On Monday night, Richard Steele, a chaplain with the sheriff’s office in Whitfield County, Georgia, wandered around the parking lot of the Dalton Mall, looking for a mask that he could wear. He was on his way to a “Save the Senate” rally for the Republican candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, headlined by Donald Trump. The campaigns had reportedly chosen Dalton for the rally because early voting in the surrounding area, which is deep red and largely rural, was relatively low. Steele didn’t think that Loeffler or Perdue stood much of a chance against the challengers, the Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, given what he’d seen in the Presidential election. “They stole it,” he said, referring to the Democrats. He added, “Us southern men, we feel like we’ve been betrayed on the results of the election. We’re peaceful people, but . . .” He trailed off. Steele believed that God had given Trump to America, he said. What about Loeffler and Perdue? “The names don’t matter,” he replied. “It’s Republican or Democrat. We’re just gonna pull the Republican handle.” He already had.
Elsewhere in the lot, a retired pilot named Marty held a sign reading “Biden didn’t win, we all know it.” We chatted as a queue formed to get on a bus to drive to the rally. Marty had come up from Florida, and he had four adult relatives in Georgia; three had already voted. He sensed disillusionment among fellow-Republicans about voting, but, he said, “There’s no alternative.” Pointing to the gathering crowd, he said, “Every one of these people out here do not believe that the election was legitimate.” He was certain, he said, “that on January twenty, Trump will be re-inaugurated.”
On the bus were thirty-odd people who hailed from all over: Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, New Mexico. There was talk of an upcoming protest in Washington, D.C., and of travel logistics. One man bemoaned that he was in “Facebook jail,” not for the first time, for posting a picture of Hitler. “I’m getting close to a lifetime ban,” he said. No one mentioned Loeffler or Perdue until I did. “I don’t understand her qualifications,” the Facebook prisoner said of Loeffler. “It’s like a hobby for her. Like she decided to play music.” He’d vote for both Republicans anyway, he said.
At the airport, vendors sold all manner of Trump memorabilia. Harlee, the owner of a construction company, who lives in South Carolina and was at the rally with her young daughter, told me that Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, was “compromised.” She expected the Democrats to win both Senate races. “It won’t be fair,” she said. I asked about the leaked recording of a phone call during which Trump told Raffensperger to “find” eleven thousand seven hundred and eighty votes—the margin by which he lost the state, plus one. She changed the subject to “dead people voting” and “suitcases of ballots.” She added, “We’re not stupid.” Most of the Georgians I talked to had already voted or planned to vote for both Republicans, but a massage therapist from Rome, in nearby Floyd County, said he’d only vote for Loeffler. He liked that she was “basically an unknown,” he said. As we spoke, Donald Trump, Jr., was yelling to the crowd about “Commie bastards.”
The space for the rally was delineated by an eerie perimeter of dozens of empty school buses; when Marine One touched down, around nine o’clock, the area was less than half full. “I’ve had two elections,” Trump said. “I won both of them. It’s amazing.” In keeping with his performance at a previous Georgia rally, a month before, he talked more about his own grievances than about Loeffler or Perdue. “They’re not taking this White House,” the President said, referring to Democrats. “We’re going to fight like hell, I’ll tell you right now.” People began to leave midway through the speech, before Loeffler got her time at the microphone and indicated that she would join a dozen Republican senators who planned to object to the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory. (Perdue, who was in quarantine because of a possible exposure to the coronavirus, made a video appearance.) Hundreds had been stranded late into the night after the President’s last rally in Georgia, and attendees were wary of the hours they might end up waiting for a bus in the freezing cold. I hopped in the bed of a pickup truck with a half dozen Trump supporters. Only one of them was from Georgia. On the cold ride back to our cars, none of them mentioned Loeffler, Perdue, or the election happening the next day.
On Tuesday afternoon, I drove half an hour south of downtown Atlanta, to a precinct at a middle school in a predominantly Black part of Clayton County. In November, the Presidential election had come down to late returns from Clayton, and it seemed possible that could happen again. Voters were exhausted—by an unprecedented onslaught of political calls, texts, flyers, door-knockers, billboards, even banners in the sky—and many politely waved me away. But voters were showing up at a slightly better pace than they had on November 3rd, which, like Tuesday, had been sunny and cool. Groups of three and four steadily went in and out of the school. An elderly Black woman named Aretha offered a brief summation of her feelings as she got into her car, noting concerns about “health” and “things taken from us.” Turning on her car radio, which played a political ad, she said, “No more Republicans. They’ve done too much.” She added, “I’m glad this day is over with.”
A pair of masked and scarfed middle-aged sisters, Tina and Della, left the precinct and pushed against a wind back to their car. Tina, who lived around the corner but relished voting on Election Day, said that she was motivated by “the things that people before me went through.” Everyone she knew had voted but she said that she was still “a little bit worried. I’m still hoping and trusting and praying.”
I also met two Black men who voted for Loeffler and Perdue. Malcolm, a middle-aged man in a baseball cap pulled low, told me that he’d voted Republican because of concerns about the economy and the pandemic. Joe, a logistics technician, had almost stayed home to protest the fraud he believed had taken place in November, he said. “I really didn’t want to participate,” he told me. “But I know there’s a lot of Americans counting on us Georgians to try to save the Republic.”
I headed an hour north, to Milton, Georgia, where Republicans still predominate. Ossoff and Warnock signs had multiplied since my previous visit, in November, but most of the people I spoke to had voted for Loeffler and Perdue. “It’s about checks and balances,” Josh, a forty-year-old special-effects tech, said. “If the Senate falls, so does everything else. If this ship isn’t righted, it’s gonna capsize.” I talked with a woman named Sharon, who wore a leopard-print outfit. “I’m a very strong Republican, O.K.?” she said. “I don’t believe that we make money and then have to pay for all the people that do not work, O.K.? I do not believe in that.” In the closing days of the campaign, Ossoff had promised that if Georgia elected him and Warnock, Congress would pass a COVID-19 relief bill that includes two thousand dollar checks to most Americans.
Just before the polls closed, at 7 p.m., I talked with an Indian-American couple as they walked to their car. “The most important thing is how Covid is being handled,” the husband, an I.T. worker, said. “It could be a lot better. If we’re the No. 1 country in the world, we shouldn’t be having so many deaths.” He went on, “All my friends have voted.” His wife said, “They’re all Democrats.” The husband added, “I think this time Georgia will turn blue.”
As Tuesday night wore on, and counties around the state began reporting results, good news kept arriving for the Democrats. Around midnight, I called Charles Bullock, a longtime professor of political science at the University of Georgia, who was up watching the results come in. He wasn’t quite ready to say that either race had been decided, but he was struck by how well Warnock was doing, in particular. “It’s within the living memory of many, many people where a Black candidate would not have had much of a chance of winning—probably no chance of winning—statewide,” Bullock said. And here Warnock was, not only leading his Republican opponent, but running ahead of Ossoff, too. Bullock noted that, for a pure test of party identification in Georgia, one might look to a less publicized runoff that happened on Tuesday, for public-service commissioner. The Republican, Lauren (Bubba) McDonald, got more votes than Loeffler or Perdue did, and was poised to win. Warnock’s likely victory, then, had something to do with the candidate, and with organizers. “I was talking to a Warnock person,” Bullock said. “His notion was that Warnock had spent more time down in Southwest Georgia than Ossoff had”—winning over Black voters not only in metro Atlanta but in rural parts of the state. Later, Bernard Fraga, a political-science professor at Emory University and the author of “The Turnout Gap,” told me that there was still a chance that, when all the numbers came in, Black turnout in the runoff would exceed Black turnout in the general election. If it did, he said, it could “constitute the largest number of African-American voters voting in any election, in a single state, in history.”
On the Republican side, meanwhile, recriminations had begun. There were early indications that turnout in the conservative northern part of the state, where Trump had rallied voters the night before, was not as strong as it was elsewhere. At 1 a.m., I called Brian Robinson, a veteran G.O.P. strategist who served as the communications director for Nathan Deal, the governor of Georgia from 2011 to 2019. Robinson said that he’d been sitting in front of the TV for three hours. He was drinking Bud Light. “I have been waving the red flag for years, yelling into the wilderness that demographic change was going to make this a competitive state,” he said. He added, “We went into an election with a fifty-fifty electorate. And Bubba McDonald showed that there was a generic-ballot Republican majority still. And we certainly dropped a lot of napalm on Warnock and Ossoff, no doubt about it. Hundreds of millions of dollars for it. But the overriding narrative was the Republican infighting.” Robinson was insistent that “the Perdue and Loeffler people ran good campaigns,” calling their strategy “defensible in a political court of law in front of a jury of political consultants.” They had no choice, he said, but to rely on Trump—for one thing, he said, “Trump was going to destroy them if they didn’t.” He added, “I’ll be interested to see if there’s an admittance, post-election, that there was a gun to the head. I know that there was.”
But also, he continued, Trump is “the Republicans’ No. 1 turnout machine,” and so they had to take their chances with him. “They brought up the biggest guns they had,” he said. “The thing is, there’s a lot of kickback with our big guns.” Trump drives turnout not only among Republicans but also among Democrats, Robinson noted. “How many Democrats saw Kelly Loeffler get up there Monday night and say, ‘I’m going to contest the electoral college,’ and they said, ‘By God, I’m cancelling my lunch tomorrow and I’m going to go to the elementary school to vote?” he asked.
I was thinking about that moment, too, and about the deflated scene at Trump’s rally in Dalton. On Wednesday morning, John Cowan, who ran for Congress in the district that includes Dalton, but lost the Republican primary to the more flagrantly Trump-like candidate, Marjorie Taylor Greene, texted me, calling the result “a rejection of Republican Populism.” The Georgia G.O.P. “needs to return to compassionate, Christian conservatism to inspire people,” Cowan wrote, adding, in parentheses, “more CCC and no KKK” and appending a cry-laughing emoji. At 8 a.m., Jon Ossoff posted a video thanking the state of Georgia for electing him to the Senate, although the race had not yet been called. Shortly before he did so, I dug up a video that I had shot on my phone on Monday night, of people leaving the Dalton rally well before it was over and before Loeffler spoke. I shared it on Twitter, and Debbie Dooley, a Tea Party activist in Atlanta with whom I’d discussed Trump and the Republicans several times in the past, replied. “I tried to warn folks Loeffler would lose,” she wrote. Referring to Loeffler’s opponent in the Republican primary, the faithful Trump supporter Doug Collins, Dooley added, “She expected Collins supporters to show up and vote for her. I sure as hell didn’t.”