Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, was fighting for his political life on Friday in a contest that could determine which party controls the Senate, as his re-election bid headed to a January runoff against Jon Ossoff, his Democratic challenger.
Mr. Perdue had a razor-thin lead over Mr. Ossoff in a contest that demonstrated Democrats’ emerging strength in what was once a Republican stronghold in the Deep South. Neither candidate claimed a majority of votes amid a protracted count, according to The Associated Press.
The inconclusive result set up a dramatic rematch between Mr. Perdue and Mr. Ossoff on Jan. 5, and thrust Georgia into the center of the nation’s political fray as Joseph R. Biden Jr. appeared on track to win the White House. The state had already been slated to decide the fate of its second Senate seat in a special-election runoff between the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, the same day. That makes it nearly certain that the twin Georgia races will determine which party controls the chamber just two weeks before the next presidential inauguration.
“Change has come to Georgia,” Mr. Ossoff said at a rally on Friday, “and Georgia is a part of the change coming to America.”
If Mr. Biden wins the White House, and Democrats take both of Georgia’s seats, they would draw the Senate to a 50-50 tie, effectively taking control of the chamber given the vice president’s power to cast tiebreaking votes. But that is 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.
Two other Senate races, in North Carolina and in Alaska, had not yet been called. But Republicans were leading in both and expected to win, putting them at 50 seats to the Democrats’ 48.
Both parties were already busy on Friday readying for the nine-week sprint, and they were expected to deluge the state with tens of millions of dollars more in advertising to try to turn out their voters. For Democrats, it will be a bank-shot attempt to harness total control of Washington after a spate of otherwise disappointing congressional elections. Should Mr. Biden win, 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.
Regardless of what happens, the runoffs were a clear sign of Democrats’ growing power in a once solidly conservative state. 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 finally have arrived.
Mr. Perdue, a first-term Republican, had come tantalizingly close to winning outright and avoiding a runoff altogether. He led after election night, but as Democratic counties around Atlanta and Savannah continued to count and report ballots on Friday, he had dipped just below the 50 percent threshold needed to win under Georgia law.
Mr. Perdue’s campaign made clear immediately that he would seek to nationalize the race, saying a vote for Mr. Ossoff was “a vote to hand power to Chuck Schumer and the radical Democrats in Washington.”
“We are excited for overtime — it gives us even more time to continue exposing Jon Ossoff and his radical socialist agenda,” Ben Fry, his campaign manager, said, adding a dig at Mr. Ossoff, who lost a high-profile special election for a House seat in 2017. “Jon Ossoff does two things well: burn through out-of-state liberal money and lose elections.”
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 President 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. 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 campaign, 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.”
Mindful of the power of the state’s sizable Black electorate, Mr. Ossoff tied himself closely to Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon and longtime Atlanta congressman who died this year. Mostly, though, he sought to capitalize on a wave of antipathy toward Mr. Trump in a state where the coronavirus has taken a deadly toll.
The state’s other looming runoff is a special election to fill the seat vacated by retired Republican Johnny Isakson and could more of a wild card. Dr. Warnock, 51, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once led, emerged as the front-runner after Tuesday’s voting, but there were more than a dozen candidates on the ballot.
He has run as a progressive, vowing to expand the Affordable Care Act and push for sweeping changes to policing and the criminal justice system to root out anti-Black bias.
Ms. Loeffler, 49, 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 language 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 of attacks on the horizon, 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 coming.
“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.”