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Georgia voters flood polls ahead of crucial Senate contests

More than 2.5 million voters have cast ballots during the early voting period for Georgia’s high-stakes runoffs for two U.S. Senate seats, shattering records as both Democrats and Republicans mount unprecedented efforts to get their supporters to the polls.

The twin contests between Sen. David PerdueDavid PerdueGeorgia's GOP-led Senate passes bill requiring ID for absentee voting Perdue rules out 2022 Senate bid against Warnock Loeffler leaves door open to 2022 rematch against Warnock MORE (R) and investigative journalist Jon OssoffJon OssoffGeorgia's GOP-led Senate passes bill requiring ID for absentee voting Koch-backed group launches ads urging lawmakers to reject COVID-19 relief bill Perdue rules out 2022 Senate bid against Warnock MORE (D) and Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerGeorgia's GOP-led Senate passes bill requiring ID for absentee voting Lawmakers commemorate one-year anniversary of Arbery's killing Perdue rules out 2022 Senate bid against Warnock MORE (R) and the Rev. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockGeorgia's GOP-led Senate passes bill requiring ID for absentee voting Koch-backed group launches ads urging lawmakers to reject COVID-19 relief bill Lawmakers commemorate one-year anniversary of Arbery's killing MORE (D) will determine which party controls the Senate, and they’ve drawn hundreds of millions in campaign contributions and outside spending.

Underscoring just how narrowly divided the state is, the vast majority of that money has been spent trying to mobilize voters, rather than persuading the undecided.

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“It’s a base turnout election. Both of these candidates in both of these races have enough votes to win. It’s about which candidate can turn out their base on Jan. 5,” said Chip Lake, a veteran Republican strategist who worked for Loeffler’s opponent, Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsPerdue rules out 2022 Senate bid against Warnock Loeffler leaves door open to 2022 rematch against Warnock On The Trail: Trump threatens a Tea Party redux MORE (R), in the November general election.

The Republican campaigns and their outside allies have deployed about 1,000 staffers to knock on doors and turn out votes. Democrats declined to detail their field teams, but in one measure of just how large the effort is, Ossoff’s campaign employed a 30-person unit solely dedicated to registering new voters.

Both President TrumpDonald TrumpRomney: 'Pretty sure' Trump would win 2024 GOP nomination if he ran for president Pence huddles with senior members of Republican Study Committee Trump says 'no doubt' Tiger Woods will be back after accident MORE and President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHoyer: House will vote on COVID-19 relief bill Friday Pence huddles with senior members of Republican Study Committee Powell pushes back on GOP inflation fears MORE will campaign in the state Monday ahead of Tuesday’s election. Vice President Pence has made several trips on behalf of the GOP candidates, and Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisCollins: Biden's .9T coronavirus package won't get any Senate GOP votes House panel advances Biden's .9T COVID-19 aid bill Biden's immigration bill could wreck his majority, but Democrats have opportunity to do the right thing MORE will make her second trip on Sunday when she visits Savannah.

Public polling and internal Democratic and Republican surveys all indicate both races will be decided by slim margins. Early vote data compiled by the secretary of state’s office shows the contests are set to shatter previous turnout records for runoffs, which tend to draw far fewer voters than a general election. 

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Typically, Democrats struggle to drive Black voters to the polls in runoff elections. This year, Black voters make up about 33 recent of the electorate so far — 3 points higher than their share at this point in the November general election. 

White voters without a college degree, a group that typically favors Republicans, represent about 35.6 percent of the electorate, down 2 points from their share at this point before November’s contests.

Almost 90,000 voters who did not participate in the November election have already cast ballots for the runoffs, according to TargetSmart Consulting, a Democratic data analytics firm. And about 75,000 people have registered to vote in the weeks after Biden narrowly carried Georgia’s electoral votes.

Democrats cautioned against reading too much into early vote totals, especially with just a few days to go. Republican voters have traditionally dominated the final days of early voting, Georgia experts say. And Republicans are likely to win among voters who cast ballots on Election Day itself.

Both Ossoff and Warnock and Perdue and Loeffler are running what amount to joint campaigns, a recognition that one party is likely to sweep both seats. And both campaigns are looking beyond their traditional comfort zones, a sign of Georgia’s changing political geography.

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Democrats are hunting for votes in smaller rural areas, especially in majority-Black rural counties across the southern half of the state. Republicans are courting the thousands of voters in the Atlanta suburbs who voted for Perdue but who did not vote for Trump. 

“Traditionally, Democrats have relied heavily on metro Atlanta,” said Jasmine Clark, a Democratic state representative who holds a district in suburban Gwinnett County. “They have also realized that there are Democrats in these rural areas. For so long, they’ve been ignored, and now it’s time to go out into those communities as well.” 

Both Democrats and Republicans fear a drop-off in enthusiasm in which voters inundated by television advertising decide to simply skip the race.  

There is some evidence that Ossoff and Warnock have room for improvement among voters who favored Biden over Trump. Biden attracted 99,000 more votes than did Ossoff, and about 95,000 more votes than the eight Democrats led by Warnock who ran in the all-party special election for Loeffler’s seat.

There is also a fear among Republicans that an ongoing feud between Trump and Gov. Brian KempBrian KempLawmakers commemorate one-year anniversary of Arbery's killing On The Trail: The political perils of Snowmageddon On The Trail: Trump threatens a Tea Party redux MORE (R) may depress turnout. Trump, who on Wednesday called on Kemp to resign, earned more votes than Perdue in 127 of Georgia’s 159 counties. Perdue ran well ahead of Trump in Fulton, Cobb and DeKalb counties, all of which include and surround Atlanta. 

“The biggest concern that Republicans have is that no state out of 50 produced a closer election for president than did Georgia, and because of that dynamic there has been a lot of activity and discussion concerning voter fraud, concerning court cases, concerning fighting for our president,” Lake said. “Trump, like him or hate him, he has always been successful at base turnout.”

History argues that Democrats face the bigger deficits to overcome. Republicans have won seven of eight statewide runoff elections in recent years, and the only Democrat to pull off a win, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, is now a Republican member of the Public Service Commission, running for reelection in a race that will also be decided Tuesday. 

No Democrat has won a Senate race in a Deep South state since Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonFlorida Democrats mired in division, debt ahead of 2022 Centrist Democrats pose major problem for progressives NRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers MORE won reelection in Florida in 2012, and Georgia has not elected a Democratic senator since Zell Miller won election to fill the remainder of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell’s (R) seat in 2000.

But the changing face of Georgia’s electorate has given Democrats the hope that they can put together a winning coalition of nonwhites, suburban college-educated white voters in the Atlanta metro area and new voters who have registered in just the last few weeks.

“There’s so much on the ballot to draw out Democrats,” Clark said. “The momentum is in our favor, and for once we can all be on the same page while the Republicans are at each other’s throats.”