Photograph: Jessica McGowan/EPA

Democratic hopes of wrenching control of the Senate from Republicans received an unexpected boost as it seems likely that two key races in the southern state of Georgia may be headed to runoff races.

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One of the races is definitely headed to a second round in January, while a second Georgia contest and races in North Carolina and Alaska remain undecided, leaving the chamber now deadlocked 48-48. An outcome may now not be known until the new year.

Republicans look likely to win in North Carolina and Alaska, but Democrats would undoubtedly focus huge amounts of energy and money on trying to win the Georgia runoffs. If both races did go to runoffs – and Democrats were to win them – it would leave the Senate split 50-50, with the vice-president serving as a tie-breaker.

If Joe Biden is in the White House, that would mean a vice-president Kamala Harris would be the deciding vote in the Senate. If Donald Trump wins a second term, then it would be Mike Pence, the current vice-president.

“We’re waiting – whether I’m going to be the majority leader or not,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday.

That was still the case on Thursday.

Counting continued in Georgia on Thursday, where Republican David Perdue was trying to hold off Democrat Jon Ossoff in a multi-candidate race that could also go to a runoff if neither candidate clears the 50% threshold to win.

There already is a 5 January runoff in the state’s other Senate race. Republican senator Kelly Loeffler will face Democrat Raphael Warnock, a Black pastor at the church where the Rev Martin Luther King preached. Loeffler and Warnock were the top vote-getters in the race, but neither candidate was able to get a majority of the vote needed to win the seat outright.

In North Carolina, Republican senator Thom Tillis hoped to prevail over Democrat Cal Cunningham, whose sexting affair with a public relations specialist has clouded the race. Republicans were confident they would keep Alaska, where Republican senator Dan Sullivan was faced a challenge by Democratic newcomer Al Gross, a doctor.

Winning the Senate is vital as America’s complex governmental system of checks and balances gives the upper chamber of congress immense power in limiting a president’s ability to get their legislative agenda passed as well as having influence on key administration and judicial appointment.

McConnell was one of Barack Obama’s chief legislative adversaries while Obama was in office. The Senate majority leader successfully stalled major initiatives by the Obama administration and Senate Democrats. Under Trump, McConnell has successfully ushered through a wave of judicial confirmations through his chamber.

He has already signaled that if he were to control the senate under any Biden administration that he would be ruthless in exercising those powers.

A source close to McConnell reportedly told the Axios website that a Republican held senate would work with Biden on centrist nominees but not allow any “radical progressives” or ones who are controversial with its conservative senators.

Before the election Democrat hopes had been riding high that they would win control of the Senate and wrest it from McConnell’s grip. A slew of favorable polls had many Democrats even eying gains in traditionally strongly Republican areas like Kansas and South Carolina, and money had been poured into those races. But on the night itself, a stronger than expected Republican surge put paid to those hopes as well as dashed expectations in far more vulnerable seats, like that of Susan Collins in Maine and Joni Ernst in Iowa.

In the end, Democrats’ gains were in Colorado, where former governor John Hickenlooper defeated senator Cory Gardner, and Arizona, where former astronaut Mark Kelly beat Republican incumbent Martha McSally. But Democrats couldn’t hold on in Alabama, where former college football coach Tommy Tuberville defeated Democrat Doug Jones.



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