“Georgia, Georgia,” sings musician John Legend, before Barack Obama’s narration takes over. “When the moment came to reject fear and division and send a message for change, Georgia stepped up,” says the former US president, referring to Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the state. “Now, America is counting on you again.”
This is a glossy campaign ad for Jon Ossoff, one of two Democratic candidates challenging two Republican incumbents in the final election of 2020 – actually taking place on the first Tuesday of 2021. With November’s vote for Georgia’s two Senate seats proving inconclusive, the runoffs will not only decide the state’s direction but could strike a blow to Biden’s presidency before it has even begun.
At stake is the balance of power in the 100-member US Senate. If Republicans win one or both of the Georgia seats, they will retain a slim majority and can block Biden’s legislative goals and judicial nominees. If Democrats prevail in both seats, however, there will be a 50/50 split in the chamber, giving Biden’s vice-president, Kamala Harris, the tie-breaking vote.
Harris will campaign in Savannah on Sunday and Biden will join the Democratic candidates in Atlanta on Monday, while the president will rally with the Republicans in Dalton on the same day.
Once again, two radically different visions of the nation will collide. Republicans Kelly Loeffler, 50, and David Perdue, 71, have embraced the president’s “Make America Great Again” agenda so tightly that defeats for both would be a stark repudiation of his legacy.
Trump is already smarting from a narrow defeat by Biden in the presidential election in Georgia, making him the first Republican to lose it since George HW Bush in 1992. It was the most concrete proof yet that a southern state that fought for slavery during the American civil war and was dominated by Republicans for decades is now among the most competitive political battlegrounds in the country.
“We’ve heard for years that Georgia is changing, Georgia is changing, and it finally changed and it was a brilliant moment,” said Carter Crenshaw, a Republican who founded a group called GOP for Joe to support the Democratic nominee. “As a lifelong Georgian, it’s funny or almost ironic that a state in the solid Republican south is about to determine the future of the country. As Joe Biden said in the election, this is a referendum about the soul of our nation.”
Such is the national resonance of the contests that record amounts of money are poured in. Ossoff, the 33-year-old chief executive of a company that makes investigative TV documentaries, became the best-funded Senate candidate ever after raising $106.7m between mid-October and mid-December.
His opponent, Perdue, trailed with $68m and suffered a further setback on Thursday, announcing that he will quarantine for an unspecified period after being exposed to someone infected with coronavirus. In the other runoff, Democrat the Rev Raphael Warnock, 51, raised $103.3m over the two-month period, while his opponent, Loeffler – among the wealthiest and least experienced members of Congress – had a haul of nearly $64m.
About 3m people have already cast their votes early, in person or by absentee ballot, way higher than the last statewide runoff in 2018. Democrats are depending on voters of colour, young people and college-educated white people to turn out in urban and suburban areas, particularly in and around Atlanta. These include disaffected Republicans like Crenshaw.
“Part of the reason I made the decision to vote for Ossoff and Warnock was I have seen first-hand how Donald Trump has been so destructive to the party and overall trust in our elections,” he said. “It’s hard when the two Republicans have gone along pretty much consistently and regularly with every conspiracy theory that he and his supporters have come up with.”
Crenshaw, a pharmacy technician and student, added: “It wasn’t just a vote against Donald Trump. It was also the recognition that character still does matter and the character of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff is at this point miles ahead of what Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have exhibited in the last several months.”
But the likely deciding factor will be African American turnout. Democratic activist Stacey Abrams, who lost a race for Georgia governor in 2018, has done much to mobilise the party’s base and fight voter suppression in a state with a long history of racial segregation. The runoffs have led to court battles over the state’s removal of nearly 200,000 people from voter registration rolls, and a Republican effort to curb the use of drop boxes for absentee ballots.
As of last Tuesday African American turnout was 31% of the total vote so far, higher than its 27% share in November, according to Cliff Albright, cofounder of the Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter. “You’ve still got some people thinking that what happened in Georgia for the presidential was just a fluke and that’s actually part of the reason why Black voters are so intent on showing up in such numbers right now,” he said.
“Trump and his supporters are reminding us of the same issues, the same racism, the same voter suppression that had us so energised in the general election, and that energy is spilling over into the runoffs.”
Republican infighting over Trump’s baseless allegations of election fraud could cause some of the president’s base to stay at home in protest. Brian Kemp, the state governor, has confirmed Biden’s victory but Loeffler refuses to acknowledge the Democrat as president-elect, bragging that she has a “100% Trump voting record” and is “more conservative than Attila the Hun”.
Her challenger, Warnock, is an African American pastor at the Atlanta church where the civil rights leader Martin Luther King often preached. Albright observed: “Sadly enough, many of the issues that King was trying to address are the same issues today. He was talking about racism and capitalism and military exploitation and here we are facing those same three evils.”
The Democratic duo accuse their Republican rivals of abusing their office for self-enrichment and neglecting Georgians’ plight in the Covid-19 pandemic. Republicans are appealing to diehard Trump supporters in small towns and rural areas with lurid messaging that portrays the Democrats as radical socialists hellbent on defunding the police and destroying the American dream.
Ann Jones, a farmer from Flowery Branch, said of Ossoff and Warnock: “They don’t give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. I think their agenda leads you way far from agriculture and way far from common sense. Both of them are virtually unknown. What is socialism? We jump right over into communism. They’re way far off the map.”
Jones plans to vote for Loeffler and Perdue and would back Trump again if he is the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. “I don’t have a problem with him. I mean, do I want him to live in my house? Probably not. But he’s done a good job for the country and he’s done a whole lot for agriculture and you can’t throw any rocks at that.”
Opinion polls suggest both races could go either way. John Zogby, a pollster and author, said two Republican wins on Tuesday night would deal a “horrible blow” to Biden’s presidency. Conversely, a Democratic sweep would diminish Trump’s credit for recent Republican gains in Congress and weaken his grip on the party as he teases another bid for the White House.
“Here’s a guy we know is making every indication that he wants to run again and so this could potentially stop him in his tracks,” Zogby added. “It also would be part of his legacy, not only losing the election but losing the Senate. Kind of a capstone.”