Supporters watch election results during a runoff election night party at Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead in Atlanta, Georgia on Jan 5, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

First ballots cast in $500m runoff poll races that determine Senate control

After an unprecedented campaign that mobilized US President Donald Trump and his soon-to-be successor Joe Biden, Georgians trooped to the polls on Tuesday for two closely watched US Senate runoffs that could shape the first years of the new Democratic presidency.

For nearly 20 years Georgia has voted reliably Republican in the presidential election and Senate contests.

But Biden pulled out a shock victory in the state in November, when Georgia became one of several states that he flipped to win the White House. Now, the races for the Senate have come down to the wire in the biggest, most expensive congressional runoffs in the history of the United States.

Polls opened at 7 am. A record 3 million-plus people have voted early, election officials say, and the final results may not be known for several days.

Nearly $500 million combined, a staggering figure, has been spent on campaign advertising.

The two parties have made Georgia their political ground zero, with thousands of volunteers leaving no door unknocked and current and future presidents and vice-presidents barnstorming the state for every last vote.

If Republicans win just one of the runoff races, they keep the Senate majority. If Democrats win both, they will ultimately control a 50-50 Senate, because US Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris can cast tie-breaking votes.

“One state-one state!-can chart the course, not just for the next four years but for the next generation,” Biden told a rally in Atlanta where he campaigned on Monday with the races’ two Democrats.

Republicans argue that keeping Senate control would serve as a check on the incoming Biden administration.

The races feature Republican incumbent senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both wealthy businesspeople-turned-politicians, against black pastor Raphael Warnock and documentary producer Jon Ossoff.

Noting that “the whole world is watching”, Trump implored Georgians to reelect the Republicans. Tuesday’s runoffs are “your last chance to save the America that we love”, he said.

Trump, still scheming to overturn the election results, jetted to Georgia amid a scandal over his blatant attempt on a phone call to pressure state officials to reverse the certified vote and hand him victory.

A recording of the call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was published by The Washington Post.

On the tape, Trump tells Raffensperger he wants to “find 11,780 votes”-one more than Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia-and repeatedly and falsely claims that he won the state, an assertion refuted in recounts and in the courts.

Conspiracy theories

But while Republican officials in Georgia defied the Trump’s outrage to assert that Biden’s victory is clear, Trump supporters at his rally in Dalton, a rural and conservative stronghold, said they remained convinced that he had won.

Like Trump, they touted unproven conspiracy theories that Democrats committed massive fraud to steal the vote.

Democrats, on the other hand, are galvanized by Biden’s narrow victory in the state on November 3, a first since 1992.

One day after the runoffs, Congress will meet in a joint session to certify the Electoral College vote that confirmed Biden as the presidential winner.

Certification is usually a formality. But while Republican heavyweights like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have acknowledged Biden’s victory, dozens of Republicans in the House of Representatives and 12 in the Senate loyal to Trump-including Loeffler-have signaled they will raise objections to the certification.

Agencies and

Ai Heping

in New York contributed to this story.