ATLANTA — It’s been over five months since once ruby red Georgia rejected Donald Trump’s reelection bid, and more than three since voters here booted two Republican senators in a stunning runoff election that gave Democrats control of the Senate. But in an upmarket sports bar across from the city’s baseball stadium, one of those failed candidates was being greeted like a superstar by the party’s faithful.
“We just went through a very tough 2020, not even talking about politics,” said Kelly Loeffler, as the crowd whooped, the beer flowed, and she promised to do her best to help Republicans win going forward. “We know this is still a red state.”
The warm welcome — and the fact that she has left the door open to running again — seems to defy the laws of politics, where losing candidates like her or Trump are often gently escorted offstage as a failing strategy is replaced with something new. But that would require people to believe they actually lost it all, fair and square.
In Georgia, many Republican activists still don’t.
“I’m not convinced that Georgia turned blue, and most of us feel the same way,” said Jan Appling, 66, a sales representative recently elected to be secretary of the Republican Party in DeKalb County. “I’m not convinced the November election is over.”
This denial, ignited by Trump’s lies about massive voter fraud and stoked by the candidates and party leaders who embraced them, is animating much of what Georgia Republicans are doing now and giving the party’s political events the feel of Groundhog Day.
“No one can tell me that voter fraud didn’t happen,” said Holly Ortiz, 50, the chair of the GOP in rural Pike County, who was attending Loeffler’s launch of a new group meant to bolster Republicans.
Georgia offers the country a window into the id of the Republican Party, and it is a place that is obsessed with the last election while at the same time deeply divided about what the election meant. In this rapidly changing state, which is filling up with a more diverse and educated electorate, Republicans ran last year with a message that turned off suburban voters and coddled an incumbent president who fed them a lie that cost the party two pivotal Senate seats. Yet many in the GOP are still stewing over a presidential election they think was simply stolen. The main focus so far has been on passing a restrictive new voting law; some Trump devotees are also targeting the state’s elected Republican officials who upheld the 2020 results.
“The quicker Republicans take their medicine, the quicker we’re going to start winning, but I’m not certain we’re taking it quick enough,” Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, a Republican who has emerged as a critic of Trump and his party, said in an interview. “There’s chaos on the battlefield right now.”
Establishment Republicans such as Duncan are warning that a failure to reckon with what really happened in 2020 will cause them to repeat the same mistakes and keep the GOP out of power for years. But the grass roots is energized about election fraud, and the power of the state’s new voting law to help Republicans should not be discounted.
Even as the party denies Democratic accusations that the law will make voting more difficult for key constituencies, such as Black people and working families, GOP members say the furor around its passage has united their voters, galvanizing a base that feels besieged. And they seem optimistic the new law will give Republicans who sat out the Senate runoffs because of Trump’s lies a reason to come back to the polls.
“The vicious attack that’s been levied at the Legislature, I think, has given a lot of voters peace of mind that when they go vote, their vote is going to be secure,” said Jason Shepherd, former chairman of the party in the erstwhile Republican stronghold of Cobb County, who is running to head the statewide party. “In 2022, our voters are going to be more motivated to get out and vote, and more motivated to make sure that nothing stops them from voting.”
What stopped many Republicans from voting in the two crucial runoffs in January was arguably their obsession with the Trump-invented idea that the November election had been stolen from him in Georgia. GOP strategists and even Loeffler herself blame a loss of trust in the system for the decision by hundreds of thousands of Republicans to stay home, although they aren’t always willing to lay it at Trump’s feet.
“They did not trust the process, because we had unprecedented change to our election in 2020. We had mass mail-out of absentee ballot requests. We had unmanned dropboxes,” Loeffler said after her event near Truist Park, where she was launching a group called “Greater Georgia.” It promises to register more Republican voters — taking a page out of Democrat Stacey Abrams’s playbook — and will support so-called election integrity measures.
In the weeks before the runoff, Loeffler and the state’s other Senate Republican incumbent, David Perdue, embraced Trump’s false claims about election fraud and the unreliability of a system that was working perfectly well. They echoed his calls for the resignation of the Republican secretary of state, Brad P. Raffensperger, and stood by as Trump beamed disinformation about the November election onto a big screen at a December rally in Valdosta. And then they lost.
That, combined with Trump’s 11,779-vote defeat in a state that hadn’t backed a Democrat for the presidency since 1992, was arguably the biggest Republican fail of the election cycle. But instead of distancing themselves from Trump or the lies that weighed the party down — or focusing solely on hard questions about why they hemorrhaged suburban support — many Republicans can’t quit their obsession with the election system and still view Trump as their pilot light.
“We’re not going to be conspiracy sort of people. We’re fact driven,” said Mark Frascarelli, 62, a Republican who attended Loeffler’s event. He then alleged that thousands of people had voted in the election despite being dead, moving out of state, or listing their address as a P.O. Box instead of a residence.
As they looked toward the baseball park, a reminder of Major League Baseball’s decision to pull this summer’s All-Star game from the city amid the swift corporate backlash to the voting law, the air was electric with grievance and voters’ defense of the measure, which strips power from the secretary of state and adds new limitations to absentee voting, among other things.
“There should be a bit of effort in voting,” said Rosemary Catanesi, 84, of Dunwoody. “It shouldn’t be a birthright.”
Some party elders say Republican leaders need to correct misinformation, calm down their voters, and change the party’s tone ahead of the 2022 midterms, when Democrats will probably be on the defensive after two years of unified government control in Washington.
“There clearly was a lot of anger that Joe Biden won the state, and that anger was promoted obviously by the Trump campaign organization and it was not helpful in the runoff on January 5,” said former senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, a Republican who retired in 2015.
“Get away from this issue that unfortunately Donald Trump advocated, which said your vote doesn’t count, it was an unfair election. It was a fair election,” Chambliss advised his fellow Republicans. “People got to get over that.”
But that seems unlikely, at least among the base. Trump prodded voters to take sides between him and the elected Republicans here who batted down his claims of fraud — Duncan, Raffensperger, and Governor Brian Kemp — before the runoff. If Trump’s acolytes take aim at those three in statewide elections in 2022, they could again divide the party and alienate moderate voters.
GOP groups in at least 10 counties have recently censured Kemp for not doing enough in their eyes to help Trump overturn the election, according to a count by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. US Representative Jody Hice, a Republican aligned with Trump and his “stop the steal” campaign, has launched a primary challenge against Raffensperger.
“The middle doesn’t want anything to do with this — Dominion switching votes and stealing the election,” said Republican strategist Brian Robinson, referring to unproven allegations about the company that made the state’s voting machines. “This is not Alabama, it’s not Tennessee, it’s not South Carolina — states where Democrats can’t win. Democrats can win here, they’ve proven that, and we’ve also proven empirically that that particular message is a stinker.”
Democrats are eager to watch Republicans divide themselves and obsess over the mechanics of the 2020 election while they concentrate on the next elections.
“It’s … them not wanting to lose control, white male fragility that they can’t come to grips with,” said LeWanna Heard-Tucker, the chair of the Fulton County Democrats. “They’re not ready to pass the baton yet, and it shows.”
“We have proven that we can win here in Georgia. The energy is still here,” added state Representative Bee Nguyen, a vice chair of the state Democratic Party. “Republicans are losing voters and they don’t have opportunities to pick up more voters.”
The future is uncertain for those Republicans who want to chart a different path instead of reliving 2020. Duncan has launched a group called GOP 2.0 that urges his party to focus on policy, empathy, and tone. But he says he hasn’t decided whether to run again.
“It is so clear in my mind that if we don’t go in this direction of using this previous election cycle as a pivot point for the party ... we better get used to losing,” he said.