ATLANTA (AP) — Georgians cast their ballots Tuesday in two critical races that will determine control of the U.S. Senate and, in turn, the fate of President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. Two months after Election Day 2020, the voting will also impact Donald Trump's final days in the White House.
Even with the high stakes, state election officials reported light turnout early in the day, including across the deeply conservative region where Trump held a rally Monday night to encourage GOP voters to turn out in force.
At issue were two Senate runoff elections, leftovers from the November general election when none of the candidates hit the 50% threshold. Democrats needed to win both races to seize Senate control — and with it control of the new Congress when Biden takes office in two weeks.
In one contest, Republican Kelly Loeffler, a 50-year-old former businesswoman who was appointed to the Senate less than a year ago by the state’s governor, faced Democrat Raphael Warnock, 51, who serves as the senior pastor of the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and preached.
The other election pitted 71-year-old former business executive David Perdue, a Republican who held his Senate seat until his term 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.
The unusual importance for the runoffs has transformed Georgia, once a solidly Republican state, into one of the nation’s premier battlegrounds during the final days of Trump's presidency.
Biden and Trump campaigned for their candidates in person on the eve of the election, although some Republicans fear Trump may have confused voters by continuing to make wild claims of voter fraud as he tries to undermine Biden's victory. The president assailed Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger repeatedly this week for rejecting his fraud contentions and raised the prospect on Twitter that some ballots might not be counted even as votes were being cast Tuesday afternoon.
There was no evidence of wrongdoing.
In Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood, 37-year-old Kari Callaghan said she voted “all Democrat” on Tuesday, an experience that was new for her.
“I’ve always been Republican, but I’ve been pretty disgusted by Trump and just the way the Republicans are working and especially the news this weekend about everything happening in Georgia,” she said. “I feel like for the Republican candidates to still stand there with Trump and campaign with Trump feels pretty rotten. This isn’t the conservative values that I grew up with."
But 56-year-old Will James said he voted “straight GOP."
He said he was concerned by the Republican candidates' recent support of Trump’s challenges of the presidential election results in Georgia, "but it didn’t really change the reasons I voted.”
“I believe in balance of power, and I don’t want either party to have a referendum basically,” he said.
Even before Tuesday, Georgia had shattered its turnout record for a runoff with more than 3 million votes by mail or during in-person advance voting in December. The state’s previous record was 2.1 million in a 2008 Senate runoff.
The early turnout was expected to benefit Democrats, as it helped Biden in November become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992. Republicans were counting on a big turnout on Tuesday to make up for the Democrats' perceived early vote advantage.
“GEORGIA! Get out and VOTE. ...” Trump wrote Tuesday in one of several tweets encouraging his loyalists to vote for the two Republican candidates on the ballot.
Loeffler pledged Monday to join a small but growing number of GOP senators protesting Congress’ expected certification of Biden’s victory on Wednesday. She and her allies have seized on 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.
If Republicans win either seat, Biden would be the first incoming president in more than a century to enter the Oval Office facing a divided Congress. In that case, he would have little shot for swift votes on his most ambitious plans to expand government-backed health care coverage, 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.
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. The results also will help demonstrate whether the political coalition that fueled 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 5 million cast in November.
Democrats counted on driving a huge turnout of African Americans, young voters, college-educated Georgians and women, all groups that helped Biden win the state. Republicans, meanwhile, have been focused on energizing their own base of white men and voters beyond the core of metro Atlanta.
In downtown Atlanta, Henry Dave Chambliss, 67, voted for the two Republicans. He said he wanted Republicans to keep Senate control to ensure the incoming Biden administration doesn’t slide “all the way to the left.”
“I’m moderately successful and I know they will come after more of my money which I’ve earned,” Chambliss said. “I was born a Southern Democrat, and I just hope and pray that some moderate voices are heard and things stay more in the middle of the road.”
Beverly McDaniel cast her ballot Tuesday amid light turnout at a neighborhood center’s gymnasium in Atlanta. She voted for both Democrats, saying she believes they would do better dealing with the hardships wrought by the coronavirus.
“Our kids are not fully, fully in school like they’re supposed to be and people don’t have jobs,” said McDaniel, a medical field worker. She said the virus “is taking over where we should have the government taking over instead.”
Bynum reported from Savannah. AP journalists Haleluya Hadero, Angie Wang and Sophia Tulp contributed from Atlanta.