By Jeff Mason
GAINESVILLE, Ga. (Reuters) - Vice President Mike Pence charged into the final battle for control of the U.S. Senate on Friday, urging Republican voters in Georgia to come out in force for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in two hotly contested Jan. 5 runoff elections.
On the same day that state officials certified President-elect Joe Biden's election victory over President Donald Trump, Pence joined a bus tour through suburban Republican strongholds north of Atlanta, with stops at two "Defend the Majority" rallies attended by hundreds of supporters.
The state's two competitive contests will determine which party gets majority control of the Senate. Democrats, who netted only one Republican Senate seat nationwide in the Nov. 3 election, need win both to give them 50 of the chamber's 100 seats, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wielding the tie-breaking vote.
Victories by challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock would allow Democrats to push Biden's agenda through Congress next year.
But with Trump no longer on the ballot, Republicans and Democrats both face challenges getting large numbers of voters to the polls in January.
"Georgia, I got back on the bus today because we need you to stay in the fight," Pence told cheering supporters at an outdoor event in Canton. "Stay in the fight until we send David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler back to a Republican majority."
Pence, who a White House official said will make repeated visits to Georgia ahead of the runoffs, traveled with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a cousin of the senator and a leading party figure who served as the first Republican governor of Georgia since the post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Pence portrayed Perdue and Loeffler as contenders in what "could be the last line of defense" for Republican priorities including tax cuts, reduced regulation, strong military spending, tough immigration policies and a conservative federal judiciary.
Pence steered clear of references to the intensifying coronavirus pandemic in addressing supporters, only some of whom wore masks, with little social distancing.
Georgia has not elected a Democratic senator since 1996. But Republican confidence has been shaken by Biden's narrow 49.5% to 49.2% lead over Trump, making him the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in nearly three decades.
Trump's refusal to concede the presidential election is also complicating matters for Republicans by making it hard to rally voters to hold the line against a Biden presidency. Pence did not mention Biden in his remarks, portraying Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi instead as political villains.
"Like all of you, I'm here because I stand with President Trump," Pence told the crowd gathered at an agricultural center in Gainesville. He drew chants of "Stop the Steal!" and Four More Years!" after vowing that Trump would continue to contest the results of the election.
Despite Trump's claims about a fraudulent vote, government officials have not reported any major irregularities. Most election scholars said the odds of Trump ultimately being named president are slim.
"Let's show the world what Georgia's all about, that the agenda of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi is not the agenda of the people of Georgia," said Pence, calling Warnock and Ossoff wrong for the Senate.
Warnock took to Twitter to ask for campaign donations to combat Republican efforts to raise millions of dollars for the pair of two-month races, which could see well over $100 million in total spending.
Led by strategy guru Karl Rove, Republicans have formed a fundraising network of party top brass that is seeking millions of dollars from donors in big states like Florida and Texas.
"Why are Karl Rove and his wealthy allies spending millions of dollars to keep unelected Sen. @KLoeffler in the Senate?" Warnock, a Black pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
"To protect their pocketbooks. Kelly is for Kelly and her fellow billionaires. I'm fighting for Georgia. Chip in to help us fight back."
Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman, was appointed to the Senate in 2019 by Governor Brian Kemp to replace retiring Republican Senator Johnny Isakson.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Georgia and David Morgan in Washington; additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Wilmington, Delaware; writing by David Morgan; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Sonya Hepinstall)