ATLANTA — Joe Biden became the first Democrat to capture Georgia in a presidential contest in nearly three decades by narrowly defeating President Donald Trump, transforming the state from a Republican stronghold to one of the nation’s major electoral battlegrounds.
Fueled by new support in the suburbs and soaring turnout in cities, Biden did something no other Democrat has accomplished since 1992. Though he clinched the presidency days ago, the victory here was a capstone for Democrats who struggled for years to change the state’s political landscape.
It was a razor-thin win, with Biden ahead by roughly 14,000 votes. Several media outlets projected Biden’s victory in Georgia early Friday afternoon, as election staffers began a statewide recount of the nearly 5 million ballots cast in the presidential race. State officials have said the results will not change the outcome.
And it came as voters prepared for another election that will test whether Trump’s defeat in Georgia heralds greater political change. Republican U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue face Jan. 5 runoffs that will likely determine control of the U.S. Senate — and shape Biden’s legislative agenda.
The flip was the result of years of painstaking work from Democrats led by Stacey Abrams, who registered hundreds of thousands of new voters, energized supporters by embracing liberal positions and made inroads to areas once dominated by Republicans.
But it was hastened by Trump, whose 5-point victory in Georgia in 2016 signaled the beginning of a political shift. He narrowly lost Cobb and Gwinnett counties, once-reliably Republican areas that hadn’t voted Democratic in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter’s era. Since then, the suburbs have only turned a deeper shade of blue.
Biden’s campaign helped speed the shift. Democrats built a massive campaign apparatus stocked with savvy strategists in the state, and key members of the party, including Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, built the case for more resources.
In the final week of the campaign, Biden delivered a closing speech in rural west Georgia, pledging a return to civility and consensus if he won. His running mate, Kamala Harris, and former President Barack Obama also campaigned here in the final two days of the race with a focus on energizing Black voters.
Trump’s campaign was not caught off guard. Just about every public poll showed he was deadlocked with Biden, and he staged a late intervention to keep Georgia in the Republican column with several visits before the vote, including a massive rally in northwest Georgia two days ahead of the election.
Though Trump publicly downplayed his chances of losing Georgia, state Republicans were more candid. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called Georgia a must win for Trump, while Biden’s camp viewed the state as just one of several pathways to achieve 270 Electoral College votes.
Now with swing-state status, Democrats hope the flip delivers them a morale boost ahead of the next round of votes. No Georgia Democrat has won statewide office since 2006. But Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, competing against the two Senate Republican incumbents, can now point to Biden’s win as a testament to their chances.
“Maybe you felt these last few days what I have in my heart for the first time in a while, y’all. It’s hope,” Ossoff told a cheering crowd late Thursday, as misty rain fell on the outskirts of downtown Savannah. “Change has come to Georgia.”
Top Georgia Republicans have still not acknowledged Biden’s victory — nationally or in Georgia. But they’re urging conservatives to shift their attention to the twin 2021 runoffs,
“We have to tell our friends who voted for Donald Trump” to turn out, Perdue told dozens of supporters in a Forsyth County restaurant. “They may be disappointed. We don’t know how that’s going to turn out yet, but we have to make sure every Republican votes in the runoff.”
Biden surpassed Trump in the vote count Nov. 6 as mail-in ballots from densely populated counties slowly but steadily ate into an early cushion Trump built with Election Day returns across more rural stretches of Georgia.
Tallies of absentee ballots in Clayton County put Biden over the top to stay, lending what Democrats called an element of poetic justice to the flip. Parts of the deeply Democratic county were represented by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, one of Trump’s most vocal critics before the congressman died in July.
Still, the networks didn’t call the race for Georgia until a week later, as the final provisional, overseas and military votes were tallied.
Trump’s campaign is planning to request a recount of the vote, and it picked U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, to lead the effort. That can’t take place until the vote is certified by the state, which is set to happen by Nov. 20.
Right now, a separate manual recount of the ballots ordered by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is underway to confirm the outcome of the race. His office said it doesn’t expect the results to substantially change Biden’s 14,000-vote lead.
But it contributed to the tension surrounding the victor in Georgia. The Associated Press is among the outlets that have yet to call the race, saying that the margin is so thin it won’t project a winner in a contest subject to a recount.
The presidential race hinged on a litany of crises that rocked Georgia: a coronavirus outbreak that has claimed the lives of roughly 8,000 Georgians, economic fallout that’s hit the state’s job market and a national movement for racial justice and equality that’s deepened the ideological divide.
Democrats won by holding ground in once-reliably Republican suburbs that the party flipped four years ago while also cutting into GOP margins in some exurban counties ringing Atlanta. High turnout from the party’s base of voters — Black Georgians — served as the cornerstone for the upset victory.
Georgia has become one of the nation’s most closely contested political battlegrounds, a new reality that came into sharp focus in the final days of the race when big-name political figures flocked to the state to deliver last-minute pitches.
It was a drastic change for voters in Georgia who were long used to being overlooked. Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney easily captured Georgia in their races against Obama, and Trump’s 2016 win came without a single visit from either presidential candidate in the final stretch.
Surging turnout has helped make Georgia a toss-up. Thanks to an influx of mail-in ballots triggered by the pandemic, nearly 4 million Georgians cast ballots before Election Day. That’s almost as many as voted during the entire 2016 election — at the time the highest turnout ever for Georgia.
The voting population has vastly changed since the last presidential election. A record 7.6 million Georgians are registered to vote, including more than 1 million new voters since 2016 that have made the electorate slightly younger and more racially diverse.
Georgia Democrats quickly cast their attention to the looming runoffs.
“Now on to the next fight,” Abrams said, “when we take back the Senate on Jan. 5.”
(c)2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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