Trump’s Georgia Visit Worries Republicans Over Key Senate Races
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s plan to campaign in Georgia for two Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate has sparked concern within the party that the president’s efforts could backfire, jeopardizing their bid to keep a majority in the upper chamber.
Several GOP figures have raised alarm before Trump’s expected visit to Valdosta on Saturday evening for a rally with Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler -- both of whom face Jan. 5 run-off elections that will determine which party controls the Senate.
Ahead of his trip, Trump has repeatedly alleged -- without offering evidence -- that widespread fraud cost him victories in Georgia and other key states in his Nov. 3 loss to Joe Biden. He has disparaged the state’s most prominent Republicans, including Governor Brian Kemp, who has been a staunch ally of the president.
Republicans fear the president’s efforts to undermine Georgia’s vote could divide the party and suppress votes for Perdue and Loeffler.
“He needs to come here and be in positive mode. And the positive mode needs to be all about the importance of the election of these two folks to the Senate,” former GOP Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said in an interview.
Some of Trump’s most fervent loyalists have urged his supporters against voting in the runoff because they say the state’s election system is broken beyond repair. Pro-Trump attorneys Sidney Powell and Lin Wood said Wednesday that Georgians should not vote until they can be sure their ballots are “secure.”
Chambliss said it is “totally ridiculous” for some Trump allies to claim that the run-off elections will be plagued by fraud and to discourage GOP voters from casting ballots. “We’ve got to have every Republican turning out to vote,” he said.
Trump’s campaign has sought to assuage the concerns of Georgia Republicans. Communications director Tim Murtaugh tweeted Thursday that Trump was coming to the state because “control of the U.S. Senate is on the line” and that Trump would be rallying voters behind Perdue and Loeffler.
The president also communicated directly to Powell and Wood on Wednesday that he believes it’s important to re-elect Loeffler and Perdue and his trip on Saturday will signal to his voters how they should approach the runoff elections, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Biden won Georgia by fewer than 13,000 votes, and Republicans say the president can still boost turnout for Perdue and Loeffler if he sets aside his own electoral grievances and focuses on what’s at stake in the Senate race. Vice President Mike Pence is also scheduled to rally with the two senators on Friday in Savannah.
With Democrats in control of the House and the White House, the outcome in the Senate will determine how many of Trump’s policies stay intact and how many of Biden’s proposals become law.
“He’s got to find the balance between what he believes was fraud in Georgia and still trusting the system enough to re-elect them,” said Eric Johnson, a former Georgia state senator who is an outside adviser to Loeffler’s campaign. The Senate races are “crucial for his legacy if he is not re-elected and the values that we all supported,” Johnson added.
Some White House staffers anticipate that the trip could be awkward given Trump’s criticism of Georgia officials, according to a person familiar with their thinking.
Johnson and Chambliss were among more than a dozen prominent Georgia Republicans who signed an open letter expressing “increasing concern” that the fallout from the November election could hurt turnout. Repeating voter-fraud allegations could “detract” from what they believe is the party’s core mission: maintaining control of the Senate, they wrote.
Republicans must win only one of the two races to keep the majority. If Democrat Raphael Warnock defeats Loeffler and Jon Ossoff beats Perdue, the Senate would have a 50-50 split, but Democrats would control the chamber since Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast tie-breaking votes.
Trump has offered scant public comments on the Georgia races, instead focusing most of his remarks on railing against the Nov. 3 election results on Twitter and Facebook and pressuring state officials to overturn them.
Loeffler campaign spokesman Stephen Lawson said: “Georgia Republicans are totally united in joining President Trump to support Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue because the future of our country is on the ballot on January 5th.”
The Perdue campaign didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The president on Monday assailed Kemp as “hapless” for not using his powers to “overrule” the “obstinate” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s certification of Biden’s victory. Trump, in a Fox Business Network interview Sunday, said he was “ashamed” to have endorsed Kemp in 2018.
Kemp’s office said in response that state law does not allow the governor to reverse the results of an election. Raffensperger, also a Republican, on Wednesday urged Trump to “quell the violent rhetoric” surrounding claims that he won states “where he obviously lost.”
The secretary of state’s comments came a day after one of his top staffers, Gabriel Sterling, delivered an impassioned speech at the state capitol, urging Trump to condemn death threats against state election workers.
“It has to stop,” said Sterling, a Republican who manages implementation of the state’s voting system. “Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday the president and his team “condemn any threats against anyone” and that “there’s no place for violence.”
Trump nonetheless tweeted multiple times on Thursday about unfounded accusations of “ballot stuffing” in Georgia. One day earlier, Trump released a 46-minute video on Facebook in which he claimed the election had been “rigged.”
Perdue and Loeffler have sought to strike a balance between remaining in Trump’s good graces while making a forceful argument for victory.
Both senators have echoed some of Trump’s claims about voting irregularities. Last month, they even called for Raffensperger’s resignation, citing unspecified “failures” in their state’s election.
But the central thrust of their argument for re-election -- that they represent the last line of defense against a Democratic White House -- implicitly acknowledges Trump did not win a second term, an admission the president has refused to make.
Johnson, the former state senator, said Democrats are going to have a strong grassroots effort unlike past run-off elections. “We need to take that seriously,” he said.
“I’d like to see a lot more people really stress this is not a race you can take lightly,” Johnson added.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.