Georgia Republicans are increasingly worried about President Donald Trump’s rally on Saturday for the two Senate runoff races, as some brace for a tirade to overturn his loss that could hurt the party’s effort to keep control of the chamber.
The campaigns for Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler recognize that Trump can fire up his supporters for their January 5 elections like no one else in their party can.
But in the aftermath of his loss in Georgia, Trump has attacked fellow Republicans Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Raffensperger, not only undermining confidence in the integrity of US elections, but also discouraging some potential Republican voters, who now think that the fix is in.
A group of prominent former Georgia Republican officials, including former Gov. Nathan Deal and former Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, released a statement on Wednesday urging the party to unify, and shift their attention to the challenge of protecting their Senate majority.
“Please separate the two,” Eric Johnson, a Trump supporter and former state Senate Republican leader who signed the statement, told CNN.
“Looking into potential problems with the election is important, but we need to leave that (to) the lawyers,” said Johnson. “The grassroots activists need to focus on the runoff.”
Despite President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, Republicans are still wary of crossing the President. The statement, which was first reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, does not directly mention Trump’s role in challenging the results of the election. Instead, they note their “increasing concern” surrounding “the debate” over “the state’s electoral system” and its potential impact on the US Senate races.
When asked if he thought the President would change his tune on Saturday, Chambliss told CNN that he does not predict what Trump will do. “And that’s part of the concern that I have,” he said.
“I want him coming down here talking about Kelly and David, and how important they are to the future of the country, and how their election is so critical to his legacy,” said the former Georgia Republican senator. “If he wants his legacy to remain, then he needs to ensure that we win both these seats – and he needs to say that in no uncertain terms.”
Trump has offered his support for Loeffler and Perdue in their races against Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
But that political boon is often coupled with the bane of public, unceasing attacks on the electoral process in Georgia and the state Republican officials in charge. At a news conference on Thanksgiving, Trump called Raffensperger an “enemy of the people.”
Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting systems implementation manager, said at a press conference on Tuesday that he has had police protection at his home, and that Raffensperger’s wife has received “sexualized threats.”
“Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language,” said Sterling. “Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. We need you to step up. And if you take a position of leadership, show some.”
Sterling later said Trump “likely” lost Georgia but had the right to challenge the results in court.
“What you don’t have the ability to do – and you need to step up and say this – is stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” he added. “Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed. And it’s not right.”
Trump responded on Tuesday night, baselessly tweeting that there was a “rigged election” against him and to “expose the massive voter fraud in Georgia.”
“What is Secretary of State and @BrianKempGA afraid of,” he added. “They know what we’ll find!!!”
Trump again threw doubt on the presidential election in a Facebook video on Wednesday, noting that Republicans succeeded in down-ballot races, protecting several Senate seats in tough races and reducing the House Democratic majority.
“It is statistically impossible that the person, me, that led the charge lost,” Trump said falsely.
While Biden narrowly won Georgia – the first time for a Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1992 – Republicans have a number of advantages in the two Senate runoff elections. The state has not sent a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years. Last month, Perdue received tens of thousands of more votes than Ossoff. And Republicans are spending about $43 million more on ads than the Democrats for the runoff races, according to Kantar Media/CMAG data.
Ossoff and Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, have run campaigns zeroing-in on addressing the health care and economic crises, while attacking Loeffler and Perdue over their multi-million dollar stock trades during the pandemic, which drew the attention but no charges from the Department of Justice.
Ossoff picked up on the Republicans’ intraparty fight on Wednesday, telling reporters after an event in Decatur that Perdue “should show some spine, some courage and some statesmanship at a moment when we need everybody to be defending this democracy.”
Loeffler and Perdue have emphasized their bills delivering aid during the pandemic, including billions for hospitals and the small business loan Paycheck Protection Program, while trying to brand Warnock and Ossoff as socialists who will destroy America.
Casey Black, a spokeswoman for the Perdue campaign, said the senator is “looking forward to having President Trump in Georgia this weekend to help get out the vote – the future of our country depends on it.”
The runoff elections will come down to which party can motivate its own voters without either Trump or Biden on the ticket. And there is evidence that the President’s consistent attacks on the system are seeping into the consciousness of his supporters.
GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel pleaded with a Trump voter in Marietta last Saturday, who asked why she needed to vote if the outcome was “already decided.”
“It’s not decided. This is the key – it’s not decided,” McDaniel responded. “So if you lose your faith, and you don’t vote, and people walk away – that will decide it.”
Trump has shaken the faith of some of his supporters. At a “Stop the Steal” rally on Wednesday, attorney Lin Wood wore a red MAGA hat and asked the crowd, “Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election?”
“For God’s sake, fix it,” he added. “You’ve got to fix it before we’ll do it again.”
Chambliss, the former Georgia Republican senator, told CNN that while Wood was a “friend” and a “good lawyer,” “those are the kind of statements that are not helpful for winning on January 5.”
After sowing doubt about the election process, Trump may be the only one who can convince his supporters to show up for Loeffler and Perdue. While some leaders in Georgia are concerned that he may not deliver, others are hopeful that he understands the stakes.
“The President is the titular head of the party,” said Jay Morgan, a former Georgia GOP executive director, who signed the statement. “He bears responsibility for these races as much as anybody. I think it’s important that he tell his supporters that.”
Trump’s team and the RNC have been actively coordinating with the Perdue and Loeffler campaigns to get out the vote in Georgia. Donald Trump Jr., the President’s son, has made it clear that his father’s supporters need to support the GOP ticket. Trump Jr. is starring in a series of ads that will air on conservative media outlets designed to get out the Trump vote.
The runoff candidates, meanwhile, have been forced to walk a tightrope, entertaining Trump’s ill-fated pursuit of overturning the election, while at the same time convincing voters in the Peach State to trust the system. Both Loeffler and Perdue have called on Raffensperger to resign and supported recounts in the state.
Other Republicans in Georgia and Washington, DC, remain doubtful that Trump will be able to shift from expressing grievances over his loss to helping Loeffler and Perdue win.
“I don’t see how he goes to Georgia and has (a) rally that is not all about himself and he spends all of his time hammering Kemp and Republicans in the state,” said one Senate GOP aide. “It could easily backfire.”
When asked if he had witnessed a president, and other Republicans, warn the public to not believe the results of the election, Chambliss, who served in Congress for 20 years, said, “I’ve never seen anything anywhere close to this.”
CNN’s Caroline Kelly and Kyung Lah contributed to this report.