Trump’s Georgia rally sparks GOP anxiety
Georgia Republicans are excited that Donald Trump is coming Saturday to Valdosta to help save Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.
They’re also a little scared.
They’re not entirely certain what to expect from the president’s first postelection rally. Or how much he understands that the event is about helping the two endangered GOP incumbents get across the finish line in the Jan. 5 runoff, not advancing his own political interests or settling scores.
“It’s important that Trump comes and focuses on the Senate election and not the other peripheral sideshow of whining and complaining and making baseless accusations,” said Allen Peake, a former state legislator and self-described “mainstream Republican.” “But that’s kind of been his mode for the past four years. I don’t think he will change. So I’m very concerned about this on Saturday.”
Though Trump will tell his supporters to head to the polls for Loeffler and Perdue, he’s also likely to spread false conspiracy theories about a stolen election that could depress turnout — something he’s done nearly every day since being denied a second term. And he’s sure to bash a couple of fellow Republicans, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both of whom are up for reelection in 2022, for their roles in overseeing elections in a state Trump narrowly lost.
“If all he does is whine and complain and talk bad about Kemp and the secretary of state, then the trip will be a disaster and he might as well not even come,” Peake said. “This is a crazy time in Georgia politics, that’s for sure.”
Nothing about Trump’s rally — or the runoff — will be predictable. The backdrop is unique: It’s the first time runoff elections for two Senate seats in the same state stood to dictate political control of the closely divided chamber.
Heightening the drama is the GOP civil war in Georgia pitting the Trump-supporting grassroots against what one insider called “the people in the Golden Dome,” a reference to the state capitol building and establishment Republicans.
“I would call it a family feud,” said former Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.). “People are mad. They’re mad at the whole system. … Everyone’s shooting arrows.”
Westmoreland attributed some of the tension to “one of those stages of grief, being mad … it’s a target rich environment for people who are mad, upset, grieving or whatever you want to say. It’s just a cluster.”
The party divisions have been fueled by Trump’s unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about voting fraud. But they’re also rooted in tension between Trump and Kemp that stretches back to the governor’s decision a year ago to defy the president by naming Loeffler to fill an open Senate seat. Trump wanted his favorite Georgia congressman, Doug Collins, picked.
Trump fumed at the time about Kemp’s rebuff and began privately referring to the governor by the nickname “One Term” because he said the governor wouldn’t survive a primary challenge in 2022, according to a top Georgia Republican source, who noted the irony that the president wound up being a one-termer himself.
Republicans in the Legislature were also miffed that Kemp refused their calls to do away with Georgia’s so-called jungle primary system for the special election Loeffler ran in. They wanted a conventional partisan primary because thatwas viewed as more beneficial to Collins, who ultimately ran against Loeffler anyway and lost. Neither Loeffler nor Perdue won more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 3 in their separate contests, resulting in the Jan. 5 double runoff.
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But GOP frustration with Kemp has taken a back seat to intraparty anger with Raffensperger. He is an engineer by training with a reputation among Republicans and insiders as a prickly numbers guy with a hot temper and few political allies, even though Raffensperger was an early supporter of Trump in the 2016 cycle when he was in the state House.
As secretary of state, Raffensperger has resented Trump’s barrage of false claims about the election and the president’s pressure onPerdue and Loeffler to call for his resignation. Raffensperger took to Facebook to rebut the disinformation and called Collins, a Trump loyalist whom the president appointed as his spokesperson for the postelection state recount, a “failed candidate” and a “liar.” One of Raffensperger’s deputies onTuesday condemned Trump, saying the president was “inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence.”
Adding to the chaos are attorneys Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, who have filed lawsuits against the state’s election results with scant evidence but loads of conspiracy theories.
Wood and other Trump backers have encouraged Trump supporters not to vote Jan. 5 if Loeffler and Perdue don’t do more to deliver the state to Trump. (A hand recount of ballots showed the president still lost the state.) Powell, who was booted from the Trump legal team after her wild claims drew unflattering publicity, has alleged without evidence that Loeffler actually lost the primary to Collins.
Donald Trump Jr., in an effort to prevent depressed turnout, launched a super PAC to make sure people still show up for the runoffs, which the Georgia GOP is less concerned about compared with national Republicans.
“There’s a lot of tension,” said Buzz Brockway, a former Republican state legislator. “How do you square the idea that the president and others are pushing that this election is stolen and rigged, but you should still go out and vote?”
Echoing each of the dozen Georgia Republicans who were interviewed for this article, Brockway said he expects Loeffler and Perdue to beat their respective Democratic opponents, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, because the state is still Republican-leaning and the GOP has more to lose with the prospect of turning the Senate over to President-elect Joe Biden’s party.
“The feeling is we can have our drama and infighting, but at the end of the day we’ll come together and reelect our two senators,” said Lane Flynn, GOP chairman in DeKalb County in suburban Atlanta.
In a sign of how tense the situation has become, however, most of the insiders who confessed to significant concerns about the upcoming election did not want to speak on the record for fear of incurring the wrath of the president or getting in the middle of what feels like a circular firing squad.
“The problem we have is that Trump is our malady and our cure — he’s got people all stirred up over this voter fraud stuff and now we’re worried they might not vote, so we need him to come back to make sure people do, but we’re worried that might backfire,” said one GOP consultant, who bemoaned how his political clients are asking him for advice on whether to file lawsuits or start campaigns boosting the president’s baseless claims.
“The good news is that fear and anger drive voters, and we’ve got those in spades,” the consultant said.
Don Cole, the former Crisp County GOP chair who unsuccessfully ran against Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop in southwest Georgia, said “Trump can only help the cause of David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler” because he drives GOP turnout like no one else, and the runoff will be a base-turnout election with a smaller pool of voters than a general election.
Still, the drama doesn’t end there. Kemp and Raffensperger are now looking at real trouble in their reelection campaigns in 2022, with many believing Collins will challenge the governor with Trump’s backing.
“There’s going to be an attempted effort at a full house-cleaning in the Republican primary,” Cole said, adding that it’s almost become an article of faith in the Georgia GOP that there was election fraud.
“Even if nothing happens on all this, and the courts say ‘Nope, you don’t have anything here, there’s not enough evidence,’ people out here believe it. And it’s gonna hurt the Republican Party. It’s going to hurt them. It’s gonna hurt the party after this runoff. They’ll get out and vote because of Trump. But after that, if they don’t feel like they’ve been heard and nothing’s been taken seriously on this stuff, then you’re going to see people throw their hands up and say, ‘That’s the end of it.’
Ed Muldrow, chair of the Gwinnett County GOP in suburban Atlanta, said he would prefer that the president not trash Kemp but he has less sympathy for Raffensperger. He faults the secretary of state for not taking Republican complaints and suspicions about voting irregularities more seriously.
Part of Trump’s appeal, Muldrow said, is his willingness to speak his mind and take on all comers — and that pugilistic style is what drives turnout of the party base.
“Trump brings in a sense of being a fighter. So whether you like it or not, he’s gonna fight,” Muldrow said. “So if President Trump gets on the stage, I say let him do what he’s done. He’s gotten us this far. Whether we like it or not, you know, go home with the one that brung ya.”