Nov. 3 election comes with high stakes for Georgia

State Democrats have long contended that the road to the White House runs through Georgia, and they’re about to find out whether that’s true. But there’s far more at stake in November’s election than the race for president.

Sure, recent polls show a neck-and-neck contest between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden in Georgia. A loss in a state that Republicans have carried in every presidential vote since 1996 could doom Trump’s re-election chances.

Georgia voters will also decide a sweep of other contests that will reverberate across the state and, in some cases, the nation.

A three-week early voting period begins Oct. 12; more than 1 million Georgians have requested absentee ballots to cast their ballots by mail. Overall turnout is expected to hit 5 million.

At the top of the list are Georgia’s twin U.S. Senate seats, and the outcome of both contests could determine control of the chamber. Fierce congressional campaigns are underway in Georgia’s suburbs. And Democrats aim to snap the GOP’s 15-year reign over the state House.

It’s a bit bewildering for Georgia voters, long accustomed to somewhat sleepy statewide races, particularly for the White House. John McCain and Mitt Romney easily carried Georgia in 2008 and 2012, respectively, despite a surge in turnout from Georgia Democrats backing Barack Obama.

And Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Georgia by 5 percentage points without a single visit from either presidential campaign in the final stretch of the race. Both were laser-focused on more traditional battlegrounds; Georgia was essentially an afterthought.

But something else happened during that race that put Georgia more squarely on the political map. The dense suburbs of Cobb and Gwinnett counties flipped for the first time since 1980, cracking the door for Democrats to reclaim a swath of suburbia.

Stacey Abrams consolidated even more votes in those areas in her narrow loss for governor in 2018, while Brian Kemp turned rural Republican counties a deeper shade of red.

Those dynamics are front and center in Georgia’s two U.S. Senate races, wildly different contests that could both end in January runoffs.

The first is a more conventional race between Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. Libertarian Shane Hazel, a former GOP congressional candidate, is also in the contest.

With polls showing a tight contest, even a sliver of support for Hazel could send the race into overtime. Georgia law requires a victorious candidate to win a majority of the vote; if that doesn’t happen, a January runoff is required between two top vote-getters.

That’s a certainty in Georgia’s other Senate contest, a race between incumbent Kelly Loeffler and 20 other candidates who qualified to unseat her. The winner gets to fill the remaining two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term — and face the voters again in 2022 for a full six-year stint.

Atlanta’s once-reliably Republican suburbs are again the most contested battleground in the state, partly because of the two congressional races being waged there.

Former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel is making a comeback bid against U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, whose surprise win in the district spanning from Cobb County to north DeKalb County was the state’s most important Democratic victory two years ago.

Right next door, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux is also back for another run at the Gwinnett-based district she lost by less than 500 votes in 2018. The Republican incumbent, Rob Woodall, is retiring rather than face another election; Rich McCormick, an emergency room physician, won a crowded race for the GOP nomination.

But one of the most important contests on the ballot won’t get near the same attention as the higher-profile races. Every seat in the General Assembly is up for grabs, and at the center of the contest is a Democratic bid to flip control of the Georgia House.

After capturing about a dozen legislative seats in the 2018 midterms, Democrats need to net at least 16 more pickups to take control of the 180-member chamber. Republicans are scrapping to retake some of the seats they lost two years ago — and defend some of their most vulnerable incumbents in a volatile election cycle.