Republicans are counting on record numbers of supporters to show up at polling stations in Georgia on Tuesday and propel Donald Trump’s party to victory in two elections that will determine control of the US Senate.
Mr Trump’s party is seen as the favourite to win both contests on Tuesday, given the Republicans’ long grip on Georgia politics. Republican candidates earned more votes than their Democratic rivals in a pair of Senate elections held on November 3, which resulted in Tuesday’s run-off contests because no one secured more than 50 per cent of the vote.
However, the Republicans will need high turnout on Tuesday to offset what appears to have been a strong performance for Democrats during early voting.
A large share of black, Asian-American and college-educated white voters have already cast their ballots, mirroring the coalition of supporters that helped Democrat Joe Biden clinch a narrow victory in the state in November’s presidential election.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said both races were “toss-ups” but that Republicans would need “impressive day-of-election performance” to win their seats.
An unprecedented 3m people have cast their ballots early ahead of Tuesday’s elections, where Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are facing Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively. The run-offs are required under Georgia state rules because none of the candidates passed the 50 per cent threshold in November.
Mr Trump, the outgoing president, held a rally in Dalton, Georgia, on Monday night, in a last-minute push to motivate his rightwing base of supporters. “You are going to get everyone you know, you are going to show up at the polls in record numbers, you are going to swamp them,” he told the cheering crowd.
It is unclear whether the president’s berating of Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state, and claims that voting systems in the state are “rigged”, will motivate or discourage his supporters from casting ballots on Tuesday.
However, Patrick Welsh, a 52-year-old voter waiting in line to vote in Savannah on Tuesday morning, said Mr Trump’s baseless claims of fraud encouraged him to cast his ballot.
“I don’t think the [presidential] election was close. There was an unbelievable amount of fraud,” said Mr Welsh, adding that demographic changes in Georgia had made him “scared to send my kids to school”.
Tom Bonier, chief executive of Democratic data firm TargetSmart, said that the Democrats’ apparent strength during early voting was “certainly on the high end of expectations”.
Mr Bonier said Democrats had built up a lead that Republicans now needed to surmount with a surge of voters on election day, mirroring the dynamics of the November general election, when Mr Trump won on-the-day voting before being overtaken by Mr Biden after early ballots were counted.
“It is the same position [Republicans] were in two months ago,” he said. “They knew Democrats had built up a lead in early vote. They knew that they had to dig themselves out of that hole in order to carry the state. It turned out, at least from the presidential perspective, that the hole was too deep . . . Now the gap is bigger. That is not say they can’t do it, but it will be a challenge.”
The stakes in the pair of Senate elections could not be higher. If the Republicans win either run-off, they will maintain control of the upper chamber, giving them the power to stymie much of Mr Biden’s legislative agenda. If the Democrats win both contests, they will control a 50-50 Senate, with vice-president Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote.
Democrats have some cause for optimism following Mr Biden’s victory in Georgia. The former vice-president became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in almost 30 years when he defeated Mr Trump by a razor-thin margin of nearly 12,000 votes, out of some 5m votes cast.
Democrats and Republicans alike say Tuesday’s results are likely to be tight. A FiveThirtyEight average of the latest opinion polls show Mr Ossoff leading Mr Perdue by 1.8 points, and Mr Warnock ahead of Ms Loeffler by 2.1 points — both within the margin of error.
“Regardless of who wins the election, these margins are going to be close,” said Andra Gillespie, a political-science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
The mobilisation of black voters — who make up just under one-third of the Georgia electorate and are overwhelmingly more likely to vote for Democrats — is seen as crucial if Mr Warnock and Mr Ossoff are to win.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a group that aims to mobilise black voters, said the figures underscored a wave of enthusiasm among African-Americans who may have stayed home in November after being disillusioned by years of having their votes suppressed.
Brianna Lewis, a 28-year-old, black Democrat waiting to cast her ballot in Savannah on Tuesday, said she was voting because she wanted “things to be better given the year we just had” and that she had been incentivised by Mr Biden’s victory in November.
“After Georgia turned blue, I realised that it really is changing,” said Ms Lewis.