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Georgia’s high-stakes Senate runoff races were on a knife-edge on Tuesday night as election results poured in, with potential Democratic control of the US Senate, the scope of the Biden administration and the future of the Republican party all teetering in the balance.

a person sitting at a desk: Photograph: Ben Gray/AP © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Ben Gray/AP

By midnight some 98% of the votes had been counted, bringing the enormously consequential ballot to a head much more quickly than the torturous November presidential race that took days to call.

While the final outcome was as yet unresolved, it was clear by late evening that the result would be close and that the advantage was narrowly tilting in the direction of the two Democratic contenders. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, looked to be in particularly strong position in his attempt to unseat the Republican incumbent and Trump ultra-loyalist Kelly Loeffler.

a man sitting on a table: Election workers check voting materials in Atlanta following the Senate runoff election. © Photograph: Ben Gray/AP Election workers check voting materials in Atlanta following the Senate runoff election.

Warnock had a 35,000-vote lead over his opponent, with most of the remaining votes yet to be counted located in Democratic-leaning urban areas, especially in and around Atlanta.

In the second runoff election of the night, Jon Ossoff, a former documentary film-maker, was narrowly trailing the Republican incumbent David Perdue by fewer than 2,000 votes out of more than 4m cast. But the skewing of the remaining uncounted ballots towards Democratic counties was seen by many election analysts as likely to tip the race in his favor.

Democrats need to win both races if they are to balance the chamber at 50 seats for each party. An even split would hand Kamala Harris, the vice-president-elect, the tie-breaker vote and with it the ability to shape the Senate’s legislative program.

The president-elect himself summed up the high stakes on the eve of election day at a rally in Atlanta. He told the crowd: “One state can chart the course not just for the next four years, but for the next generation.”

In counties that had declared all, or almost all, of their votes, turnout in Republican areas was notably down on the presidential race in November, while by contrast in Democratic-leaning counties the candidates markedly improved on Biden’s record.

As Dave Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report pointed out, turnout in majority African American counties was striking. “Black turnout looks, frankly, phenomenal,” he wrote on Twitter.

Related: Georgia Senate runoff elections – live results

Throughout Tuesday, polling stations across the state reported a steady stream of voters who defied a devastating surge in coronavirus infections in Georgia to vote in person. Individual Georgians went to extreme lengths to take part in what have been described as elections that could set the course of America for a generation.

According to state election officials, the number of Georgians who had cast their votes in advance of election day – either through absentee ballots or by early voting – reached 3.1 million. That, on its own, smashed the standing record set in 2008 for a Senate runoff in Georgia which attracted a total of 2.1 million voters.

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By the time the final votes are counted, election officials suggested the total is likely to reach 4.6m – more than double the 2008 record.

a group of people holding a sign: An event for Raphael Warnock on Tuesday in Marietta, Georgia. Photograph: Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian An event for Raphael Warnock on Tuesday in Marietta, Georgia. Photograph: Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images

The enormous electoral energy swirling around the runoffs was reflected in key counties where the results of both races could be won or lost. Dekalb county, which covers the eastern suburbs of Atlanta, saw turnout on Tuesday exceed even that of the presidential election day in November.

For participation in runoff elections to surpass that of a presidential race was extremely rare, and was welcomed as a positive signal by Democrats given that Biden soundly defeated Trump in Dekalb county by 83% to 16% in November. However, a similar story of large turnout was also being told in key Republican-leaning counties, such as Forsyth county and Cherokee county where long lines were witnessed outside the polling places.

Stacey Abrams, who has been seminal in building a Democratic ground game through her group Fair Fight, put out a tentatively celebratory tweet shortly before midnight, when both runoff elections remained in the balance. “With new votes joining the tally, we are on a strong path,” she said, adding: “Across our state, we roared.”

With the data leaning tentatively in the Democratic direction as the night progressed, excitement was building around the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, where Warnock is pastor and Martin Luther King Jr grew up and often preached. The 134-year-old church was firmly closed, its doors plastered with coronavirus warnings, but people outside could sense history in the making.

a man holding a sign: Reverend Raphael Warnock campaigns in Douglasville, Georgia. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA © Provided by The Guardian Reverend Raphael Warnock campaigns in Douglasville, Georgia. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Cheryl Johnson, a voting engagement activist and community historian, said: “We’re hoping, we’re hoping. We know that Georgia is in the midst of a great change. We believe that we can lead the country forward as we have always led the country in many different ways. We have a history of great leadership. We have always been change-makers.”

Warnock would be the first Black person from Georgia elected to the Senate. Johnson stood on Auburn Avenue, which she noted was once the heart of Black wealth in America. “We had millionaires from one end of the street to another. All of these churches that you see were built by African Americans who had just come out of slavery.

“So this is where we we drew our strength. This is where Dr King was brought up. People think that it’s a surprise for Atlantans but it’s not, because Atlanta has been known to birth and to develop leadership.”

Johnson, 54, has heard Warnock preach at the church. “He can break it down intellectually but when it comes to talking about the issues that impact our community, social justice issues, homelessness, healthcare issues, police reform, he comes in the tradition of the Baptist church, which is passionate, engaged. He challenges people to think about who are you? If you say that you are this, what does that mean?”

Fears of trouble or even violence outside polling stations appeared not to have materialised. Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, told CNN that “we have never seen an election is more secure and has had more integrity.”

His fellow Republican official, Gabriel Sterling, said that incidents of difficulties with voting mechanisms were passingly few. At a press conference, he said that only 0.1% of scanning machines across the state had failed to work while 0.02% of counting machines had to be replaced.

a group of people sitting at a table in a room: People watch election results come in after the polls closed at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA © Provided by The Guardian People watch election results come in after the polls closed at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Destabilising both parties herculean efforts to get their supporters to the polls on Tuesday was the mercurial influence of Donald Trump. The president continues to refuse to concede defeat in the presidential election, and has persisted in a campaign of falsehoods targeting Georgia with unfounded claims of voter fraud.

Trump lit a fuse under the double runoffs on Saturday when he called Raffensperger and tried to cajole him into overturning the certified results of the presidential race. The conversation was taped and leaked, and has led to calls for Trump to be prosecuted for election crimes.

The president’s antics have left some Republicans in Georgia fretting that his claims that his victory was “stolen” would dissuade party supporters from turning up at the polls on Tuesday. But it remained to be seen just how much impact his incendiary interventions would make, and in what direction.

The Republican contestants have attempted to move beyond Trump’s baseless complaint about the presidential count and focus their campaigns on what they have depicted as the “radical socialism” of their Democratic rivals. The airwaves have been flooded with unprecedented numbers of political adverts on both sides, with the campaigns of the four candidates jointly splurging more than $833m on the state according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Nonetheless Loeffler, the richest member of the Senate who also prides herself as being the chamber’s most conservative, has announced that she will vote to challenge the electoral college results at a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

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