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In final days in office, Trump casts large shadow over Georgia Senate race

Supporters waved flags as they waited for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at a drive-in rally during a campaign stop for Democratic US Senate challengers the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff on Sunday in Savannah, Ga.
Supporters waved flags as they waited for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at a drive-in rally during a campaign stop for Democratic US Senate challengers the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff on Sunday in Savannah, Ga.Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

CUMMING, Ga. — Over the past few days, President Trump has called the crucial Georgia Senate runoff elections “illegal and invalid,” pressured the Republican secretary of state to “recalculate” an election he definitively lost, and forced his party’s Senate candidates in the state to bob and weave to fit his political whims.

Yet even though he has complicated her campaign efforts, there was Kelly Loeffler, one of the two Republican candidates, standing on the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot on Saturday and lauding Trump’s scheduled return to the state on Monday night.

“Who’s going up to Dalton to welcome President Trump?” Loeffler asked, referring to the president’s planned rally in northwest Georgia. “We got to show President Trump a warm Peach State welcome!”

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With Tuesday’s elections set to determine control of the Senate, no single figure looms larger than Trump, and the runoff campaign has exposed the perils for Republicans of the continued political involvement of a defeated and mercurial president whose supporters still control their party’s fate.

Loeffler and the other Republican candidate, David Perdue, are betting that the support of Trump’s base will lift them to victory in their increasingly purple state.

But his legislative mood swings are forcing Loeffler and Perdue to answer difficult questions in races that polls show are tight. The civil war that Trump has fomented among Georgia Republicans by assailing the state’s top elected officials could have repercussions in the state for years to come, political analysts say. And his stubborn commitment to the fantasy that voter fraud cost him a victory in this state — and the entire election — has complicated their pitch and divided their party at a critical moment.

“Georgia Republicans face the same divides Republicans around the country are facing right now … and Loeffler and Perdue have been caught in the middle of it, because they’re the ones that face the most immediate political consequences,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist.

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“If they win,” he added, “it’s because Republicans did remain united in what we’re against, not because we’re united in what we’re for.”

The Senate races have drawn enormous attention and record-shattering spending because they will essentially determine how much of President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda can actually be enacted. If the Democrats win both races, they will control 50 seats in the chamber — which, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, would constitute a razor-thin majority.

The two Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, have crisscrossed the state making a policy-focused argument for their election, telling voters they are the key to the passage of expanded health care and new voting and civil rights packages. Biden is set to join them on Monday in Atlanta, and Harris laid out the stakes in a campaign stop in Garden City, just outside Savannah, on Sunday. “Vote, vote, vote because your life depends on it,” Harris said.

Republicans have dispatched a who’s who of party luminaries to help them hold the line, including Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who joined Loeffler in Cumming on Saturday, and Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who campaigned with her on Sunday. They describe Loeffler and Perdue, who has been absent from the campaign trail since he was exposed to COVID-19 late last week, as a “firewall” against a “radical liberal” agenda.

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Trump, however, has complicated that message by refusing to admit he actually lost, and he has distracted the electorate by turning the state into an arena for his grievances. The last time he held a campaign rally in Georgia, he spent much of his 100-minute speech repeating false conspiracies about the November election, when he lost the state by more than 11,000 votes.

On Wednesday, Trump called on the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, to resign, and his condemnation has whipped up support for a primary challenge against him that could keep the party in Georgia divided until 2022. And on Saturday, in his most brazen act yet, he urged Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, another Republican he has ceaselessly criticized, to “find” the votes that would overturn his loss in the state, according to audio of the call obtained by The Washington Post.

“It was a bald-faced, bold abuse of power,” Harris said on Sunday in Garden City, casting Trump’s efforts as an attempt to disenfranchise Black voters.

The president is also supporting a renegade effort by a dozen Senate Republicans and 100 House Republicans to overturn the election results when Congress meets to certify them on Wednesday, which has generated fierce pushback from other Republicans that further underscores how divided the party is nationally as its grip on the Senate hangs in the balance.

“Democrats are saying, ‘Oh, this is great, bring on the popcorn and let’s just watch this play out,‘ ” said Charles Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

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For Republicans, this race was never supposed to be quite so tricky. Loeffler and Perdue went into the runoff with a structural advantage: More voters supported the candidates from their party in the November elections, even though neither of them exceeded the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. No Democrat has won a Senate election in Georgia since 2000, and a victory by either of the Democratic candidates, Ossoff and Warnock, was always seen as an uphill battle.

But the strength of early voting turnout in Democratic-leaning congressional districts, and among demographic votes most likely to support Democrats, has Republicans spooked. More than 3 million Georgians have cast their votes so far and Democrats are encouraged by the high voter turnout in counties like Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett, which are all in or near Atlanta and which helped to power Biden’s Georgia win. Black voters are also punching above their weight, while turnout has been weak in some conservative areas, including around Dalton in the northwest part of the state, where Trump is going Monday.

“Urban Georgia outvoted rural Georgia,” said Bullock. “That’s got to be very troubling for Republicans.”

Republicans are hoping to make up the difference with a robust turnout on Election Day.

“This is a dogfight. This is a turnout election,” said Cruz, as he stumped with Loeffler on Saturday. “And the Democrats are turning out their voters.”

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Trump created other headaches for Loeffler and Perdue in recent weeks. He initially refused to sign a coronavirus economic relief bill that was supposed to neutralize a Democratic line of attack against the two. Then he forced them to break with much of the rest of their party to join his calls for a $2,000 direct payment to many Americans, which was higher than the $600 provided in the bill. He also vetoed a major defense bill. Congress overrode the veto, but Loeffler and Perdue skipped the vote, which allowed them to avoid publicly breaking with him.

Loeffler refused to say how she would have voted during an interview on Fox News Sunday.

At campaign events for Loeffler this weekend, Republicans all but admitted they are playing with fire when it comes to Trump’s involvement in the race.

“It’s not helping,” said state Representative Josh Bonner of the most recent drama in Congress. He also acknowledged the fear shared by many Republicans that Trump’s broadsides against the state’s election system might keep some voters at home.

“The president is saying this election was flawed but we’re kind of still in the midst of that election with the runoff, so it does make it challenging,” Bonner said.

But they believe he will ultimately fire up his base, and the complications they have endured will all be worth it.

“There is a danger,” conceded Rich McCormick, a Republican who narrowly lost a Georgia House race in November. “Yet the president is coming down here and supporting these two candidates directly, and so he’s showing his supporters to show up.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.