Republican Sen. David Perdue has been forced into a runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff after neither captured 50 percent of the vote in their Georgia Senate race, NBC News projected Friday.
The development paves the way for a dramatic Jan. 5 election that will determine control of the U.S. Senate for the start of the new Biden administration — a race for which Ossoff and Perdue are preparing and raising money.
Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler is facing Democrat Raphael Warnock for the state's other Senate seat on that same date, as neither cleared the 50 percent mark in their contest — giving Democrats a glimmer of hope that they could snare the two seats they need to claim control of the Senate and further Biden's agenda.
Ossoff said the races are critical to the country's future.
“We need this new administration to be able to successfully fight this virus, promote economic recovery, expand civil rights, pass criminal justice reform. And if Mitch McConnell controls the Senate, nothing will get done. Washington will be mired in partisan gridlock,” he told NBC News in an interview this week. “I think people want to see this president-elect succeed at a moment of crisis. And that's why these races are so important.”
Perdue's campaign acknowledged last week that they were headed to a runoff, and he has started asking for donations for Loeffler and himself on social media.
"We win these two races, we save the senate. We save the Senate, we save the country. This is what is at stake," Perdue tweeted last Saturday after NBC News projected Joe Biden had won the presidency.
The senator has raised eyebrows as well — joining Loeffler in a statement on Monday calling for Georgia's Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to resign ahead of the special election. They accused Raffensperger of unspecified “mismanagement” and a lack of transparency during the election process — accusations he denied.
The statement from the senators came shortly after another elections official said the were no indications of widespread voter fraud in the state, despite accusations to the contrary from the Trump campaign.
Raffensperger responded with a jab at Perdue, saying, “If I was Senator Perdue, I’d be irritated I was in a runoff." He added that “as a Republican, I am concerned about Republicans keeping the U.S. Senate. I recommend that senators Loeffler and Perdue start focusing on that.”
Democrats have suffered a series of setbacks in their hopes of turning the Senate blue over the past week. They flipped one seat in Colorado, but lost another in Alabama and their big-money pushes aimed at unseating Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Sen. Susan Collins in Maine fell far short.
Democrat Mark Kelly won his race against Republican Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, but Republican wins this week in North Carolina and Alaska mean Republicans control 50 seats while Democrats currently control 48.
Fifty-one seats are needed for a majority.
If the Democrats win both seats the Senate would be split 50-50 and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would have the power to cast the deciding vote. If Democrats lose one of the seats, Republicans would have the majority, giving the Perdue-Ossoff race huge importance.
Perdue had hovered just above the 50 percent mark needed to claim victory for about two days as the votes were being counted, but then he fell below that mark as more votes came in from Democratic areas.
With 98 percent of the vote more than a week after the election, Perdue was still under 50 percent, but with almost 90,000 more votes than Ossoff. That's despite a widely panned stumble during the candidates' debate in Savannah, when Ossoff called him a "crook" over allegations that the senator had profited from the coronavirus pandemic.
Ossoff's video tweet of the confrontation drew more than 12 million views in its first 36 hours online.
On stage, Purdue, 70, mustered a muted response to the attack, and he later backed out of their final debate.
Before the debate fireworks, the bitter contest was marked by allegations of racism and antisemitism.
At an Oct. 17 rally in Macon for President Donald Trump, Perdue mocked the first name of Joe Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris, a colleague in the Senate, mispronouncing it one point as "Kamala-mala-mala, I don't know."
Harris is the first woman of color to be a major party's vice presidential candidate. The California senator's father is Black, her mother is Indian and Kamala means "lotus flower" in Sanskrit.
Perdue's camp insisted the senator innocently mispronounced Harris' name.
The Biden campaign called his words "backhanded racism" and said: "Our names have meaning. We matter.”
In July, Perdue's campaign was forced take down a digital ad featuring a manipulated picture of Ossoff, who is Jewish, with an enlarged nose.
The ad featured grainy pictures of Ossoff and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, who is also Jewish, above a banner reading: “DEMOCRATS ARE TRYING TO BUY GEORGIA! HELP DAVID PERDUE FIGHT BACK.”
The Jewish American news outlet the Forward first reported that the image was manipulated and made Ossoff’s nose appear larger than in the original photo.
Perdue's campaign said the ad was an “unintentional error” by an outside vendor. Ossoff claimed it was blatant anti-semitism.
"This is the oldest, most obvious, least original anti-Semitic trope in history,” Ossoff said in a statement. “Senator, literally no one believes your excuses. You can start with an unqualified apology to Georgia’s Jewish community.”
This was the second high-profile race by Ossoff, 33, an Atlanta native.
In 2017, he narrowly lost a special election for Georgia's 6th Congressional District, a Republican-leaning seat that Democrats had high hopes of capturing. At the time, with Trump's approval rating already under water, that one House triumph buoyed GOP hopes for a better 2018 and 2020.
NBC News projected last week that Warnock and Loeffler were headed for a runoff. Warnock captured 32 percent of the vote and Loeffler 26 percent — both well below the 50 percent margin needed to win outright.
Trump stayed on the sidelines of that race despite his popularity in Georgia, since Loeffler was also running against Rep. Doug Collins, a top defender of the president's during his impeachment proceedings. Collins finished third with about 20 percent of the vote, eliminating him from contention for the runoff.
The race is Loeffler's first. She was appointed to the seat by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp as the successor to Sen. Johnny Isakson, who announced his intention to resign at the end of 2019 for health reasons.