georgia voters will come out in January as they did for November's election, which featured the presidential ticket.
Both Perdue and Loeffler are Trump allies. But Loeffler ran strongly to the right this year to defeat fellow Republican Collins.
She accepted an endorsement from Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican congresswoman-elect who has promoted the baseless pro-Trump conspiracy theory QAnon. Loeffler has posted photos with herself on Twitter with members of a private militia group, and has called the Black Lives Matter movement, which protests police violence and racial injustice, a “Marxist” group.
Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University, asked whether Loeffler's actions might now work against her in the runoff with Warnock -- and in turn pull Perdue down since both Republicans will be on the ballot at the same time.
"Will she get a boost on some level from Perdue also running? ... Or is it possible that now that there is more attention given to her and given to some of the positions that she took, that (could) honestly harm both of the Republican candidates?" Steigerwalt said.
"Democratic voters in particular in the exit polls mentioned that one of the main things that caused them to turn out was racial justice," Steigerwalt said.
BIDEN GOALS AT STAKE
Biden's cabinet picks and policy proposals would face choppy water if Republicans maintain a Senate majority. He pledged to strengthen and build on the Obamacare healthcare program. He also campaigned on a multi-trillion-dollar plan to curb carbon emissions and create jobs, and said he favored raising taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals.
Those goals would face stiff opposition with Republicans in charge of the Senate. There would likely be hard bargaining over any additional coronavirus aid, which a number of Republicans oppose.
On the other hand Biden, a former senator who campaigned as a centrist, has known the leader of the Senate Republicans, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for years. They have struck deals together before, including an agreement to allow tax rates to rise on the wealthy late in 2012, when Biden was vice president. Last week, McConnell referred to Biden as an "old friend."
"Look for him to drive long-standing priorities of his like infrastructure, where he could perhaps find support from a moderate Republican or two," said Scott Mulhauser, a Democratic strategist who worked for Biden in the 2012 presidential election.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone and Aurora Ellis)
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