John Lewis looms large in Clayton County.

The civil rights activist and longtime congressman, who died in July at the age of 80, first came on to the national stage at the March on Washington in 1963, speaking alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. He went on to represent Clayton, a heavily African-American county just south of Atlanta, Georgia, in Congress for more than three decades.

Lewis spent the final years of his life locking horns with US president Donald Trump, who claimed his congressional district was “in horrible shape and falling apart”.

So there was a certain poetic justice for voters there when the county’s declaration tipped Joe Biden ahead of Mr Trump in Georgia as ballots were still being counted earlier this month. With some 5m votes cast, Mr Biden ended up winning the state by a margin of just under 13,000, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win there since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Rev Raphael Warnock, one of the Democratic candidates in the Senate run-off, speaks at a Get Out and Vote rally in Jonesboro © CHRIS ALUKA BERRY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Two weeks later, in the car park of Divine Faith Ministries International, a church in Jonesboro, the county seat, hundreds of Democrats were still celebrating. Many had face masks emblazoned with Lewis’s catchphrase “good trouble”, a reference to his commitment to non-violent protest. Others wore blue T-shirts reading: “Clayton County saved America.”

Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, addressed the crowd as the sun began to set. “Clayton County, do you know how powerful you are?” he asked, with the cadence of a practised preacher. “You were the county that pushed us over the finish line and flipped Georgia blue.”

Not only was Georgia the narrowest of swing states in the presidential election, but in January it will also determine which party controls the US Senate — and with it, the nature of the Biden presidency.

Run-off rivals

DEMOCRAT

Jon Ossoff, 33

Ran a close second in the first round of voting

Native Georgian who works as an investigative journalist and narrowly lost a high-profile congressional race in 2017

REPUBLICAN

David Perdue, 70

Led in the first-round of voting but did not win by enough to prevent a run-off

Businessman and former chief executive who has been the senator for Georgia since 2015

“You have power, and it would be a shame if come January 5 you did not exercise that power,” Rev Warnock added. “Are you ready to stand up one more time?”

Thanks to a rare set of circumstances, both of Georgia’s US Senate seats have run-off elections on January 5. Rev Warnock, who is pastor of the Atlanta church once led by Dr King, faces Kelly Loeffler, a 50-year-old former Wall Street executive. In the other race, incumbent Republican senator David Perdue, a 70-year-old former chief executive of Dollar General, the discount variety store chain, is running against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 33-year-old documentary film producer.

Democrats had hoped to not only win the White House, but also reclaim control of the Senate on November 3. But after fending off several well-funded Democratic challengers, the Republicans will have at least 50 seats in the 100-member upper chamber of Congress, while Democrats currently have 48. If Democrats are able to pick up the two remaining Senate seats in Georgia, that will leave the chamber split, with Kamala Harris, the vice-president-elect, able to cast a tiebreaking vote.

Run-off rivals

DEMOCRAT

Raphael Warnock, 51

Won 32.8 per cent to lead in the first round

Senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta

REPUBLICAN

Kelly Loeffler, 50

Won 25.9 per cent to beat fellow Republican Doug Collins and advance to the run-off

Former Wall Street executive appointed as senator for Georgia in 2019

With even the slimmest Democratic Senate majority, a Biden administration would be able to press ahead with its legislative agenda on everything from Covid-19-related economic stimulus to healthcare reform. Without it, Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s most-senior Republican, would likely stand in the way of Mr Biden’s best-laid plans, forcing Washington into gridlock.

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Georgia has become one of the most politically competitive states in the country, mirroring the dynamics of the wider US electorate. An aggressive effort to register and mobilise black voters has benefited Democrats, while the state’s rural population, which is overwhelmingly white, remains loyal to Mr Trump, even in defeat.

At the same time, the fast-growing Atlanta suburbs have become both more diverse and more disillusioned with Mr Trump and Republicans — a sentiment that some party officials worry will spill over into the January run-off, particularly if the president continues to refuse to concede to Mr Biden.

For Democrats, the message is clear: voters can only fully reject Mr Trump if they return to the polls on January 5 to elect Mr Warnock and Mr Ossoff.

“There are hundreds of thousands of lives hanging in the balance, y’all,” said Mr Ossoff as he campaigned alongside Mr Warnock in Jonesboro. “I am here to ask for your vote . . . not for my sake, but for the sake of our community, for the sake of our state and for the sake of our nation.”

Stacey Abrams is widely credited with galvanising African-American support for the Democrats in Georgia © AP

Registration drive

As recently as four years ago, few would have believed that a Democratic presidential candidate could win in Georgia, a conservative southern state with high levels of church attendance and a history of racial division.

But the electoral landscape has changed, due in part to the organising efforts of people such as Stacey Abrams, the former lawmaker who narrowly lost the state’s governor race in 2018. Ms Abrams is widely credited as the architect behind grassroots efforts to engage African-Americans, who make up nearly a third of the state’s population and are overwhelmingly more likely to vote for Democrats.

In 2014, she set up a group called the New Georgia Project to register and mobilise black voters. Two years ago, after she came up short in the governor’s race, she launched another organisation, Fair Fight Action, to tackle voter suppression tactics. Since then, some 800,000 new voters have been registered in the state, many of them African-American.

Chart showing that the state of Georgia’s has had two tight Senate run-offs. Latest polling, Nov 16-17 (%) between Jon Ossoff (Democrat) and David Perdue (Republican) and also Raphael Warnock (Democrat) and Kelly Loeffler (Republican)

After election day, countless Democrats praised Ms Abrams for her efforts. At the event in Jonesboro, many Democrats wore paraphernalia bearing her name. One woman had altered her “Stacey Abrams Governor” T-shirt from 2018 so the slogan read “Stacey Abrams Goddess”.

LeWanna Heard-Tucker, the Democratic party chair in Fulton county, which includes most of Atlanta, says the 2018 governor’s race galvanised black voters for 2020. “We worked really hard to get Stacey elected, and we know that election was stolen from her. We know what voter suppression looks like, and people were fed up, particularly black voters,” she says.

But it was not only black voters in urban areas that propelled Mr Biden to victory in Georgia. The former vice-president also benefited in Georgia from a sea change in the Atlanta suburbs, including one-time Republican strongholds such as Cobb and Gwinnett counties.

Map showing Georgia, US and key counties

Cobb County, just north of Atlanta, has long been associated with the GOP. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House, represented the area in Congress for two decades.

But the suburban sprawl has transformed in recent years, in part due to an influx of younger, college-educated people, many from more liberal areas in the north-east or Midwest, drawn to a booming jobs market in greater Atlanta. They have made the suburbs more racially and ethnically diverse, and once wide open spaces are now dotted with construction sites for apartment buildings.

Mrs Clinton edged out Mr Trump in both Cobb and neighbouring Gwinnett County in 2016. Mr Biden defeated Mr Trump by a 14-point margin in Cobb, and 18 points in Gwinnett. Turnout in Cobb was up by a fifth compared with 2016; in Gwinnett, turnout surged by a quarter.

Civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. (third from R front row) and John Lewis (fourth from L front row), talk to reporters after meeting President John F Kennedy after the March on Washington in 1963 © REUTERS

“We used to build statewide Republican victories on massive Republican margins in Cobb and Gwinnett counties,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “When I saw that Hillary Clinton had won both Cobb and Gwinnett in 2016, I thought, oh the times, they are a changin’.”

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Jacquelyn Bettadapur, chair of the Cobb County Democratic party, first got involved in local politics in the run-up to the 2016 election. She was invited to join a secret Facebook group for hundreds of moms who supported Democratic candidates, and recalls being “floored” by the group’s existence, saying: “I had spent so many years thinking I was the only progressive within 15 square miles.”

“I think there were a lot of disaffected Republicans,” she adds. “The ranks of these women’s groups are full of former Republicans.”

Voters in Gwinnett County queue for early voting in the presidential election where Mr Biden beat Mr Trump by 18 points © Getty Images

Jason Shepherd, who chairs the Cobb County Republicans, acknowledges the demographic changes in the area have favoured Democrats, but adds that in most cases, the Trump campaign acted independently of local candidates, many of whom are more popular in the area than the president.

“I have never met Donald Trump . . . I have never shaken his hand or been in a picture with him or anything,” he says. “Rallies are still fun, even with masks, but rallies do not engage the concern of a voter who is still trying to decide, well, I like Donald Trump’s policies, but I really do not care for him as a person.”

Chart showing that Georgia last voted for a Democratic president (Bill Clinton) in 1992. Votes cast at presidential elections (%).

Brendan Buck, a Georgia native who was a top aide to former Republican House speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, says the Atlanta suburbs were the “purest example in the country of where educated voters, particularly women, have just had enough of this president”.

“There is only so long you can put up with pure incompetence if you are a smart educated person following the news. It is only so long you can have someone talk down to and alienate women before they decide to come out in huge numbers,” he says.

But Mr Buck added that just because the voters had turned on Mr Trump did not mean they were forever aligned with the Democratic party. “Those suburbs just wanted to send a message to Trump,” says Mr Buck. “The question for the run-off now is: do those voters feel like they sent their message? Or do they feel like they have more work to do?”

Maps showing that in Atlanta, majority-black areas swung slightly towards Trump, but a combination of increased turnout and their enduring strong pro-Democrat lean meant they still added more new votes for the Democrats than the Republicans

‘Last line of defence’

On January 5, turnout will be key. Run-offs, like midterms and special elections, have attracted fewer voters than presidential contests. In Georgia, that has often translated into Republican candidates triumphing over Democratic challengers. But this time around, Republican leaders acknowledge Democrats are fired up, and the two run-offs are likely to be tight. The few polls that have been conducted in recent weeks suggest both races are tight.

“We are running as if we are behind,” says David Shafer, a former state legislator who now chairs the state Republican party.

While Democrats are looking to African-American communities in places such as Clayton County, and suburban supporters outside Atlanta, Republicans are hoping to run up their numbers in more rural parts of the state.

US vice-president Mike Pence earlier this month joined Ms Loeffler and Mr Perdue for two “Defend the Majority” rallies in Cherokee and Hall counties, exurbs of Atlanta where Mr Trump received more than twice as many votes as Mr Biden on November 3.

Vice-president Mike Pence, left, with Republican candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue at a Defend the Majority Rally in Canton © Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

In Cherokee County, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, they addressed an outdoor crowd of several hundred people, many wearing red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps.

They argued that Democrat-controlled White House and Congress would push through “socialist” policies, like Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All proposals, which would effectively eliminate private health insurance, or the Green New Deal, a climate package associated with the progressive New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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“Today, we are the last line of defence against this country making a change to the left that we won’t get to undo for maybe two, three, four, five generations. We can’t let that happen,” said Mr Perdue, who, like Ms Loeffler, is among the wealthiest members of Congress and has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for stock trades at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Let’s make darn sure that the road to socialism never runs through the state of Georgia.”

What all three failed to say, however, was something on the minds of virtually everyone in the crowd: Mr Trump has not conceded in Georgia, or nationwide, to Mr Biden, continuing to argue, without evidence, that the November 3 election was “rigged” amid widespread fraud.

Given the close nature of the race, every ballot in Georgia was manually reviewed in an unprecedented statewide audit ordered by Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state who has come under attack from several members of his own party, including the president. On Thursday, Mr Trump called his fellow Republican an “enemy of the people”.

Mr Trump’s supporters are not backing down, and at the Cherokee County rally, voters across the board were repeating his unsubstantiated claims.

A Trump rally a few days before the presidential election © AFP via Getty Images

Susan Maguire, 62, said she was “positive” that votes were cast illegally in Democratic areas. “I believe for sure that there are things that were done illegally in the voting systems in many of these Democratic cities. I am positive of it,” she says. “Why can anybody think they wouldn’t try to rig the election?”

Local estate agent Dawn Faletti, 55, agreed, saying: “This will be overturned and all of the fraud will be revealed and exposed, and [Mr Trump and Mr Pence] will win. We are standing here and we are standing with them ‘til the end.”

Such sentiments underscore the divisions within a Republican party that is grappling with how to handle Mr Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his defeat.

Like many of their colleagues on Capitol Hill, Mr Perdue and Ms Loeffler are wary of going against Mr Trump, given his purported desire to run for president again in 2024. In Georgia, the senators need Mr Trump’s most ardent supporters to turn out again for them in January — but they also risk alienating more moderate Republicans if they lurch too far to the right. The president is to hold a rally in the state next Saturday.

“This is not the type of environment that either of the Republicans want to be running in. It is a strategy that they are left with because of the president,” says Mr Buck, the former Republican congressional aide, of Mr Perdue and Ms Loeffler’s dilemma.

“They know that if he were to turn on them, he could absolutely tank Republican turnout,” he adds. “I think they also know that he doesn’t give a damn about the Senate majority, he doesn’t give a damn about those two senators, and if he feels slighted, it would be no skin off his back to tweet out that they are not fighting hard enough, that they are surrendering and that they don’t deserve anybody’s support.”

Mr Buck pointed out that Mr Trump’s antics risked not only suppressing moderate turnout, but could also have the unintended consequence of discouraging the conservative base. “How long can you tell people that the election is rigged before they decide not to participate any more?”

US presidential election 2020: You tell us

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Via Financial Times