The Rev. Raphael Warnock won the Georgia U.S. Senate runoff, flipping a Republican seat and bringing Democrats one step closer to unified control of Congress and the White House, according to NBC News projections.
In the other Senate runoff election, Democrat Jon Ossoff was leading Republican Sen. David Perdue with 98% of the expected vote counted, but NBC said the race was too close.
Warnock's projected victory over Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler would make the Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor the first African American senator elected in Georgia and the first Black Democrat from the South. Two Black Republicans from Mississippi served in the Senate during Reconstruction.
He will be one of three Black senators in the new session of Congress and the 11th in history.
"I come before you tonight as a man who knows that the improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America could only happen here," Warnock said early Wednesday. "I promise you this tonight: I am going to the Senate to work for all of Georgia, no matter who you cast your vote for in this election."
Loeffler, a former business executive who was appointed to temporarily fill the Senate seat, did not concede on Wednesday, saying: "We are going to win this election."
With Warnock's projected win, the Democratic caucus has 49 members in the upper chamber, while Senate Republicans hold 50 seats. If Ossoff wins, the Senate will be evenly split, giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote. Democratic control of Congress would give President-elect Joe Biden more leeway to enact his legislative priorities.
"America is experiencing one of the greatest crises we have ever faced, and the Senate Democratic Majority is committed to delivering the bold change and help Americans need and demand. Senate Democrats know America is hurting -- help is on the way," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement Wednesday. If Ossoff is elected, Schumer would be the Senate majority leader after Harris takes office as vice president.
Warnock, 51, and Loeffler, 50, emerged as the top two finishers from a crowded special election in November. The seat opened up after former Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson retired. Under Georgia election rules, both Senate seats moved to runoffs because none of the candidates received more than 50% of the vote in November.
The special election between Loeffler and Warnock was the second most expensive Senate race ever, just behind this year's contest between Perdue and Ossoff, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Loeffler and Warnock's race has drawn nearly $363 million as of Monday.
On the campaign trail, Warnock frequently highlighted his life journey, from growing up in Savannah's public housing to preaching on the storied Atlanta pulpit where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once sermonized.
Loeffler repeatedly branded her opponent as "radical liberal Raphael Warnock," tying him to what she believes to be a socialist agenda including "Medicare for All," the Green New Deal and defunding the police. Warnock himself does not support those policies, though he has advocated for Medicaid expansion, green energy investment and criminal justice reform.
"He is someone who would fundamentally change this country," Loeffler said Sunday on Fox News. "His values are out of step with Georgia."
Loeffler's campaign used sound bites from Warnock's past sermons to accuse him of being anti-gun, anti-military, anti-police and anti-Israel. The Warnock campaign said those clips have been taken out of context and do not reflect his stances.
A coalition of Black pastors in Georgia wrote an open letter in late December to Loeffler asking her to stop characterizing Warnock as "radical" or "socialist."
"We see your attacks against Warnock as a broader attack against the Black Church and faith traditions for which we stand," the pastors said.
Loeffler tried to link Warnock to a visit from Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro in 1995 at a church where he had been a youth pastor. Warnock said he had never met Castro and PolitiFact found no evidence he was involved with decisions made regarding the appearance.
Warnock bashed Loeffler for taking a photo at a campaign event with White supremacist Chester Doles, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and member of the neo-Nazi National Alliance.
"Kelly had no idea who that was, and if she had she would have kicked him out immediately because we condemn in the most vociferous terms everything that he stands for," Loeffler's spokesman Stephen Lawson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
GOP Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler in part to appeal to more moderate suburban women who have been shifting away from the GOP in response to Donald Trump's presidency. While Loeffler once supported Sen. Mitt Romney, she has allied herself strongly with Trump since becoming a senator, including supporting his baseless claims of widespread election fraud.
Loeffler has refused to acknowledge Biden's victory or that the president-elect won Georgia's electoral votes. She announced Monday evening that she would oppose the certification of the Electoral College results on Wednesday, a maneuver that is expected to fail. The move came after Trump appeared to threaten Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger during a weekend phone call and pressured the election official to find popular votes that would tilt the count in his favor and overturn election results.
"Senator Loeffler has a responsibility to speak out against the unsubstantiated claims of fraud, to defend Georgia's election, and to put Georgia ahead of herself. She has not and never will," Warnock said Sunday.
Warnock repeatedly accused Loeffler, one of the richest members of Congress, of insider trading, saying that she used private knowledge given to her as a senator about the coronavirus pandemic to make advantageous stock trades early in 2020.
"She dumped millions of dollars of stock, played it down, and then when she could help ordinary people, she didn't do it. And the people of Georgia haven't seen relief for months," Warnock said at a Dec. 6 debate against Loeffler.
Loeffler and her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange and chairman and CEO of its holding company Intercontinental Exchange, came under scrutiny in March for trades involving sales of up to $3 million worth of securities. Those sales came just before stock market indexes dramatically fell in value in reaction to the spread of Covid in the U.S.
The senator's investment activities prompted Justice Department inquiries, but prosecutors declined to bring charges. Loeffler has repeatedly denied accusations of illegal or improper stock trading.
Loeffler touted the CARES Act and passage of the recent $900 billion Covid relief bill as proof that she brought much-needed aid to struggling Georgians during the pandemic. Democrats, she said, stalled efforts to pass a relief package earlier.
When Trump pushed for larger $2,000 stimulus checks, Warnock seized the opportunity to criticize Loeffler for opposing a larger direct payment earlier in the Covid relief negotiations. Loeffler later broke with many Senate Republicans to support the president's push for $2,000 direct payments to Americans.
The seat will be up for reelection in 2022 for the full six-year term.