ATLANTA - Two weeks ago, when a man broke into a church building in the gentrifying neighbourhood of Pittsburgh in Atlanta, Georgia, it was not computers he took but food.
Recalling the incident, Reverend Arundel Hope of the Ariel Bowen United Methodist Church said on Monday: “These are the kinds of issues that we are dealing with in our community – issues of poverty and homelessness and gentrification.
“The Pittsburgh neighbourhood is probably one of the hottest real estate markets right now. We have been priced out.”
Rev Hope was with Georgia state lawmaker Park Cannon, who was canvassing for votes in a housing project not far from where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr was born.
Economic troubles are high on the mind of voters in the south-eastern state of Georgia, one of a handful of key battlegrounds in Tuesday’s midterm elections on which Senate control hinges.
While inflation across America is at its worst in 40 years, it is being felt particularly in Atlanta, which saw an inflation growth rate of 11.7 per cent for the 12 months ending August, compared with the national average of 8.3 per cent for the same period.
The main culprit: Rising housing costs driven by new residents flocking to the city, drawn by good jobs in a relatively lower-cost area.
Georgia’s housing costs have risen 20 per cent from a year ago, compared with 13 per cent in the United States.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, a Democrat who took office in January, said: “Atlanta is a victim of our own success. As we continue to grow, as we continue to attract these major corporations and wonderful higher education institutions… the cost of things go up based on supply chain issues, but also on our demand. Atlanta is thriving, and so inflation has risen with that.”
Travel consultant Nayah Ndong, 38, said that housing was her top concern in the election, adding that she knew people who had experienced foreclosures.
“Housing (prices) in Georgia are skyrocketing, and it is forcing a lot of people into homelessness. It is very tough for a lot of people who are earning minimum wage,” she said.
Salaries are not keeping up with inflation, and “there are more days left than your money each month”, said Mr Dickens, acknowledging that some would blame the Democratic party in power for that.
Though Georgia on the whole voted for President Joe Biden in 2020, the Senate race between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican candidate Herschel Walker is being seen by pundits as a true toss-up.
Republicans have been making hay out of inflation, laying the blame solely at the feet of the President.
Georgia’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who is seeking re-election, said at a media conference on Monday: “We are fighting to keep Georgia moving in the right direction, despite what President Biden has been doing, creating 40-year-high inflation and disaster at the petrol pump.”
Mr Kemp, who once again faces his 2018 opponent, Ms Stacey Abrams, in the gubernatorial race, is comfortably ahead of her by about eight points in the latest polls.
Still, apart from inflation, there are a host of other issues in the high-stakes election that could sway voters in favour of the Democrats, from abortion access to gun control and healthcare.
Yet Georgia is also very polarised by party and race – white voters are heavily Republican, while black and other minority voters are strongly Democratic, said Emory University Professor Emeritus Alan Abramowitz.
“The result is a very deeply polarised state that is divided by race, by religious lines and also by big ideological lines,” he added.
In a sign of how energised voters are, more than 2.5 million Georgians cast their ballot early, a record for the state’s midterm elections. In total, more than 44 million Americans have cast early ballots, according to the US Elections Project on Monday.
“The Senate race for Georgia is of national interest,” said Emory University political scientist Bernard Fraga. “It looks like the Senate election is the one that is going to be very close.”
And if neither Mr Warnock nor Mr Walker achieves 50 per cent of the vote, the state’s laws mandate a run-off election in December – a very real possibility.