WASHINGTON, D.C. — Voters in Georgia will head to the polls Tuesday to determine who holds the balance of power on Capitol Hill for the next two years, the opening act in what promises to be an explosive week in U.S. politics.
The dead-heat Senate contests — Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock hope to unseat Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — will decide which party gets to control the 100-seat chamber.
That has profound consequences for president-elect Joe Biden: should both Ossoff and Warnock prevail, vice president-elect Kamala Harris would wield the deciding vote, giving Democrats control of the legislative branch.
But what was to be the main event of the 2021 electoral calendar was upstaged over the weekend, first by a faction of U.S. senators vowing to support Donald Trump's unfounded bid to subvert the presidential election, then by Trump himself.
"I just want to find 11,780 votes," the president said Saturday in an bombshell phone call in which he pressures, cajoles and even threatens Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in hopes of overturning Biden's 11,779-vote victory there.
"The people of Georgia are angry, the people of the country are angry … there’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, that you’ve recalculated."
Responded Raffensperger, a fellow Republican whose office recorded the call: "Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong."
The revelations, first reported Sunday by the Washington Post, left political experts in Georgia slack-jawed — no small feat in a country that has weathered four years of the most tumultuous president in U.S. history.
"It's the president of the United States breaking Georgia law," said Prof. Charles Bullock, a political science expert at the University of Georgia in Athens.
"Richard Nixon was our first criminal president, but at least he wasn't trying to steal an election, which really goes more to the heart of democracy."
Biden, who was in Atlanta to rally support for Ossoff and Warnock, made only oblique references to the controversy as he urged Democrats to get out and vote.
"Politicians cannot assert, take or seize power," Biden said. "Power is given, granted, by the American people alone."
Later in the day, Trump staged a "victory rally" in the Georgia city of Dalton to stump for Loeffler and Perdue, and did so dutifully. But the thousands of supporters on hand saved their lustiest cheers for his vows to hold on to the White House.
"We're going to fight like hell," Trump insisted. "There's no way we lost Georgia."
Trump's election rhetoric, combined with the all-caps headlines surrounding the Saturday phone call, could ultimately do more harm than good to Republican aspirations in the state, said Bullock.
"All the evidence is that the Democratic and Republican candidates are very evenly matched at this point," he said.
"If the president's recent behaviour were to turn off even a fairly small proportion of Republican voters, that could prove consequential if we see a situation like we did in the presidential election, where it was decided by fewer than 12,000 votes."
An exasperated Gabriel Sterling, who manages Georgia's voting systems, systematically debunked, discounted and denounced Trump's allegations of voter fraud during a remarkable news conference Monday in Atlanta.
And he implored Georgia voters, particularly those choosing to believe Trump's baseless claims of fraud, to show up at the polls.
"There are people who fought and died and marched and prayed and voted to get the right to vote," Sterling said. "Throwing it away because you have some feeling that it may not matter is self-destructive, ultimately, and a self-fulfilling prophecy in the end."
Many of Trump's supporters are expected to express fealty to the president when they descend on the national capital Wednesday, when Congress is scheduled to meet to formally certify the electoral college vote and hand the presidency to Biden.
A dozen Republican senators, led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, say they intend to object to certification and demand an emergency audit of the results — an effort that is certain to accomplish little beyond delaying the vote.
At one point Monday, Trump appeared to send a signal to Vice-President Mike Pence, who will preside over Wednesday's certification and ultimately confirm the winner.
"I hope Mike Pence comes through for us. Now, if he doesn't come through, I won't like him quite as much," Trump said, before suggesting he was just kidding.
"No, Mike is a great guy. He's a wonderful man and a smart man and a man that I like a lot, but he's gonna have a lot to say about it."
Pence has acknowledged the right of members of Congress to raise objections "and bring forward evidence," but stopped short of saying whether he'll take any action.
The more likely wild card Wednesday will be what happens on the streets of Washington.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who issued a jarring warning Sunday reiterating the city's stringent gun laws and encouraging locals to stay home, has also asked for support from the district's National Guard contingent to backstop local police forces.
"I am asking Washingtonians and those who live in the region to stay out of the downtown area on Tuesday and Wednesday, and not to engage with demonstrators who come to our city seeking confrontation," Bowser said in a statement.
"We will do what we must to ensure all who attend remain peaceful."
Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the white-supremacist Proud Boys and a fixture of recent Trump protests in the city, was arrested Monday on destruction of property charges after a Black Lives Matter banner was torn down and burned during clashes last month.
Trump has reportedly floated the idea of imposing martial law to overturn the election results, reports the president has denied. But clearly, members of the Washington establishment are taking nothing for granted.
A stark opinion piece in Sunday's Post — co-authored by all 10 of the country's living former secretaries of defence, Republican and Democrat alike — did little to ease the sense of foreboding.
"Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory," they wrote.
"Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2021.