DALTON, Ga. — The most closely watched Senate campaigns in recent memory crashed to a close here on Monday night as President Trump rallied his diehard supporters on the eve of an election that could shape his political legacy — and that of his successor, President-elect Joe Biden.
Fresh off a weekend of attempting to overturn his decisive loss in November, Trump kept the false claims of victory that have bitterly divided his party front and center, and cast the Senate races as a way to vindicate his own grievances.
“There’s no way we lost Georgia. No way. That was a rigged election,” he said, ignoring the fact that he did lose this state by 11,779 votes and vowing to “fight like hell” to stay in the White House.
Still, he devoted some of his time to the matter at hand: The election of Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue to keep the party in control of the Senate.
“If you don’t show up, the radical Democrats will win,” he told the screaming crowd, which was decked out in his campaign regalia, not Loeffler’s or Perdue’s.
The spectacle, which capped the final days of frenzied campaigning by some of the biggest names in politics, underscored the fact that Tuesday’s showdown has given the voters of Georgia the power to determine much more than who their senators are.
Tuesday’s election will determine the balance of power in the Senate, which will be key to Biden’s ability to enact many of the policies he campaigned on, including expanded health care and more economic relief.
“This is not an exaggeration: Georgia, the whole nation is looking to you to lead us forward,” Biden said, as he campaigned Monday afternoon in Atlanta with Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock. “The power is literally in your hands, unlike any time in my career, one state — one state — can chart the course, not just for the next four years, but for the next generation.”
But, because Trump has loomed so large in the Senate race, turning the state into an arena for his grievances and even pressuring the Republican secretary of state to “recalculate” the November vote totals here, the results of Tuesday’s election could also shape the way his party treats him going forward — particularly if the Republican candidates lose one or both of races.
“If Republicans lose this race, it’s hard not to conclude that he was part of the problem,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist. “If they win, everyone deserves credit, including Trump, for turning out GOP voters. But Republicans won despite the division and chaos created by Trump — and that shouldn’t be forgotten.”
The two runoff elections pit Loeffler against Warnock and Perdue against Ossoff. No Democrat has won a Senate race in the state for 20 years, and in previous years, Republican voters have turned out for runoff elections at much higher rates than Democrats. Georgia narrowly backed Biden in November after decades of supporting Republicans for president.
But 3 million Georgia voters already cast their votes in the runoffs during the two-week early voting period in December — a figure that shattered voter turnout records in previous runoffs. The fact that Black voters, and those in Democratic strongholds in the Atlanta metro area, have turned out at particularly high rates has given Democrats hope.
“Based on the early voting data so far, we’re looking good,” said state Representative Sam Park, a Democrat from the Atlanta suburbs.
Republicans hoped that Trump’s visit will motivate his base to turn out in droves on Tuesday and make up the difference. His choice of Dalton underscored that strategy, since the area’s 14th Congressional District, now represented by the QAnon conspiracy theory sympathizer Marjorie Taylor Greene, lagged behind much of the rest of the state in the early vote.
And while Trump urged voters Monday night to show up at the polls — “You just can’t let them steal the US Senate,” he said — he devoted much of his 90-minute speech at the rally to threatening fellow Republicans and ginning up the crowd around his claims that fraud cost him the election. While there is no evidence to suggest that was the case, and dozens of his campaign’s lawsuits have been dismissed, a group of congressional Republicans plan to challenge the certification of the election this week. Loeffler drew cheers from the crowd when she announced that she would join that effort.
“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us, I hope our great vice president comes through for us,” Trump said, referring to Pence’s ceremonial role in overseeing the certification on Wednesday. “If he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.”
He also vowed to return to Georgia next year to campaign against the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, whose steadfast refusal to indulge Trump’s baseless claims has earned him ceaseless condemnation from the president.
“They’re not going to take this White House,” Trump groused about Democrats.
The peril for Loeffler was evident after she briefly took the stage during his rally, when the crowd seemed to shout her down with a chant of “Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!”
Democrats in the state are presenting the runoffs as an opportunity to vanquish Trumpism and rebuke the president for his brazen attempt to overturn a fair election.
“Politicians cannot assert, take or seize power,” Biden said earlier in the day. “Make sure your voice is heard.”
They are telling voters they have the opportunity to move the country beyond four years of divisive politics while enacting progressive politics.
“The fact that he lost in November is a repudiation of Trump,” said Sonya Halpern, a newly elected state Senator here. “The question is I think at hand . . . are the Republican policies also now being repudiated?”
The election puts enormous power in the hands of Georgia voters at a transformative moment in the state’s politics. The electorate is getting younger, more diverse and more liberal as new residents move in. The Black population, which makes up about a third of the state’s electorate, is growing, as are the populations of Latinos and Asian American voters. And Democratic groups are working hard to turn them out.
“There’s organizations on the ground that are leveraging that demographic change, that are telling those new voters, newly eligible voters, that their votes matter, that they can play a major role in shaping not just Georgia politics but the politics of the country,” said Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
And even if Republicans pull off a win, a close election would be a worrying sign for Republicans if those trends continue and Trump remains a key figure in the party.
“With the huge change taking place in the state, a person who is as divisive as Donald Trump is not helpful for a party trying to maintain its majority status,” said Charles Bullock III, a professor at the University of Georgia.
At campaign events around the state this weekend, it was clear the stakes of the election had energized voters on both sides.
“I don’t recall, in my lifetime, this kind of opportunity to make a worldwide difference,” said Patrice White, 59, an education professor, as she waited for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to make a campaign appearance in Garden City.
And in Savannah, Earl Berksteiner, 61, walked up to an event for Ossoff with his 85-year-old mother, Betty.
“This is a historical moment for us,” Berksteiner said. “This is a chance, this is an opportunity, to really influence the national scene. We like to be a part of that.”
Some Republicans have worried that Trump’s persistent claims about voter fraud will keep his supporters at home. But in Dalton, Meredith Nahabedian, 41, a homemaker from Rossville, who wrapped herself in a blanket and a MAGA beanie while she waited for Trump to arrive, said she planned to vote for Loeffler and Perdue because she believes future of her government was on the line.
“I’m going to vote tomorrow,” she said. “We need checks and balances in our government.”
Mike Tully, 57, a pilot from Atlanta, said a win for Loeffler and Perdue would prove a point about the November election, which he and numerous other Republican voters interviewed in Georgia this weekend inaccurately said Biden had not really won.
“It sends a message about this past election — that we’re not gonna let it be stolen,” said Tully, who had already cast his vote for the two Republicans. “It’s not about Republicans and Democrats anymore. It’s bigger than that.”