WASHINGTON, D.C. — The battle for control of Capitol Hill came down to the wire Tuesday as a late surge of votes from Atlanta’s suburban outskirts put Democrats in a dead-heat battle with Republicans for the two remaining seats in the U.S. Senate.
Early voting in the state easily shattered previous records, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic curtailing public appetites for voting in person and the unprecedented fever that marks U.S. politics in the age of Donald Trump.
Those votes were counted first, and since early voting tends to favour Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock briefly enjoyed narrow leads over their incumbent Republican rivals, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
But as the night progressed, those margins disappeared entirely, with Perdue gradually edging ahead of Ossoff by only a few percentage points and Loeffler and Warnock quarrelling over the lead by a margin of fewer than 20,000 votes.
It wasn’t until laggard DeKalb County, part of the vote-rich Democratic strongholds surrounding Atlanta, finally reported the bulk of its returns that Warnock pulled modestly ahead of Loeffler and Ossoff narrowed Perdue’s lead to fewer than 500 votes.
The scenario echoed November’s protracted presidential drama, prompting a conspiratorial tweet late Tuesday from Donald Trump, who has continued to make unfounded claims that his second term was stolen.
“Looks like they are setting up a big ‘voter dump’ against the Republican candidates,” the president wrote. “Waiting to see how many votes they need?”
Nearly 3.1 million people cast early ballots — 40 per cent of the state’s registered voters and three-quarters of the total turnout from November — in a pair of races that lived up to their billing as long, drawn-out affairs.
The election took place on the eve of a historic day in Washington, where Congress was to gather Wednesday to certify Joe Biden as president-elect, with legions of Donald Trump supporters flooding D.C. streets in protest.
Just one Republican win would deny Democrats a key prize: control of the legislative branch, which would provide a smoother path for Biden’s presidential agenda.
But Georgia, once a reliable Republican stronghold, is not the same place it was even a generation ago, said Charles Bullock, a political-science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens.
“Growing up here in Georgia, you would not have found a Mexican restaurant, you would not have found a Chinese restaurant any place in the state. Those are two groups that have grown tremendously,” Bullock said.
“The Black population in Georgia has also increased gradually. And what is taking place even more recently is that there have been increased numbers of each of these minority groups that are registering and are voting.”
Though it was by fewer than 12,000 votes, Biden carried the state in November’s presidential vote — the first Democratic nominee to do so since Bill Clinton in 1992 and the state’s former governor Jimmy Carter in 1980.
In the national capital, meanwhile, tensions continued to mount into the night as groups of Trump supporters made their way through downtown Washington, preparing for a day of protests against Biden’s win.
They plan to flood the streets Wednesday as U.S. lawmakers meet to certify the results of the presidential election — a process a number of Republican members of Congress have already vowed to oppose.
Video clips on Twitter showed groups of protesters not far from the White House, clashing with pepper-spray-wielding police officers as they tried to keep the group from venturing into the area of the city known as Black Lives Matter Plaza.
A strong Democratic showing in Georgia is liable to raise the temperature on D.C.’s superheated political atmosphere.
The 33-year-old Ossoff, a former congressional aide turned media executive and investigative journalist, has spent the last seven years as CEO of Insight TWI, a U.K.-based documentary film company.
He’s doing battle with Perdue, the Republican incumbent whose first cousin Sonny is a former Georgia governor and Trump’s secretary of agriculture. An ardent Trump backer, Perdue was bumped from the campaign trail last week after being exposed to COVID-19.
“It could be your last chance to save the America that we love. That’s why I’m here,” Trump said Monday during a get-out-the-vote rally in northern Georgia, a part of the state where Republicans had hoped to maintain a reliable base of support.
“The far left wants to destroy our country, demolish our history, and erase everything that we hold dear. This could be the most important vote you will ever cast for the rest of your life.”
Both Republicans have spent the campaign focusing their tag-team attacks less on Ossoff than on Warnock, the Baptist preacher who hopes to become the first Black Democrat senator from the Deep South.
First, though, he will need to dispatch Loeffler, a former financial-services CEO and co-owner of Atlanta’s WNBA franchise who was appointed to the seat in 2019 to succeed Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired at the end of the year for health reasons.
As an outspoken champion of progressive values like access to abortion, gay rights, Black Lives Matter and denouncing white privilege, Warnock has been a logical target for Republicans hoping to portray him as a poster boy for the “radical left.”
“It’s a choice,” Loeffler said on Fox News Sunday about the decision voters are facing. “It’s a stark contrast between the freedoms, our way of life here in Georgia, or socialism — government control.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.