SAVANNAH, Ga. — Republicans’ hopes in next month’s Georgia Senate runoffs are running headlong into outgoing President Donald Trump’s spurious allegations about what happened in November.
During a feverish weekend of campaigning on behalf of Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, which included visits from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and a Sunday night debate in the special election, Georgia Republicans continued to indulge Trump’s untruths about the last election, while imploring their backers to show up for the next one.
Continued GOP control of the Senate depends on voters getting that message. In interviews with more than two dozen voters in the state over the weekend, not a single person told POLITICO they thought Joe Biden won the election, despite two recounts in Georgia and elections being certified in enough states for him to be above 270 electoral college votes.
Some of the voters said in interviews that Perdue and Loeffler had not done enough to support Trump and his efforts to overturn the election, even though they have stood by his claims and called on the GOP secretary of state to resign. Other voters said they would show up for the runoffs grudgingly.
But all of the voters said they planned to vote again on Jan. 5, heeding calls from Trump, Pence and most every other Republican to show up again with the Senate majority hanging in the balance.
“I know we’ve all got our doubts about the last election. And I actually hear some people saying, ‘Just don’t vote,’” Pence said at a rally here on Friday. “My fellow Americans, if you don’t vote, they win.”
Trump’s rally at an airport hangar in Valdosta, Ga., Saturday night was in front of a packed crowd of thousands of mostly maskless supporters from Georgia and across the country. And though the remarks veered off course at times — including the president calling the election “rigged” and attacking the state’s Republican governor, even floating the notion of backing a primary challenge to him in two years — Trump delivered the message the senators needed.
“Friends of mine say, ‘Let’s not vote. We are not going to vote because we are angry about the presidential election,'” Trump said, referring to the consideration of boycotting the Senate races that has been inflamed by some of his supporters. “It’s almost like a protest. But if you do that, the radical left wins.”
Even during Sunday night’s debate against Democrat Raphael Warnock, Loeffler wouldn’t acknowledge the result of the Nov. 3 election, in which President-elect Joe Biden became the first Democrat to carry Georgia since 1992.
“It’s vitally important that Georgians trust our election process, and the president has every right to every legal recourse. And that’s what taking place,” Loeffler said Sunday night at the only debate ahead of her Jan. 5 runoff against Warnock.
But while Loeffler amplified Trump’s doubts about the November vote count, she also cited his calls for Georgia voters to come back out next month. “But the president was also clear that Georgians need to come out and vote for David Perdue and myself because of what’s at stake in this election,” she said.
Perdue, who is running against Democrat Jon Ossoff for a full term, did not participate in the debate Sunday and Ossoff faced an empty podium. But Perdue repeated that message at Trump’s rally, calling the two senators the “last line of defense.”
But the massive intraparty war over the Nov. 3 election in Georgia has driven a wedge between the president and some of Georgia’s top GOP officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp, who has angered Trump by refusing to nullify the election results and call the state legislature into a special session to designate Trump’s representatives to represent Georgia in the Electoral College.
In Savannah, Pence and the half-dozen party officials who spoke before him addressed head on the notion that some Republicans may stay home next month in protest. GOP Rep. Buddy Carter said he had heard from some in the crowd asking why they should show up and vote if the last election was rigged. Carter implored the rally-goers to ignore the sentiment. Bubba McDonald, who is in a runoff for state public service commissioner also being held on Jan. 5, asked voters to “please get over it” and ignore those who say they’ll sit out. State GOP Chairman David Shafer said the Senate runoffs and the fight for election integrity went “hand in hand.”
There remains an unaddressed awkwardness in the GOP messaging. Pence told the crowd the road to the Senate majority runs through Georgia, and the Senate could be the “last line of defense” preserving their accomplishments. But that only remains true if conceding that Biden won the election.
Perdue and Loeffler have tried to maintain those stakes — the Senate majority is on the ballot, they say — without getting crosswise with Trump and his supporters.
Still, the effort to keep them engaged won’t be easy. The two senators were greeted with chants of “stop the steal” and “fight for Trump” from the crowd as they joined the president on stage at the Saturday rally, forcing Perdue to halt several times before delivering a message of support to the president.
Heath Garrett, a GOP consultant who previously worked for former Sen. Johnny Isakson — whose seat Loeffler now holds after being appointed by Kemp earlier this year — said Trump’s back and forth could confuse voters.
“The mixed message of continuing to talk about fraud and a rigged election — but saying to the people go vote anyway — is part of the problem,” Garrett said.
Still, it wasn’t an issue among those in attendance. Georgia voters interviewed at the Trump rally said they’re still going to support the GOP candidates in the Senate runoffs, despite their anger over the president’s defeat, which they did not believe was fair or valid.
“As pissed as we are, we’re not going to shoot ourselves in the foot by not voting for our senators,” Anna Deblanc, a retired registered nurse, said in an interview at the Trump rally.
Cathi Cook, 53, who works for a trucking company in Darien, Ga., said she did not think either Perdue or Loeffler had been supportive enough of the president’s efforts to fight the election results. She said their call for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign was not enough, but said she still planned to vote for both.
“I don’t have no other choice but to vote for them because we can’t afford to lose those seats,” Cook said.
It’s a positive sign for Republicans that even voters who were frustrated with Loeffler and Perdue signaled their intent to support them. But one GOP operative, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, said those were voters who were “engaged enough to show up and go through the hassle of these events. What about normal people?”
That’s where the party’s ground game comes into play. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and Republican National Committee have devoted millions of dollars towards door-knocking and other voter-contact efforts to reach voters and ensure they show up. As of last week, the party had already knocked on more than 540,000 doors with more than 848,000 targeted voters, according to a memo from longtime party operative Karl Rove.
Republicans also took full advantage of the Trump rally. The president encouraged voters to vote early or absentee by mail, a practice he criticized during the general election. On the video screen for parts of the rally was a call to request absentee ballot, and a website address for voter information.
One GOP operative working on the runoffs said Trump did what he needed to do for the campaigns. “There is a divide on the governor, but there isn’t a divide on voting,” the operative said.
Democrats counterprogrammed the big GOP weekend with an important milestone of their own: former President Barack Obama’s first appearance in the runoffs, a virtual rally for the two candidates.
“While the Georgia GOP had to tiptoe around Trump’s lies, Georgia Democrats had our best weekend yet in this runoff,” said Maggie Chambers, a spokesperson for the state Democratic Party. “Our virtual rally with President Obama generated half a million views and recruited volunteers for over 14,600 shifts. Georgia voters are fired up and ready to mobilize for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.”
But conservative groups are also galvanized. In a series of door knocks in Valdosta over the course of 90 minutes the morning after Trump’s rally, a half-dozen Georgians who answered the door for an operative with Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity affirmed their plans to vote, most of them enthusiastically.
“I don’t think I’ve knocked on a single door where people said, ‘I like David Perdue, but it’s not going to matter, so why bother?’” said Greg Conterio, who was in the state from AFP’s Florida team to aid the canvassing efforts.
The conservative Club for Growth is another organization devoting significant resources to the race, including TV ads, canvassing and a bus tour later this month with GOP senators. David McIntosh, the group’s president and a former Indiana congressman, said in polling and the group’s canvassing, there are few signs that Republicans won’t show up again. But with the November races all so close, a small fall off in a close election could be damaging.
“I think [Trump] going down and just being in Georgia, making that case to his voters, took away kind of the sting of some of the stupid comments people made. ‘Oh, well, if you’re mad about Trump, don’t vote,’” McIntosh said, referencing the positions of Trump-backing attorneys Lin Wood and Sidney Powell. “Him asking them to vote is really critical.”