NEW YORK – For news organizations chronicling the vote count in the Georgia Senate runoff elections, Tuesday felt like a rerun from two months ago: nerves on edge, an avalanche of numbers and a lot of Steve Kornacki.
The two Senate elections, with the U.S. Senate's balance of power at stake, attracted media attention that recalled the days after the presidential election, including breathless wall-to-wall coverage on cable news networks.
“It's beyond nail-biting time,” CNN's John King said.
As the hour slipped past 2 a.m. on the East Coast, Democrat Raphael Warnock beat Republican Kelly Loeffler. Democrat Jon Ossoff's lead over Republican David Perdue was slowing inching up. If the two Democrats won, the party would win control of the U.S. Senate.
King and MSNBC's Kornacki dominated their networks with headache-inducing number crunching. Kornacki was MSNBC's breakout star in the aftermath of the general election and he returned Tuesday with his familiar khakis and a “Kornacki cam” that followed his moves during commercial breaks.
“Usual rules apply,” MSNBC's Brian Williams said to him. “Wave your arms if there's any reason to come back to you.”
It was a seesaw night. Warnock and Ossoff jumped to early leads, but as more votes came in, the Republicans swung in front.
It made for some great television suspense, although people following online saw a different view. The New York Times website estimated the victory probabilities in each race and, as the evening progressed, moved steadily in the Democrats' direction. After midnight, the Times judged both Warnock and Ossoff had a better than 95% chance of winning.
Even before 10 p.m., Dave Wasserman of the influential Cook Political Report tweeted that he had seen enough to predict Warnock would beat Loeffler. That led Twitter, however, to slap his prediction with a warning that other sources were saying it was too close to call.
The conservative outlet Newsmax declared Warnock the winner before midnight and presented an interview with Peter Navarro, an aide to President Donald Trump, suggesting with no evidence that voter fraud had taken place.
On a livestream after midnight, Warnock said, “I am going to the Senate to work for all of Georgia.”
Loeffler, however, spoke briefly to supporters and said it was a “game of inches.”
“We have a path to victory and we're staying on it,” she said.
Fox News spent less time on raw numbers to showcase their prime-time stars, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. They didn't hide their nervousness.
“This is giving everyone a big stomachache from both parties,” Ingraham said.
There was a sharpness to the television voices that reflected the tense presidential election and its aftermath. CNN's Jake Tapper said the expected back-and-forth vote tallies were perfectly normal, and showed how “morally bankrupt” Trump followers were in complaining about changing tallies in November.
“What you're seeing is epic political malpractice by Donald Trump,” said David Plouffe, former aide to President Barack Obama, on MSNBC. “He may have cost his party the U.S. Senate — he and his confederacy of dunces.”
On Fox, Carlson described Ossoff as “lighter than air. He makes Beto O'Rourke look like Teddy Roosevelt.”
His colleague Hannity said Loeffler and Perdue “are standing in the way of a radical left agenda that would actively work to strip away pretty much all of President Trump's achievements.”
Eventually, the coverage turned into a waiting game for lagging numbers from DeKalb County, a Democratic stronghold that decisively shifted the numbers. Pockets of uncounted votes remained, however, leading most news organizations to judge the races too early to call.