ATLANTA — For 49 of the 50 United States, election season, like Halloween and Thanksgiving, is effectively over, aside from a stray news alert or random still-flying campaign flag.
But in Georgia, the election season didn’t end with the last ballots cast on Nov. 3; it just ratcheted into a higher gear. Two runoff races now underway in Georgia will determine control of the U.S. Senate, meaning what happens in the next three weeks here will define the arc of the first two years of President-elect Joe Biden’s term.
“Georgians are fired up,” Georgia-based Democratic strategist Greg Nasif told Yahoo News. “It's an alternate universe down here. Signs and billboards are everywhere. Every commercial is political. It's hard to imagine turnout reaching the presidential level, but we are treating this far more like the Doug Jones special election in Alabama in 2017 than a usual runoff election in Georgia.”
Runoff elections in Georgia, triggered when no candidate wins 50 percent of the November vote, are relatively rare. Prior to 2020, the only runoff this century took place in 2008, when Republican Saxby Chambliss defeated Democrat Jim Martin.
With so much at stake, the enthusiasm throughout the state is also met with heightened division, as residents live under a state of perpetual election: campaign ads blanketing every broadcast, giant placards along almost every public roadway and highway, high-profile and celebrity guests parachuting into the state — either in person or virtually — to pump up passion and turnout.
Two weeks ago, President Trump visited the city of Valdosta, in southern Georgia. He held a rally intended as a way to fire up enthusiasm for the state’s two Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. But Trump used a significant portion of his 90 minutes onstage to attack, without evidence, Georgia’s governor and secretary of state following his presidential election loss in a state that had gone Republican in every presidential election since 1992.
“Let them steal Georgia again,” Trump told the Valdosta attendees, “[and] you’ll never be able to look yourself in the mirror.”
Perdue and Loeffler barely spoke at the event. Instead, they joined Trump to support a frivolous Texas lawsuit that failed on Friday, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to toss out Georgia’s election results. The two incumbent senators and Trump have also called for — to no avail — Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp to resign over their handling of the state’s election results.
Tuesday, President-elect Joe Biden traveled to Georgia, speaking at a drive-in rally that was a live-streamed from Atlanta’s Pullman Yards, a former industrial site and local landmark often used as a movie set. Biden sought to rally support for Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, both of whom need to win their races against the incumbent Republicans to give Democrats control of the Senate. With an electoral college victory in hand, sealed on Monday, Biden could afford to look forward rather than backward.
“I know what we can do,” Biden said before a packed lot of honking cars. “I know what this country is capable of. I know the future we can build together. Now it’s time to send Jon and Raphael to Washington to help me get it done.”
Biden carried Georgia in November by only about 12,000 votes, of nearly five million cast. That divisive result has carried over into Georgia’s runoffs. As of Thursday morning, more than 900,000 Georgians have voted early in the Senate race. Trump voters continue to nurse grievances about the outcome of the election, while Democrats are hoping the momentum from the first-in-a-generation November flip carries through into January.
Attendance at Tuesday’s rally was limited, but Biden supporters lined the motorcade route to the event in hopes of seeing the 46th president. While cheering Ossoff and Warnock, they expressed frustration over Republicans who continue to cast doubt on Biden’s victory in the state.
“It’s really disappointing to see that 71 million people actually voted for [Trump] and [the support for] Perdue and several other representatives,” Melvin Myles, a 38-year-old Atlanta transplant from Mississippi, told Yahoo News. “They’re doing all this threatening and putting people’s lives in danger, and [people are] still going to vote for him. I don’t get that. ... It boggles my mind.”
Chris Carroll from Decatur, Ga. had more pointed words for conservatives questioning the election’s integrity, calling them “a bunch of losers” who are “full of crap.”
“I believe there are a good many people who vote solely on racial issues, and they think white people need to vote Republican,” Carroll, 70, said. “And obviously Perdue and Loeffler are making it very clear to them that that’s what they stand for.
“Even though the Republican party, in my opinion, makes a lot of average and poor people’s lives very difficult, those people keep voting for them,” Carroll added. “And they seem to be fact-free at this point and I don’t know what we can do about that except have more of us than more of them.”
The Biden supporters outside the gate ranged in age from toddlers in strollers emblazoned with “Vote early!” signs to elderly Georgians with canes and motorized wheelchairs. The group applauded as each speaker was introduced and roared when Biden took the stage.
For Courtney Johnson of Snellville, Ga., who was outside Biden’s rally selling handmade jewelry with her business partner, Liz Thomson, Republicans’ refusal to accept the presidential election results was more personal.
“I think that the things that are happening right now with everything related to voting is like an oxymoron because for decades the Black vote, the minority vote, literally didn't count,” Johnson, 39, who now lives in Atlanta and serves as CEO of Agape Gems, told Yahoo News. “Not that many generations back, I have relatives who were three-fifths of a person. So for [Republicans] to come with all these ridiculous antics to try to steal an election, when the people have spoken, it's offensive!”
“These issues are so heavy that family members don’t always talk anymore,” Thomson, 40, said, adding that she has members of her own family who are Trump supporters. “So I just try to think about how to fix it because I remember a time before 2016 when it wasn't so ugly.”
About 40 Trump demonstrators, waving large flags and carrying signs both pre-printed and handwritten, gathered on the sidewalk across the street from Pullman and down the street from the Biden supporters. The atmosphere of the pro-Trump contingent at the Biden rally was less “unspoken, barely concealed threat of violence” and more “jokesters cutting up in the back of class while the teacher’s back is turned.” Their cheerleader-style chants — “Bye Bye Bi-Den,” “Hey hey, ho ho, China Joe has got to go” — wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a high school gym.
The pro-Trump crowd was largely middle-aged and older, with a few exceptions, including a man apparently cosplaying as Hunter Biden, the president-elect’s son. Bellowing “Dad! Dad! Why won’t you let me in!” into a microphone, the Biden impersonator was drawing more chuckles than anger with his one-liners.
Trump supporters who talked with Yahoo News continued to back the president, refusing to concede that Biden won the election even after multiple recounts, state certifications and the electoral college vote.
“This isn’t over,” said Paul Chrisco of Dallas, Ga. “There have been so many signs of fraud, the only option is to have a whole new election. And the military needs to oversee it.”
“This was a stolen election,” said a woman who identified herself only as “Sandy,” from Huntsville, Ala. “It’s the biggest heist in American history. We have to investigate it. We have to get to the bottom of it.”
“You guys are delirious,” one Biden supporter grumbled as she walked past the Trump supporters. “It’s over. Go home.”
The visits from political influencers will continue over the next few weeks. Vice President Pence is slated to visit Macon, in the central part of the state, and Columbus, on Georgia’s border with Alabama, on Thursday. Celebrities, including comedians, musicians and even the cast of “Star Trek,” have announced upcoming benefit performances to turn out the vote, mostly with an eye toward bolstering the two Democratic candidates, in coming weeks. Given the importance of the elections, it’s likely that not even the holidays will slow the campaigns.
For Livie Rice, who brought her two elementary-school-aged sons to the rally to see that “change is coming” with Biden taking office, she said, regardless of your political affiliation, it’s most important is to “lead with love.”
“Everybody is in pain right now,” Rice, 38, said. “You just have to lead with goodness and hope, and although it may be heartbreaking to see people supporting people that are no good and not good for them, even though they don’t know it, you have to lead with light.”
Below are key dates for Georgians to remember ahead of the state’s Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021:
Cover Thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Patrick Semansky/AP, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Read more from Yahoo News: