VALDOSTA, Ga. — Waving their MAGA hats and pumping their fists in the air, the crowd here hung on every word as President Trump ticked off the reasons he could not possibly have been defeated in last month’s presidential election.
“I got more votes than any sitting president in history,” Trump said, ignoring the fact that President-elect Joe Biden got many, many more than he did. “They’re trying to convince us that we lost. We didn’t lose.”
On Saturday night, at Trump’s first campaign-style rally since Election Day, the president received a hero’s welcome in a traditionally red state that he managed to lose last month — an upset that contributed to his overall defeat. But far from questioning his lackluster performance, supporters showered him with cries of “four more years” and “stop the steal.”
“He did win,” said Rebecca Kennington, 61, a homemaker from Snellville. “They snatched it away from him. It was so rigged.”
The scene was probably not ideal for the two Senate Republicans he was supposed to be helping here. But, as Trump hints he may run again in 2024, it also underscores a deeper dilemma for Republicans following Trump’s loss: To fix a problem, you must first accept that you have one.
One month after he lost reelection to former vice president Biden by 7 million votes, Trump has persuaded much of his base that he did not, in fact, lose the election. That effort has involved attacks on Georgia Republican officials who he says have not done enough to overturn the results, which have triggered a war inside a party trying to win two runoff elections here that will determine control of the Senate.
Trump’s pronouncements appear to be geared toward boosting his political future, which he’s strongly hinted will include a 2024 presidential run.
But they come with a lesser-noticed, long-term risk for Republicans. It is difficult for a political party to figure out why it lost an election and how to fix its mistakes — an agonizing process for Democrats after losing the White House in 2016 — when the most important person in the party has convinced so many people that he did not, in fact, lose.
“You can’t look to the horizon when you’re in a circular firing squad, which is what we’re in right now,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican political consultant in Georgia.
It’s all made Georgia a window into the dilemmas Republicans face when Trump is determined to dominate the party, even in defeat. That will have profound implications, both for the Senate elections featuring GOP incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, and for the fate of Republicans in 2024.
Trump’s unproven attacks on Georgia’s election system, as well as his attacks on Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, threaten to depress turnout and have forced the GOP into a frenzy of damage control.
“We are starting to see very troubling polls for Loeffler and Perdue,” said Jason Shepherd, the GOP chairman in Cobb County, an Atlanta suburb that Trump lost by 14 points this year. “We have basically one month to convince Trump’s most hardened base that in order to preserve the Trump legacy, they have to come out.”
But Trump’s railing against the election process carries an obvious benefit for the president himself.
“It gives him a good argument on a rematch,” said Seth Weathers, who directed Trump’s state campaign here in 2016. “Rather than saying, ‘I tried it, didn’t make it, need to move on.’ ”
Trump’s visit Saturday follows dutiful — and more focused — campaign trips from other possible 2024 hopefuls. Former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio have gingerly dipped their toes into what might be the first post-Trump election to stump for Loeffler and Perdue, providing a glimpse of what a national campaign might look like without him.
But none of those potential rivals are daring to question Trump’s claims that he won the election. Moreover, Trump’s hints of running have put the nascent 2024 contenders on ice. For many Republicans, Trump remains firmly at the helm of the party, loss or not.
“The man served four years as president and delivered on huge chunks of the conservative agenda,” said Drew McKissick, the chair of the South Carolina Republican Party. “I mean, what are we in politics for?”
Republicans such as McKissick still see Trump as a winner: He increased his total votes from 2016 and expanded support from Latinos, while down-ballot Republicans enjoyed relative success in 2020 (a point which, cast in another light, illustrates the president’s weakness by comparison).
That rosy assessment, coupled with the president’s ongoing assaults on the voting system, could prevent a reckoning with the limits of Trump’s appeal as a candidate, something Georgia laid bare on Nov. 3.
The president lost this traditionally red state by about 12,000 votes — confirmed by two recounts — and underperformed Perdue, the Republican senator, by a hair. Although voter turnout increased on both sides, Biden ran up huge margins in Atlanta’s diversifying suburbs, as more voters of color and some white moderates rejected Trump.
“What this says is that the Trump brand is not going to appeal, is not going to be an effective method for growing the party,” said Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Emory University.
The slim margin here and in several other battleground states evokes Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss in 2016. But her shortcomings — 20,000 votes in Wisconsin and just 10,000 in Michigan — triggered a full-blown self-examination in the Democratic Party; strategists pored over their mistakes, while the party faithful obsessed over who would be the best candidate to beat Trump in 2020.
“Democrats lost in 2016 by a smaller margin than Trump lost in 2020, yet the Democrats spent real time ... looking at what they did wrong and clearly applied those lessons in 2020, and as a result, they’re returning to the White House,” said Alex Conant, a Republican who advised Rubio’s presidential run in 2016.
“There is no reflection happening inside the Republican Party right now,” he added, “in part because a lot of our voters don’t think we actually lost.”
Some Republicans in Georgia are at least acknowledging they have to do more to counter Democrats, especially party activist Stacey Abrams and others who were enormously successful in turning out new voters.
“Overconfidence could really hurt us,” said Jack Kingston, a former Republican congressman from Savannah. “I don’t know that a lot of Republicans are aware of just how effective Stacey Abrams has been.”
And they are even less willing to concede the problem might be Trump himself, much less to begin to consider alternatives.
“He was the right candidate at the right time,” said state Senator Tyler Harper. Asked what Republicans could do differently to win in 2024, Harper did not cite changes in candidates, strategy, or messaging, but rather to Georgia’s election laws.
In Cobb County, Mitt Romney beat former President Barack Obama by 13 points in 2012, but Trump lost to Biden by 14. The party chairman in Cobb County suggested GOP voters might be willing to give Republicans not named Trump a look.
“Maybe someone who is younger. Nikki Haley is extremely popular in Cobb County,” Shepherd said. “Maybe, to quote George H.W. Bush, a kinder and gentler candidate.”
But that can only happen if there is enough oxygen for a candidate to mount a run — which seems unlikely if the crowds who turned out in Valdosta and Savannah to see Vice President Mike Pence Friday are any indication.
“I can’t tell you anybody out there right now that I would vote for over Trump in 2024,” Tammy Prince, of Albany, Ga., said before Trump spoke
Many in the crowd at Pence’s Savannah event were devoted admirers of the vice president and his evangelical faith. But, they, too, said they would stick with Trump. Sharlotte Hall Ford, 43, a branch manager for a flooring business, praised Pence for reportedly saying he would not meet in private with any woman who isn’t his wife.
“That’s something that every woman wants from their significant other,” Hall Ford said.
But if Trump runs in 2024, she said, her allegiance would be squarely with him — not with Pence or another candidate — in part because she, too, believes Trump really won.
“If people really looked into what happened in the election,” she said, “we would see a different outcome.”
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.