The top Georgia political stories of 2020: Plague, protests and election drama

11/7/20 - Atlanta, GA - People cheer after the election was called for Joe Biden as they gathered in Midtown Atlanta to celebrate.   Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution
11/7/20 - Atlanta, GA - People cheer after the election was called for Joe Biden as they gathered in Midtown Atlanta to celebrate. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Look, we’re all eager to put 2020 behind us. But before we do, we can reflect on the biggest Georgia political stories of the year, a tapestry of chaos, conflict and campaigning that’s still unfinished.

Let’s launch right into it:

Grady ICU nurse Norma Poindexter receives her COVID-19 vaccination, while Georgia Gov. Brian P. Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey look on, at Grady Hospital on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Grady ICU nurse Norma Poindexter receives her COVID-19 vaccination, while Georgia Gov. Brian P. Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey look on, at Grady Hospital on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The pandemic: For months, the coronavirus outbreak seemed a distant threat, even after President Donald Trump visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to declare all was well. And then in mid-March, reality descended like an avalanche: Schools were canceled, the primary election was delayed and lawmakers granted Gov. Brian Kemp emergency powers to respond to the growing threat. He used that new authority to institute a sweeping lockdown – and then pulled back some of those restrictions a few weeks later, drawing Trump’s condemnation. Over the summer, a battle over his refusal to require mask mandates raged as the death toll mounted. The state’s economy suffered, then rebounded, while the outbreak continued to spread. Hospitals strained under the crush of new coronavirus cases as the promise of a vaccine offered what Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, heralded as a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Educators march past the Georgia State Capitol while the last day of the legislative session is in session at Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020. The Atlanta NAACP joined with the Educators for Black Lives March to demand changes in school policing. The Atlanta NAACP held another rally the next day, Saturday, June 27, 2020 demanding justice for men and women killed by law enforcement. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB SHIN@AJC.COM
Educators march past the Georgia State Capitol while the last day of the legislative session is in session at Georgia State Capitol on Friday, June 26, 2020. The Atlanta NAACP joined with the Educators for Black Lives March to demand changes in school policing. The Atlanta NAACP held another rally the next day, Saturday, June 27, 2020 demanding justice for men and women killed by law enforcement. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB SHIN@AJC.COM

The protests: The death of George Floyd unleashed the anger and frustration of thousands of demonstrators who took to Atlanta’s streets to demand an end to police brutality and call for racial justice. In the opening days of the movement, spasms of violence rocked parts of Atlanta, as rioters burned police cars and smashed their ways into stores. Gov. Brian Kemp deployed the National Guard to help restore order. But the demonstrations were largely peaceful, and they grew louder after the death of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man whose shooting death at a Wendy’s fast food restaurant in Atlanta triggered renewed calls for reforms. In the Capitol, powerful Republicans signaled they were open to a hate-crimes law, and allied with Democrats to extend protections to people targeted because of biases after 16 years of debate. Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre declared the new law a “defining moment in the history of our great state,” and civil rights advocates promised a renewed push for vaster changes in 2021.

7/30/20 - Atlanta, GA -  Former President Barack Obama, addresses the service.  On the sixth day of the “Celebration of Life” for Rep. John Lewis, his funeral is  held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, with burial to follow.   Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
7/30/20 - Atlanta, GA - Former President Barack Obama, addresses the service. On the sixth day of the “Celebration of Life” for Rep. John Lewis, his funeral is held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, with burial to follow. Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The civil rights hero: The death of longtime U.S. Rep. John Lewis in July at the age of 80 brought three former presidents together to eulogize him at his funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church and marked a solemn moment in the civil rights movement. An Alabama native, Lewis aspired to be a preacher long before the sit-ins, freedom rides and his brutal beating at the hand of a state Trooper in Selma turned him into a civil rights leader. He brought his advocacy for social justice and ballot access with him to Congress, where he would later become the face of political resistance to President Donald Trump. His commitment to a life of “good trouble” – a twist on advice from his family not to rock the boat – fast became a calling card worldwide for those demanding equal rights under the law.

10/27/2020 - Democratic Presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden is followed by Secret Service Agents as he leaves a rally at Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Warm Springs, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. MANDATORY CREDIT: ALYSSA POINTER / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
10/27/2020 - Democratic Presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden is followed by Secret Service Agents as he leaves a rally at Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Warm Springs, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. MANDATORY CREDIT: ALYSSA POINTER / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

The presidential race: Democrats have vowed for most of the decade that they would make Georgia a presidential battleground. In 2020, they made good on their promise. After treating Georgia mostly as a piggy bank full of fat-cat donors for years, both Trump and Joe Biden poured time and treasure into winning the state’s 16 electoral votes. With polls showing a tightening race, Trump held rallies in Macon and Rome in the closing days of the race, while Biden and his running-mate, Kamala Harris, stumped around the state. On Election Day, initial returns showed Trump with a sizable lead, though the steady tally of a cascade of mail-in ballots that overwhelmingly tilted Democrat helped Biden close the gap. The moment Biden overtook Trump in Georgia came around 4:20 a.m. on Nov. 6, when the last trove of absentee votes was tallied in Clayton County, Georgia’s bluest bastion. A week later, the national networks called the race for Biden, making him the first Democrat to capture Georgia since 1992.

Members of Voter Review Panel confer as Fulton County's members of a recount team work on hand recount and audit of ballots during Fulton County's Risk Limiting Audit process at Georgia World Congress Center on Saturday, November 14, 2020. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Members of Voter Review Panel confer as Fulton County's members of a recount team work on hand recount and audit of ballots during Fulton County's Risk Limiting Audit process at Georgia World Congress Center on Saturday, November 14, 2020. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN

The misinformation: President-elect Joe Biden’s victory was greeted by a torrent of misinformation, dubious lawsuits and false claims of widespread voter fraud that turned Georgia’s top Republican elections officials into national figures as they debunked the sham complaints – and put leading GOP figures at odds with President Donald Trump. By December, Trump was stoking the all-out Republican civil war, leveling criticism at Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan for refusing his false narrative of a “rigged” election. But his harshest words were reserved for Gov. Brian Kemp, who defied his demand for a special session to overturn the state’s election. Trump called him a “clown” and threatened to back a Republican primary challenger in 2022; Kemp didn’t directly fire back, though he blasted the “ridiculous” misinformation emanating from his supporters. The president’s false claims of systemic irregularities were egged on by several top GOP officials and a cadre of Trump loyalists who urged Republicans not to vote in Jan. 5 runoffs. As the year ended, Republicans tapped their own symbolic slate of 16 electors as courts at every level rejected legal complaints from his campaign and its allies.

The runoffs: The November election left Georgians with unfinished business. There was no outright winner in either of the U.S. Senate races, triggering dual Jan. 5 runoffs, one between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, the other pitting Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler against Democrat Raphael Warnock. What’s more, the cliffhangers would decide control of the U.S. Senate. With stakes so high, legions of volunteers flooded Georgia and more than $500 million worth of ads bombarded the airwaves by Christmas. President Donald Trump stumped for the Republicans in Valdosta, urging supporters to vote in a “rigged” election, while Democrats campaigned with President-elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. With more than 2.1 million early votes, both parties viewed the race as a tossup going into the final stretch.

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