Voters in the southern state of Georgia in the United States are set to decide the balance of power in Congress in a pair of high-stakes Senate runoff elections that will help determine President-elect Joe Biden’s capacity to enact what may be the most progressive governing agenda in generations.
Polls open at 7:00am (1200 GMT) on Tuesday. A record three million-plus people have voted early, election officials say and final results may not be known for several days.
Republicans are unified against Biden’s plans for healthcare, environmental protection and civil rights, but some fear that outgoing President Donald Trump’s brazen attempts to undermine the integrity of the nation’s voting systems may discourage voters in Georgia.
At a rally in northwest Georgia on the eve of Tuesday’s runoffs, Trump repeatedly declared that the November elections were plagued by fraud that Republican officials, including his former attorney general and Georgia’s elections chief, say did not occur.
The president called Georgia’s Republican secretary of state “crazy” and pledged to help defeat him in two years. At the same time, Trump encouraged his supporters to show up in force for the polls.
“You’ve got to swarm it tomorrow [Tuesday],” Trump told thousands of cheering supporters, downplaying the threat of fraud.
Democrats must win both of the state’s Senate elections to gain the Senate majority. In that scenario, the Senate would be equally divided 50-50 with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaker for Democrats.
Democrats already secured a narrow House majority and the White House during November’s general election.
The results in Georgia will also help demonstrate whether the sweeping political coalition that fuelled Biden’s victory was an anti-Trump anomaly or part of a new landscape.
Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by about 12,000 votes out of five million ones cast in November.
Democratic success will likely depend on driving a huge turnout of African Americans, young voters, college-educated voters and women, all groups that helped Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 to win Georgia.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been focused on energising their own base of white men and voters beyond the core of metro Atlanta.
Even a closely divided Democratic Senate likely will not guarantee Biden everything he wants, given Senate rules that require 60 votes to move most main legislation.
But if Democrats lose even one of Tuesday’s contests, Biden would have little shot for swift up-or-down votes on his most ambitious plans to expand government-backed healthcare coverage, strengthen the middle class, address racial inequality and combat climate change.
A Republican-controlled Senate also would create a rougher path for Biden’s Cabinet picks and judicial nominees.
“Georgia, the whole nation is looking to you. The power is literally in your hands,” Biden charged at his own rally in Atlanta earlier on Monday.
“One state can chart the course, not just for the next four years but for the next generation.”
Georgia’s January elections, necessary because no Senate candidates received a majority of the general-election votes, have been unique for many reasons, not least because the contenders essentially ran as teams, even campaigning together sometimes.
One contest features Democrat Raphael Warnock, who serves as the senior pastor of the Atlanta church where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr grew up and preached. The 51-year-old Black man was raised in public housing and spent most of his adult life preaching in Baptist churches.
Warnock is facing Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, a 50-year-old former businesswoman who was appointed to the Senate less than a year ago by the state’s Republican governor. She is only the second woman to represent Georgia in the Senate, although race has emerged as a campaign focus far more than gender.
Loeffler and her allies have seized on some snippets of Warnock’s sermons at the historic Black church to cast him as extreme. Dozens of religious and civil rights leaders have pushed back.
The other election pits 71-year-old former business executive David Perdue, who held the Senate seat until his term officially expired on Sunday, against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former congressional aide and journalist.
At just 33 years old, Ossoff would be the Senate’s youngest member if elected. The fresh-faced Democrat first rose to national prominence in 2017 when he launched an unsuccessful House special election bid.
This week’s elections mark the formal finale to the turbulent 2020 election season more than two months after the rest of the nation finished voting.
“It’s really about whether an agenda that moves the nation forward can be forged without significant compromise,” said Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights icon and a Georgia native, who predicted “razor-thin” margins on Tuesday.
“There are a lot of things that are in the balance.”