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‘The showdown of all showdowns’: Control of the Senate hinges on Georgia’s wild runoff elections

Poll workers in Lawrenceville, Ga., aided in the recount.
Poll workers in Lawrenceville, Ga., aided in the recount.Megan Varner/Getty

MARIETTA, Ga. — As her supporters hollered in a strip mall storefront, Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler called her opponent a Marxist and said it was up to them — and her — to “save the country.”

About 125 miles away, at a drive-in rally in Columbus on the Alabama border, Democrat Jon Ossoff declared the only way out of “national crisis and national tragedy” was to make sure his party takes control of the Senate.

And outside the State Capitol in Atlanta, angry protesters wanted to see the secretary of state, convinced by President Trump and other top Republicans that Joe Biden stole his narrow victory in the state’s presidential election — until they were drowned out by the driver of a Chevy Tahoe who pulled up and started blasting the iconic local hip-hop duo, Outkast.

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Welcome to Georgia, where the political circus that has defined so much of this year has descended for one last gasp, a battle royale in which the only thing both sides agree on is that nothing less than the fate of the republic is at stake.

On Nov. 3, voters deprived Trump of a second term and eroded Democrats’ House majority, but they left control of the Senate up to the people of this state. Both of Georgia’s Senate races — a rare doubleheader caused by a special election coinciding with a regularly scheduled race — are going to a Jan. 5 runoff because of the state’s election rules. Democrats need to win both to claim a narrow majority and unified control of the government when Biden takes office.

The contests are unfolding in a diversifying state whose politics are shifting by the day, much to the chagrin of its right-leaning residents. At last count, Georgia backed Biden by about 14,000 votes, making it the first time since 1992 that the state turned blue in the presidential race.

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Democrats hope the changing demographics and political organizing that made Biden’s win here possible will now allow them to pull off a double upset and win both Senate seats — as long as they can get their base of Black and newly engaged voters back to the polls for a post-holiday election after they’ve already dispatched the main target of their anger: Donald Trump.

“We are on the cusp of changing Georgia,” Representative Sanford Bishop, a Democrat, told the crowd in Columbus. “Yet the job is not yet finished.”

Republicans, who have long dominated runoffs in the state and whose Senate candidates drew more votes overall on Election Day than Democrats, are sure they have the upper hand in an election they expect to yield lower turnout, as runoffs historically have.

As Georgia teeters on the brink of a new political identity, the Senate races will be a second chance for voters to weigh in on whether the state’s transformation has arrived or remains in flux. The future of Biden’s agenda also hangs in the balance, given the promise of obstruction in a Republican-controlled Senate.

“This,” said Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who campaigned alongside Loeffler here on Wednesday, “is literally the showdown of all showdowns, in terms of politics.”

The polls are close. The vicious attack ads have already started. Tens of millions of dollars in contributions have poured in with tens of millions more expected. Republicans say they are sending an army of 1,000 field staff to the ground, and Democrats are vowing to put up their own multimillion-dollar turnout effort.

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The two races each feature a Republican multimillionaire incumbent and a charismatic Democratic challenger.

In the regular election, it is Senator David Perdue, a former Dollar General CEO who lives in a mansion on an island off the Georgia coast, against Jon Ossoff, the 33-year-old former journalist best known for losing an epic 2017 race for the congressional seat once held by Newt Gingrich, a race he turned into a referendum on Trump.

In the special election, the incumbent is Loeffler, an Atlanta socialite and businesswoman who was appointed in 2019 to fill a Senate vacancy and has since transformed herself into an outspoken Trump ally to fend off a conservative firebrand to gain a spot in January’s runoff. She faces the Rev. Raphael Warnock, an unapologetic progressive who is the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — where Martin Luther King Jr. once served.

The Georgia Senate races are unfolding in parallel political universes. In one, Biden defeated Trump fair and square — as top election officials in every state and homeland security officials say is true. In the other, Trump’s unfounded claims about election fraud have taken hold, stoked by top Republicans and the GOP Senate candidates themselves, who believe the anger among his base will help their cause in the runoff elections.

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“The whole reason Republican senators haven’t acknowledged Joe Biden as president-elect is all tied to this,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist. “They need to use [Trump] one more time.”

As top Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fell in line this week with Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election, Loeffler and Perdue issued an extraordinary statement calling on Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger — a fellow Republican — to step down, saying he had “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections.” They offered no evidence or explanation for the charge.

Raffensperger, who is currently in quarantine because his wife tested positive for the coronavirus, said he’s not going to bow to the pressure, but he has authorized a hand recount of the presidential election.

The senators’ attacks have drawn criticism from some Republicans outside of Georgia.

“If Republican voters buy their argument that Georgia elections are fraudulent, then why should they come back and vote in the runoff?” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “It made absolutely no sense to me.”

But here in Marietta, after Loeffler and Rubio appeared together, the atmosphere crackled with defiance, as voters were convinced something had been taken from them on Nov. 3 that they have to wrestle back.

“You have to know the people who voted in this election and didn’t vote for Joe Biden are extremely angry and motivated,” said Peter Korman, 59, a Republican activist in a turtleneck and pleated pants who supported the 2016 presidential bid of former Ohio Governor John Kasich, a moderate Republican who endorsed Biden. Korman, by contrast, is now a diehard supporter of Trump and Loeffler, so much so that he appeared in one of her ads.

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He and other voters here rattled off a list of what might have gone wrong on Election Day. The suspicious events they cited included a burst pipe in the ballot processing location in Fulton County, home to Atlanta, or a computer voting system that Trump has baselessly and inaccurately claimed deleted votes for him.

“Our constitutional republic is being threatened in the greatest way,” Cindye Coates, 60, a seminary provost who does not believe Biden is the true winner, said at Loeffler’s rally. “We push back right now by engaging everyone we know in this election.“

In Columbus, as the sunset turned the clouds above them the exact color of a peach, Democrats awaiting Ossoff’s rally dismissed those theories as a loser’s fantasy, and said they were determined to push their candidates over the line.

“It’s almost like they’re doing anything and everything to keep Trump in office,” said Katina Williams, 48, an off-duty police officer who said she was already signed up to write postcards to encourage voters to support Warnock and Ossoff.

Justine Boone, 67, reveled in the knowledge that her vote had helped to turn Georgia blue. “It’s always been a tough state to turn. But we turned it. We turned the page on that ― and we can do it again,” she said.

Onstage, the seven speakers before Ossoff hit the same theme over and over again: The stakes were high. And turnout was everything.

“We’re in the biggest fight of our political lives,” said state Representative Carolyn Hugley. “So I need you to go and call Ray Ray, and Bae Bae, folks that you used to know, mama, daddy, sister, folks that you used to date, folks that you don’t even talk to anymore.”

The state is trending blue in part through the efforts of former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and groups that have registered hundreds of thousands of voters in recent years. Now, their goal is to keep turnout from dropping, as it did in the 2008 runoff that sent Republican Saxby Chambliss to the Senate.

“This is a very different state than 2008,” said Warnock, when he was asked about turnout during a press conference on Thursday. “The issue is not with the voters so much as it is with the folks who are trying to discourage and demoralize certain parts of the electorate.”

Activists on the ground say the Democratic base remains highly engaged, including Black voters.

“This isn’t just any runoff election and this isn’t any election year,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, one of the groups organizing in Georgia, working closely with Abrams. She said that the state’s Black voters have not forgotten how Republicans in Congress thwarted former President Barack Obama’s agenda after his election.

Ossoff and Warnock are keeping their focus on those real-world problems, particularly access to health care, presenting their GOP opponents as self-interested, even corrupt, elites.

“Georgia’s two United States senators were too busy looking after their own stock portfolios to be honest with us, and to prepare us for what we were facing,” Ossoff said in Columbus, referencing controversial stock trades Loeffler and Perdue made following classified briefings this spring about the impending pandemic. Investigations found the two senators did not violate any laws or Senate rules; moreover Perdue’s campaign said the senator did not attend the classified Senate briefing Ossoff brings up on the stump.

“They were sheltering their assets while we were sheltering in place,” Ossoff said.

Loeffler and Perdue, meanwhile, are framing their Democratic opponents as a pair of extremists seeking to impose socialism on unwitting Americans.

“This is America. But will it still be if the radical left controls the Senate?” one of Loeffler’s new ads begins, with a shot of mostly white school children reciting the pledge of allegiance. It goes on to hit Warnock for calling police “thugs and gangsters” while images of protests play behind a picture of Warnock, and for praising the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a controversial pastor prone to incendiary remarks who some conservatives used to attack Obama in 2008.

Some Democratic strategists said the ad amounts to a dog whistle to white Republicans that a Black man is threatening their country. Warnock hinted at that view when asked about Loeffler’s attacks.

“I have spent my whole career standing up against bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, wherever it shows up, and I will continue to do that,” he said, before pointing out that Loeffler has sat down with a One America News Network host with white supremacist connections and accepted the endorsement of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congresswoman-elect who supports the QAnon conspiracy theory, which involves an alleged, high-ranking government official who shares unsubstantiated information about an anti-Trump conspiracy often involving satanism and child sex trafficking.

The outcome of the Georgia Senate races is hard to predict, strategists on both sides of the aisle admit, given the numerous countervailing forces buffeting the state. Will outrage over a “stolen” election be enough to drive disappointed Republicans back to the polls, even if Trump himself isn’t on the ballot? Will Democratic voters realize that they have the numbers to make history?

“Apathy is what the Republicans rely on,” observed Ruth Carpenter, 71, at Ossoff’s event in Columbus “And people say, ‘My votes don’t count.’ Now you see your vote counts.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.