There is a lot riding on a pair of elections in the southern American state of Georgia, as it votes to elect its senators two months after the general election. In the first round of voting, which took place during the November presidential election, none of Georgia’s candidates for senate earned the 50 per cent state mandated share of the vote to win.
Now, politics, history and geography are coming into collision in the state. The past and the future are in a furious tussle. Georgia, which last elected a Democrat to the Senate two decades ago and has never picked a black senator, could now call time on the status quo. Or not.
Some say Georgia’s polls straddle two political seasons. As a runoff from the November election, Georgia could legitimately be described as the last poll of the presidential election year 2020.
But it could equally be said to be the first US election of 2021, one that sets the tone for what happens in Joe Biden’s administration.
The race has drawn national and international attention and massive spending – nearly $550 million. It has also pulled in top-flight campaigners, not least president-elect Joe Biden, his vice-presidential pick Kamala Harris and President Donald Trump.
The stakes may never have been higher. Control of the senate and Mr Biden’s agenda hang in the balance. If even one of Georgia’s incumbent Republican senators wins, Mr Biden’s Democratic Party will be forced into a minority in the upper chamber of Congress. In that case, the Republican-majority Senate would be able to curtail the boldness of the incoming president’s initiatives and block key nominations to his cabinet and the judiciary. But if the Democrats win both seats, the Senate would be split, 50-50. As the US vice president is also president of the Senate, that would give Ms Harris the tie-breaking vote.
According to University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, the twin elections are rare. It is something that “has never happened before and probably never will again. Two seats, from one state, in one election, that will decide senate control. It’s just unprecedented."
And wildly unpredictable as well. There is every indication that Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are in tight contests against their Democratic rivals, black pastor Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. In November, Mr Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in almost three decades.
Now, voter enthusiasm is high, something that is considered surprising for a run-off election. As a politically tumultuous year drew to a close, roughly 3 million Georgians had voted early, setting a new state record for turnout in a run-off.
Add to that a new and riotous sense of enhanced voter mobilisation in person and by every social media channel available. More than 70,000 new voters have registered in Georgia since November 3. Civic engagement groups across the state have aggressively pushed to turn out black voters. An Indian-American political organisation has run a multi-million-dollar campaign in the state to remind Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders of their potentially decisive role in Georgia and, this time around, in national politics, too. In December, Mr Ossoff, a fresh-faced, millennial filmmaker and Democratic challenger, made his campaign debut on TikTok. The videos have gone viral by parodying popular memes and emphasising issues, such as student loan debt relief and a higher minimum wage, that resonate with young voters. The buzz has been intense, with Georgia’s teenage influencers responding with voting-related videos of their own. Some have been inserting reminders – sandwiched between fashion videos and humorous memes – on the senate’s role in helping Mr Biden enact liberal changes.
And then there is Mr Warnock, a flamboyant preacher at an Atlanta church that has a long and prominent history in the civil rights movement. The pastor has used election advertising in a clever and unusual way, to neutralise racial stereotypes as well as Republican efforts to explicitly tie him to black radicalism. Two of his adverts, featuring his pet beagle, revolve around a little-discussed issue: racism about dog ownership.
Research by California political science professor Michael Tesler shows that most Americans believe that black people are more likely to own “scary” breeds, such as rottweilers and pit bulls, while white people generally favour more approachable pets, such as golden retrievers, collies, Labradors and Dalmatians. Accordingly, analysts say that Mr Warnock’s “deracialising” adverts “will be taught in race politics classes for years to come”.
Perhaps. It’s not clear how effective the Warnock advertisements, Ossoff TikTok videos and broader voter-mobilisation efforts will eventually prove in a state that has been solidly Republican for decades.
That said, the Trump factor is increasingly complicating matters for the Republican Party, as it tries to hold on to Georgia’s crucial senate seats. Mr Trump, long seen as his party’s biggest driver of turnout, has been sending mixed messages to Georgia’s voters ever since he lost the state to Mr Biden by just under 12,000 votes. He has baselessly called the Senate races “illegal and invalid”, sown doubt about the security of elections in Georgia and in general and has openly feuded for weeks with the state’s Republican governor and head of elections for their refusal to reverse Mr Biden’s win.
On Sunday, a leaked recording of an hour-long phone call had Mr Trump putting immense pressure and even threatening Georgia's top officials. The Republicans might lose the senate seats, he said, "a lot of people aren't going out to vote…because they hate what you did to the President". Even before that extraordinary audio was heard around the world, veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz was warning that Mr Trump's behaviour could prove costly by depressing Republican turnout.
Whatever happens, the results will probably not be known for days, given that it took more than a week to call the November 3 election in Georgia. The state may be the final episode in an American political thriller that promised to be nail-biting right to the end.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a columnist for The National