VALDOSTA, Ga. — One month to the day before a pair of Georgia runoffs that will determine the Senate majority, and just over a month after his own defeat, President Donald Trump’s first trip to campaign in the high-stakes races had Republicans and Democrats in a state of high anticipation over the same question: What would he say?
As Trump rages on about his loss, falsely claiming fraud and refusing to concede even as most states have certified their results, leaders in the two parties have shifted their attention to Georgia, where the fate of Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler will decide whether Democrats have full control of Congress next year.
The president’s willingness to campaign Saturday night in heavily conservative South Georgia heartened Republican officials, who have been lobbying him to intervene in the runoffs. Perdue is facing Jon Ossoff, a former filmmaker who ran in a high-profile special House race at the outset of Trump’s presidency, and Loeffler is running against the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
But Trump is far more fixated on disputing the results from November than he is on looking to ensure that his party retains a foothold in the capital in January.
As if to prove just that point, before he took off Saturday the president telephoned Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia to urge him to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s win in the state, which has been confirmed by multiple recounts. He also asked the governor to declare a special session of the legislature to mandate an audit of signatures on mail ballots.
Hoping to pacify Trump, Kemp acknowledged the call on Twitter and noted he has already called for an audit of the signatures on the mail ballots “to restore confidence in our election process.” The governor did not mention that he and other state officials last month certified the Georgia results.
That is in large part because Trump has substantial company in his conspiracy-mongering: namely more than half the rank-and-file in his party who are similarly convinced that he was cheated from victory, polls show.
Perhaps nowhere are those suspicions more widespread than in Georgia, which Biden put in the Democratic column for the first time since 1992 and where Trump has stoked anger at the state’s Republican governor and secretary of state for not helping him overturn the results.
Because of the grip he maintains on conservative voters, what Trump says in Valdosta on Saturday and beyond may prove decisive in Georgia. If he makes an emphatic case for Perdue and Loeffler, and portrays a Senate Republican majority as a crucial check on perceived Democratic excesses, it could rally enough conservatives to ensure two Republican wins next month.
“The best thing they can do, those who supported Trump, is to support his legacy by having the Senate come back with a Republican majority,” said Sen.Thom Tillis, R-N.C., articulating the message GOP lawmakers hope Trump delivers.
Yet Trump is refusing to even acknowledge he lost and every day is sowing distrust in Georgia’s voting system as he takes to Twitter to cry falsely that the election was “rigged.” He has repeatedly railed against the vote-counting machines the state used and falsely asserted that mail-in ballots were rife with fraud, giving Republicans reason to question both voting by mail and in-person voting.
“The senators’ best argument is that Georgia needs to elect them to be a check and balance on President Biden,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster. “The problem is, President Trump won’t let them make that message. And it puts the Senate candidates in a real bind.”
If Trump veers from his teleprompter Saturday and in subsequent trips here to dispute his 12,000 vote loss and lashes out at Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, it could overwhelm his scripted message and undermine the intended purpose of his visit by convincing his supporters that their votes may not count in January.
Compounding the challenge for Republicans, and to the great joy of Democrats, the president has been joined in his promotion of conspiracy theories by a pair of far-right lawyers, Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood. Powell, who until recently was part of Trump’s legal team, and Wood have gone even further, arguing that Georgia Republicans should punish the party by boycotting the Jan 5 runoffs.
If even a modest number of Republicans sit out the election, especially in rural areas where Trump’s support is strongest, it could be enough to alter the electoral math in this evenly divided state and tip the two races to the Democrats.
Democrats are hoping Trump’s appearance will serve as motivation for their base. Just as Republicans are depending on the president to energize their voters, Democrats believe that making the runoffs a referendum on the president will rally both liberals and moderates.
This past week, at campaign events throughout the Atlanta metropolitan area, Ossoff said Republicans were seeking to invalidate the will of Georgia voters, and drew a direct connection with the attempts to subvert the election and historic efforts at voter suppression directed at Black residents.
His supporters oscillated between finding the Republican infighting amusing and alarming.
Kim Hall, a 56-year-old Cobb County resident, said for once it was the typically more fractious Democrats who are united.
“Who’s going to stay home? Republicans,” Hall said. “They keep saying stay home or don’t stay home. One person says ‘Give them your vote’ and then someone else will say ‘Don’t give them your vote.’ You know, I say they’re right. Stay home and do just that.”
Back in Valdosta, 250 miles south of the sort of suburban Atlanta voters Republicans do not want Trump to further alienate, supporters of the president began arriving at the regional airport by noon for the first of his signature rallies since his defeat. After a month of Trump’s self-imposed seclusion in Washington, his most dedicated admirers were echoing his complaints about the election — and his changing television preferences.
Gondra Crumbley, a 53-year-old supporter of Trump who lives in nearby Adel, Georgia, said he has stopped watching Fox News in favor of Newsmax, which he said was more supportive of Trump and his claims of election fraud.
Crumbley said he planned to vote in the January runoff elections, but understands the hesitation from others considering what he feels has been inadequate action from the governor and secretary of state.
“This just ain’t right,” he said. “There’s all this corruption that you see on TV and they’re finding out. And everyone needs to step up when we see this type of corruption.”
For his part, the president was plainly delighted to be back where he’s happiest — at the center of attention — and to leave people guessing about his intentions.
Trump tweeted a video of the gathering crowd to build anticipation — “See you tonight at 7PM, Georgia!” he wrote — but in another message made clear what election was foremost in his mind.
“Why are these two “Republicans” saying no?” he asked about Kemp and Raffensperger’s refusal to contest the results. “If we win Georgia, everything falls in place!”