MARIETTA, Ga. — Holly Golden Simmel, 55, showed her driver’s license to the poll worker and immediately began to worry there might be something wrong; that the election might be fixed; that the Republicans might try to cheat.
“Can you point out the poll manager?” she asked the person checking her off the rolls.
“Are you having an issue, ma’am?” the poll worker asked.
“No,” she replied. “I just want to know in case there is a problem.”
In an elementary school lunchroom about 12 miles away, Matthew Hardwick, 54, was just as skeptical about the sanctity of the nation’s ballot box. He pulled his cellphone out of his pocket and snapped a picture of his electronic ballot to ensure he had a record of his votes — all for Republicans — in case someone tried to switch them into votes for Democrats.
“I heard about them changing — at some place, somebody voted for something and it changed,” he said. “I was like: Mine’s not gonna change.”
Simmel and Hardwick’s politics couldn’t be more different. Simmel calls President Trump a “truly horrible person” with no “grasp of the law or the constitution.” Hardwick gravitates toward the word “awesome” when talking about Trump. He calls him “the boss” and credits him with saving the country.
But on Tuesday, they shared a growing fear that the country and its democratic institutions were on the verge of crumbling under the strain of toxic politics. Like millions of Americans who turned out for the midterm elections at near-record levels, they weren’t driven primarily by political ideology or policy, but rather a sense of distress; a conviction that the country could quickly change for the worse if they didn’t do something to save it.
The muddled outcome — with all sides declaring victory — left everyone unsatisfied.
Three days before Election Day, Simmel stood in a packed arena in Atlanta and listened as former president Barack Obama warned of Republican efforts to “disenfranchise people and take away their right to vote.”
“The character of the country is on the ballot,” Obama warned.
She also had been listening to her friends in the run-up to the midterms as they spoke with increasing alarm about Trump. He was stripping immigrants of their rights, trampling the truth and pushing the country closer and closer to authoritarianism, they said. Their biggest fear was that someday he might refuse to relinquish power.
“Trump isn’t forever,” Simmel told them. “It’s going to end.” But in her darker moments she worried that if the Democrats didn’t take back some power soon, they could be right.
Hardwick and his wife, Marissa, by contrast, saw Trump as the antidote to everything that was wrong with their country. Since he declared his candidacy in 2015, they felt, Trump had awakened them to so many dangers — the “deep state,” Democrats seizing their guns and, most ominously, a creeping socialism that threatened to bankrupt the economy and shred the Constitution.
Ahead of the midterms, they were determined to do all they could to protect all that Trump had done and ensure that Republicans remained in power. Hardwick had been to many Trump rallies — more than he could count — but at his last one Sunday in Macon, he said he had “locked eyes” with Trump just before the president rhapsodized about all that was at stake in the midterms.
“This election will decide . . . whether we let the radical Democrats take a giant wrecking ball to our economy and to our future,” Trump said. The Democrats, the president insisted, were going to turn Hardwick’s home state into a hellscape reminiscent of socialist Venezuela.
Simmel and Hardwick, their votes cast, exited their polling sites. Their home in suburban Atlanta’s Cobb County had once been a Republican stronghold that sent former House speaker and conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich to Congress. Now it was about as evenly — and bitterly — split as the nation as a whole.
Simmel, who was voting at a synagogue, walked past 11 empty chairs adorned with flowers and the names of the worshipers shot to death last month in Pittsburgh. The chairs were for her both a memorial and a reminder of the need to check Trump, a man who she considered an expert at feeding Americans’ basest instincts and worst fears.
“It breaks your heart,” she said, glancing at the names, flowers and empty seats.
Hardwick’s mood was more buoyant. He texted his wife, who was waving a campaign sign for the Trumplike gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp at a busy intersection a few miles away. The polls showed close races in Georgia and nationwide, just as they had in 2016 when Trump pulled off his stunning upset.
Hardwick warned her that the heavy rain was supposed to last all morning.
“No stopping for the sign wavers,” she texted him. “We are the champion and will win big time tonight.”
“Right on, honey bunny,” he replied.
In the early days of Trump’s candidacy, the enthusiasm of Hardwick and his wife for Trump was not shared by the leaders of the Cobb County Republican Party, who spurned the reality television star in favor of GOP candidates such as Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.
But the true believers still found one another. The Hardwicks joined a group of Trump supporters who met once a month for dinner at a Marietta steakhouse — and then at a larger seafood restaurant as the group grew to 200. One member designed posters seeking campaign volunteers; another created hand fans bearing Trump’s face.
Although the Hardwicks consider themselves Republicans, they both voted for Obama in 2008 because he promised to end the war in Iraq.
“The whole thing was predicated on a lie,” said Hardwick, who grew up in Northern California and served in the Army for four years.
But he soon became disillusioned with Obama.
“The way that he would talk about terrorists was that they were victims of their circumstances,” Hardwick said of Obama. “Then he started coming after our guns every time there was a shooting.”
The couple voted reluctantly in 2012 for Mitt Romney. Hardwick — who works as an engineer for a cable company, moonlights for Uber and does stand-up comedy — always thought that it was a “pipe dream” that an outsider businessman like Trump would run for president.
Trump’s fears for the country, which he catalogued at his big raucous rallies, were their fears. Both Hardwicks, who have concealed-carry permits, thought that the Democrats were intent on rolling back the Second Amendment as part of a plot to seize control of the country.
Hardwick, who was homeless for six months about 13 years ago, complained that the poor were too reliant on welfare. So did Trump.
His wife, a Filipina immigrant who became a citizen in 1991, feared that illegal immigrants were a financial burden on the country. She had “no sympathy,” she said. Both worry that Democrats are trying to turn the United States into a socialist nation.
“There’s not another America we can go to if we screw this one up,” Hardwick, the husband, said.
To show their support for Trump in the summer of 2016, the Hardwicks and their ever-growing Trump dinner club decided to build a Trump float for a county parade. The finished product featured the Atlanta skyline, “TRUMP” in red sparkly letters and a gaggle of veterans in Trump T-shirts.
“We had artists and welders and all kinds of people who just attacked this project,” Hardwick said. They won a prize for best float.
On election night in 2016, the Hardwicks were thrilled Trump won, but also a bit chagrined that he lost Cobb County.
When Trump picked Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as his health and human services secretary a few weeks later, leaving an open seat, the Hardwicks had a new cause. Even though they do not live in the district, they aggressively campaigned for the Republican candidate, Karen Handel.
On the night she declared victory in a race that drew national attention, Hardwick and his wife stood on the stage behind her.
The Trump float was a call to action for a small Facebook group of a few dozen liberal moms, who quickly organized a counter-rally for Hillary Clinton.
That event drew about 200 people to a busy Cobb County intersection on a Sunday morning to wave signs, and it drew new moms to the Facebook group. So did Trump’s election. By December 2016, what they called the “liberal mommy” group had surged past 1,000 members.
A few of those moms split off to start new entities, aimed at organizing Democrats to win the seat created by Price’s move. Simmel, who worked part-time as an interior designer, joined two of them — “No Safe Seats” and the “Sixth District Task Force” — as a canvasser.
“I wanted to know where the Democrats in my neighborhood live,” she recalled. “I wanted to know who is like-minded; who is kind and accepting. I didn’t want to hang around with people who are racists.”
On the Sunday before the midterms, Simmel was still out knocking doors, this time for a new slate of candidates that included two liberal African American women — gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Lucy McBath, who was running for the congressional seat. McBath’s son Jordan was fatally shot by a white man following a dispute over his music at Florida gas station; the tragedy transformed the former flight attendant into a gun control activist.
One issue that was important to Simmel: Last year, Georgia passed a law that allows students on college campuses to carry guns. Now, Simmel worries that it’s no longer safe to send her children, ages 14 and 16, to college in the state.
As she made her rounds, Simmel could tell that the election season was putting people on edge. A 31-year-old man on whose door Simmel knocked began berating her for the nonstop campaign messages. He couldn’t escape the ads on television. He was getting as many as 10 texts a day.
“It’s not like they’re rounding up the gays and the Jews!” he screamed.
“Yet!” Simmel replied as she turned and exited his front landing.
On Monday evening after Simmel had knocked her last door, she, Murphy and several other canvassing friends gathered to put campaign signs up at polling sites. They finished their work at about 11 p.m.
“I want to win,” said Jenny Peterson, 50, who helps run a small financial-planning business. “I just want to win.”
“Decisively,” Simmel said.
With less than 10 hours until the polls would open, they agreed that it was essential that Democrats pick up at least 23 seats in the House of Representatives — enough to provide at least one check on Trump, who they all considered to be packing the federal courts, trampling the Constitution and increasingly ruling by executive fiat.
“If we win 23, it’s a harbinger,” Simmel said. “It’s a sign that people are coming to their senses.”
“If we don’t, I’m worried that we might not have another election,” Peterson said. “I’m usually a sunny, rational person but in this summer I got very dark.” The implication was that Trump might seize power. Simmel and her friends were silent.
The Hardwicks, who attended a party for Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate in Athens, got their first bad news around 11 p.m. Tuesday.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to lose the House,” said Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator who was acting as a sort of master of ceremonies.
Before the crowd had a chance to react, he announced that in Florida, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who had read Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” to his infant son in a campaign ad had prevailed.
The crowd erupted into applause. Hardwick pumped a fist. Erickson moved on to other victories. The Republicans were going to hold the Senate.
“MSNBC,” Erickson said, “they’re beside themselves.”
Hardwick pulled his wife into a hug: “This is a good evening, honey.”
In Atlanta at an election party, Simmel and her friends were quietly celebrating the Democratic takeover of the House — the first good political news that they’d received in nearly two years.
“We’re going to get to see Trump’s tax returns,” she said, anticipating House efforts to procure the documents the president has refused to release. “Trump’s going to have to obey the Constitution.” She paused and searched her brain for something more satisfying and settled on the Russia investigation. “Wouldn’t it be nice to get an indictment on Wednesday? What have you been working on, Robert Mueller, that you haven’t been talking about?”
On this night both sides were declaring victory. “Tremendous success tonight,” Trump tweeted from the White House. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared that “tomorrow will be a new day in America.”
The night was drawing to a close for Hardwick and his wife.
“We’re cashing in our chips,” Hardwick said at 1 a.m.
The couple hugged their friends and retreated to the lobby. Erickson took the stage to announced that Trump had called Pelosi. The crowd booed.
In Atlanta, the evening was also wrapping up for Simmel and her friends who were attending McBath’s election-night party. Simmel had worked harder for her than any other candidate, and now McBath was trailing by just 149 votes.
“All these numbers could be manipulated,” Simmel worried. (By Wednesday, she would be leading by nearly 3,000 votes.)
“We have to have some faith in order to function,” said Elizabeth Murphy, the woman who had organized that first rally for Hillary Clinton in Cobb County and ran the volunteer group that Simmel canvassed through.
“Yeah,” Simmel agreed, “because it’s too hard to bear the thought of it not being real.”
The midterms battle was almost done, but there was no talk of healing or compromise. The conversation in Cobb County, in Georgia and in Washington was already shifting to the next big fight.