“ ‘Cause hell’s broke loose in Georgia,” the late country music star Charlie Daniels once sang.
It’s a lyric that sounds downright prophetic to Republicans these days. Except in this case it’s Donald Trump, rather than the devil, dealing the cards.
The president, who lost the state to President-elect Joe Biden by more than 12,000 votes, has pummeled Georgia GOP officials with baseless claims that his loss is due to widespread voter fraud. He has assailed, in particular, Republican Governor Brian Kemp, whom he says he regrets endorsing, and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, whom he dubbed an “enemy of the people” for following state election laws.
The result has been chaos at a time when the party needs to pull together to win twin runoff elections next month — races that will determine which party controls the Senate.
Now, Trump is headed down to Georgia in person Saturday, allegedly to stump for the two Republicans seeking reelection, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. It’s the sort of move that could make all the difference for Republicans, motivating the president’s diehard supporters to turn out Jan. 5.
Or Trump could blow it all up.
“There’s a fear that Trump could come and screw this up big time,” said Allen Peake, a conservative Republican and former Georgia state representative.
Should Trump treat the upcoming rally as just another platform to air his lies that the election was stolen from him, and to continue to attack GOP officials, it could convince enough Republican voters to sit out the runoff elections that Democrats could prevail. That is the outcome many Republicans quietly worry about, and a handful have started to say it out loud.
“If Trump continues his incessant whining and complaining and baseless claims that fraud cost him the election, it’s only going to be a deterrent to helping Perdue and Loeffler win,” said Peake.
“I’m hopeful he won’t. I’m hopeful he’ll man up, do the right thing, realize he lost the election, and focus on keeping whatever remaining positive legacy he might have by helping Republicans keep the Senate.”
Republicans, who have historically prevailed in Georgia runoffs with better base turnout, still hold the edge despite the turmoil, strategists in both parties agree. Even those GOP officials upset with Trump’s actions believe Loeffler and Perdue will most likely triumph over their respective Democratic opponents, the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
But neither side can rest easy given Georgia’s solid purple hue, a new status underscored by Biden’s victory in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992.
“The last two elections have shown we’re a 50-50 state. That means that both parties must have total turnout of every element of their coalitions. And the president will be able to claim some credit for a Republican victory if he comes down here and does an event and really unifies Republican voters,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia.
“In a 50-50 state, no party can have a circular firing squad,” he added.
Robinson and other Republicans expressed optimism that Trump’s appearance could serve to unify the party’s base and help Loeffler and Perdue draw a clear contrast with their Democratic challengers.
“He can drive the message that his legacy is on the line, that Perdue and Loeffler are key to preserving some of the conservative victories over the last four years,” Robinson said.
Recent developments, however, have intensified the heartburn many Republicans are feeling about the race, and the president’s influence over its outcome.
On Tuesday, Georgia’s voting system manager, Gabriel Sterling, angrily condemned Trump and his allies, including Loeffler and Perdue, for the heated rhetoric and baseless claims of fraud, which have unleashed threats of violence against Georgia officials and even rank-and-file election workers.
“Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. And if you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some,” said Sterling, a Republican.
Trump’s response? He retweeted a post about Sterling’s plea to double down on his baseless claims of “massive voter fraud” in the state and suggested that top Georgia Republicans are in on the conspiracy.
“Rigged Election,” Trump asserted without evidence. “Show signatures and envelopes. Expose the massive voter fraud in Georgia. What is Secretary of State and @BrianKempGA afraid of. They know what we’ll find!!!”
Earlier the same day, on Twitter again, Trump instructed Kemp to call off the Jan. 5 election because it “won’t be needed” — a far cry from a message focused on urging his supporters to turn out and vote that Republicans desperately want the president to deliver Saturday.
On Wednesday, Raffensperger said a second taxpayer-funded recount of Georgia’s 5 million ballots, requested by the Trump campaign, is on track to confirm Biden’s victory in the state, with “no substantial changes” in the initial tally.
Trump’s attacks have often focused on demanding that Georgia elections officials verify signatures on absentee ballot envelopes. Election clerks in the state already undertook the signature matching process when absentee ballots were first received. They can’t redo it because state laws require the envelope with the signature to be separated from the ballot once the signature matching is completed, to ensure the secrecy of each voter’s ballot.
Such facts haven’t stopped Trump, nor have they stopped his supporters from believing him. And that has injected additional volatility into the Senate races.
At the extreme, some Trump supporters have vowed not to vote in the January runoffs because the election system can’t be trusted. Some are even attacking Loeffler and Perdue for being part of the problem.
Among them are L. Lin Wood Jr., a pro-Trump lawyer in Atlanta, who tried unsuccessfully to stop the state’s election certification, and Sidney Powell, a former member of the Trump campaign’s legal team, who has disseminated wild and false theories that Kemp and Raffensperger were paid participants in a conspiracy involving deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez to steal the election from Trump.
The pair teamed up for a “Stop the Fraud” press conference in Alpharetta, Ga., Wednesday. Hundreds of people showed up and heard both effectively urge them not to vote in the runoff, unless the state completely overhauled its voting processes, according to reporters covering the event.
It remains to be seen how influential such voices are, and what exactly Trump will say when he travels to the state. But there’s no doubt in Democrats’ minds that the Republican disarray is a boon for their own fortunes.
Not only do the attacks from Trump and his allies threaten to depress turnout among the president’s most fervent supporters, the growing ugliness could also alienate more moderate Republicans who are disgusted with the unfounded fraud theories and intraparty violence, some analysts warn.
“It’s hard to look at the constant stream of pronouncements and campaign rallies and intraparty attacks and not see that there are two divergent camps within the Republican Party. And it’s always more difficult to be successful at the ballot box if you are of two minds,” said Howard Franklin, an Atlanta-based Democratic strategist.