No pressure, Georgia: On the cusp of Senate runoffs to shape Biden’s presidency

December 14, 2020 Atlanta: Voters came to State Farm Arena on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 to cast their votes to determine which political party controls the U.S. Senate on the first day of early voting. Both of Georgia’s Senate seats are up for grabs as Republican incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler try to hold of Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Democrats would need to win both seats to flip control of the Senate. Early voting started at 8:30 a.m. in Fulton County. Thirty-two voting locations are open and listed on the Fulton County website. Early voting locations were also open elsewhere in the state, including in Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. Early voters may cast their ballot at any location in their county. In Fulton County, weekday voting hours are 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. through Dec. 23. Hours are extended to 7 a.m.-7 p.m. from Dec. 28-30. On Saturdays, Dec. 19 and Dec. 26, voting will be held 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. On Sundays, Dec. 20 and Dec. 27, voting locations are open noon-6 p.m. Voting locations include State Farm Arena from Dec. 14-19; and Mercedes-Benz Stadium from Dec. 22-Dec. 30. Wait time estimates at polling locations will available on the Fulton County website and the Fulton Votes mobile app, an official said. Polls will be closed Dec. 24-25 and Dec. 31-Jan. 1 in observance of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Election Day is Tuesday, Jan. 5. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
December 14, 2020 Atlanta: Voters came to State Farm Arena on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 to cast their votes to determine which political party controls the U.S. Senate on the first day of early voting. Both of Georgia’s Senate seats are up for grabs as Republican incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler try to hold of Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. Democrats would need to win both seats to flip control of the Senate. Early voting started at 8:30 a.m. in Fulton County. Thirty-two voting locations are open and listed on the Fulton County website. Early voting locations were also open elsewhere in the state, including in Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. Early voters may cast their ballot at any location in their county. In Fulton County, weekday voting hours are 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. through Dec. 23. Hours are extended to 7 a.m.-7 p.m. from Dec. 28-30. On Saturdays, Dec. 19 and Dec. 26, voting will be held 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. On Sundays, Dec. 20 and Dec. 27, voting locations are open noon-6 p.m. Voting locations include State Farm Arena from Dec. 14-19; and Mercedes-Benz Stadium from Dec. 22-Dec. 30. Wait time estimates at polling locations will available on the Fulton County website and the Fulton Votes mobile app, an official said. Polls will be closed Dec. 24-25 and Dec. 31-Jan. 1 in observance of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Election Day is Tuesday, Jan. 5. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

For nine weeks, Georgians have been pummeled with ads, mailers,text messages, phone calls and urgent pleas from friendly door-knockers with one unifying message: Vote in Tuesday’s runoffs.

Celebrities have danced to salsa music at sprawling parking lots, staged concerts outside massive gun stores, recreated musicals and movies. Big name politicos have trekked to exurban dive bars, streetside barbecue joints and rural fairgrounds. By Tuesday’s vote, President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden will each have visited twice.

And the candidates have implored Georgians to vote at small-town crossroads and socially-distanced drive-in rallies, in front of graffitied Atlanta buildings and at windswept airport rallies — just about anywhere between Hahira and Hiawassee that their operatives could dream up.

Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler say they’re the firewall to “save America” from extremist liberals. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are the last hope to pass far-reaching initiatives and “write the next chapter in American history.”

And, maybe for once, their hyperbole about this being the most important election in our lifetimes rings a little bit truer.

Georgia is on the cusp of twin runoffs Tuesday that will determine control of the U.S. Senate and shape Biden’s presidency, two votes holding unprecedented significance for a state that until recently mostly dodged the blinding klieg lights of the nation’s political attention.

As Vice President-elect Kamala Harris put it in Columbus last month: “Everything that’s at stake in November is at stake in January.”

No pressure, Georgia.

Cliffhangers

So far, droves of Georgians have heeded their calls. More than 2.8 million voters have cast ballots early, setting a record for turnout in a statewide runoff and, for a week or so, rivaling the general election turnout pace.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., speaks as President Donald Trump and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., listen at a campaign rally at Valdosta Regional Airport, Dec. 5, 2020, in Valdosta, Georgia. Many Republican voters in Georgia are angry; certain that widespread voter fraud — claims of which are baseless — cost President Donald Trump the election. Most Republican voters in the state interviewed said they were prepared to put their skepticism aside to vote for Perdue and Loeffler in their races against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., speaks as President Donald Trump and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., listen at a campaign rally at Valdosta Regional Airport, Dec. 5, 2020, in Valdosta, Georgia. Many Republican voters in Georgia are angry; certain that widespread voter fraud — claims of which are baseless — cost President Donald Trump the election. Most Republican voters in the state interviewed said they were prepared to put their skepticism aside to vote for Perdue and Loeffler in their races against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Credit: Evan Vucci

Credit: Evan Vucci

About $800 million has been spent on the race, an astonishing total that will only rise as the final spending comes into clearer view. Much of it has been devoted to an onslaught of ads, though plenty has also poured into get-out-the-vote efforts fanning out across the state.

The races might as well be a coin flip, at least according to polls, analysts and antsy campaign operatives. Sure, Biden flipped the state with a narrow 12,000 vote win, thanks to an ascendant coalition fueled by strong turnout from voters of color and a level of white support not seen in decades for a Democrat.

But repeating that feat is a monumental task for Democrats, especially considering that both Ossoff and Warnock, who was in a 20-candidate special election, lagged behind Biden’s totals. Their strategy hinges on persuading a diverse, and younger, electorate that usually doesn’t vote in runoffs to do so this time.

Republicans have their own challenges, starting with a president in open warfare with state GOP leaders who defied his calls to overturn the state’s election. Both Loeffler and Perdue have gone to great lengths to appease Trump — including refusing to acknowledge his defeat — even as they insist they’d stand up to Biden.

The Democratic contenders appear to have built a sizable advantage in the early vote, with high participation rates in left-leaning strongholds and a higher overall turnout among Black voters statewide. That means Republicans are depending on a surging election day turnout to erase the gap.

With so much drama already, is it any wonder that these cliffhangers would come down to a climactic ending, with dueling visits from Trump and Biden on the eve of the vote?

‘I know you’re tired’

The rival campaigns made their strategy quite clear from the opening days of the runoff. Both Democrats and both Republicans would essentially form joint tickets, and aggressively appeal to the party base rather than spend time and treasure trying to woo on-the-fence types.

It’s why Republicans have bent over backward to stick close to Trump, and why Democrats have embraced liberal figures they once would have avoided, such as Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders. .

And some of the grittiest work is done far from the banks of TV cameras and sign-waving supporters trailing the candidates, but instead on the tree-lined streets and quiet cul-de-sacs surrounding Atlanta.

Flanked by U.S. Democratic Senate candidates the Rev. Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, President-elect Joe Biden gestures to the crowd at the end of a drive-in rally at Pullman Yard on Dec.15, 2020, in Atlanta. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)
Flanked by U.S. Democratic Senate candidates the Rev. Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, President-elect Joe Biden gestures to the crowd at the end of a drive-in rally at Pullman Yard on Dec.15, 2020, in Atlanta. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

One of those leafy enclaves in north Roswell is where about a dozen volunteers with the Faith and Freedom Coalition, some from North Carolina and Texas, gathered on a cool recent afternoon to target reliably Republican voters. A group of roughly 1,400 staff and volunteers for the conservative group, founded by Ralph Reed, has hit around 600,000 Georgia doors this runoff cycle.

Bryan Hughes, a state senator from a deeply-conservative stretch of northeast Texas, hopped on I-20 last weekend and drove nine hours with two young staffers to Atlanta to start knocking doors. His group, aptly named “Team Texas,” has reached hundreds of households a day.

“Obviously, control of the U.S. Senate has never been this important in the modern era. There’s so much in the balance,” he said. “It’s so striking. We tell them, I know you’re tired. But we just want to make sure you’re aware and moved by these issues. Then we move on.”

So what would make someone give up their holiday break to spend it handing out flyers to Georgia voters?

“You know, I was frustrated after the results of the election,” said Caroline Harris. “So much hangs in the balance. And I wanted to join in any way I could.”

Left-leaning groups are orchestrating similar wide-scale initiatives. The America Votes Georgia coalition, a combined effort of more than 60 groups led by veteran Democratic strategist Leslie Small, has tallied 7 million door knocks and 2.1 million conversations at doorsteps about the stakes of the runoffs.

“We’ve never seen conversation rates and voter enthusiasm this high,” Small said, “and this incredible level of activity in the field will make the difference on January 5th.”

‘Who knows?’

If there’s a wild card in this final stretch, it’s the question of whether the barrage of unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud pushed by Trump and his allies will depress Republican enthusiasm. Just this week, Trump called for Gov. Brian Kemp to resign for not heeding his demand to intervene in the election, only escalating the internal feud.

At rallies and campaign events, many Trump supporters say they harbor some of the same misgivings about the integrity of the vote, though most say they still plan to cast ballots anyway.

Ruth Anne Tatum, a GOP voter from Alpharetta, is one of them. She fears elections officials aren’t doing enough to ensure the tallies are accurate, but she’s voting for the GOP ticket, galvanized by attacks caricaturing the Democrats as socialist Trojan horses.

“We must defeat the socialist ideas of Kelly’s and David’s opponents,” she said. “They are insane, and we have to keep democracy in the forefront.”

As for the Democrats, who promise to expand healthcare access and pass new voting rights measures, the worry is that the escalating GOP broadsides assailing Warnock’s past sermons and criticizing Ossoff’s business dealings will hit their mark, sending conservative white turnout surging on Tuesday.

“If we were to stop right now and count the ballots, Democrats will win,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist who is an expert in Southern politics.

“The Republicans have to play catchup. They’ve succeeded in doing that in the past, but this time, who knows?”

Washington correspondent Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.

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