Georgia voters on Tuesday will determine the balance of power in Washington for at least the next two years — whether President-elect Joe Biden and congressional Democrats will run the table with full control of the executive and legislative branches or Republicans will retain the Senate majority and the ability to temper Democrats’ agenda.
Tuesday’s results will also put a contentious political theory to its first test: whether assertions by President Trump and his supporters of widespread vote fraud in the 2020 presidential contest will boomerang against Republicans by undermining trust in the election system and depressing GOP votes.
Top Republican officials have openly fretted that Trump’s refusal to concede and his near daily rants that Democrats stole the election from him are dampening GOP turnout in the crucial runoffs. Senate Republicans must retain at least one of the seats held by Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to keep control of the upper chamber. Both senators failed to receive more than 50% of the vote in November and again face Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnoff, respectively.
A record 3 million early votes had been cast in the runoffs as of Thursday, the deadline for early voting, with data showing that turnout is lagging in the state’s more rural, northwestern conservative strongholds. More than 114,000 Georgia voters who didn’t participate in the general election have cast ballots so far in the runoffs, and those who have voted are more racially diverse than the state’s electorate, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In-person Election Day voting will determine if Republicans can play catch-up and hold onto at least one of the seats.
Trump is heading to Dalton, Ga., Monday night to rally his supporters to cast their ballots for Perdue and Loeffler the following day. But with his time in the White House dwindling, he’s worked to sow distrust in both the integrity of the runoffs’ process and his own election loss in November. But his efforts in the latter regard may have backfired when he made an extraordinary phone call Saturday to fellow Republican Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state. Trump pressed Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn his defeat in the state and threatened him if he refused to act. A recording of the one-hour call was leaked to the Washington Post on Sunday.
“You have a big election coming up and because of what you’ve done to this president — you know, the people of Georgia know that this was a scam,” Trump told Raffensperger. “Because of what you’ve done to this president, a lot of people aren’t going to vote, and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative, because they hate what you did to this president. Okay? They hate it. And they’re going to vote. And you would be respected, really respected, if this can be straightened out before the election.”
Trump previously pressed Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to overrule Raffensperger’s certification of the November outcome and to intervene by replacing that state’s Electoral College slate. When Kemp refused, Trump called him a “fool” and a “clown” and urged Georgia voters to demand Kemp call a special session of the state legislature to reject the electors.
“Otherwise, could be a bad day for two GREAT Senators on Jan. 5,” Trump tweeted in a prediction some Republicans worry was all too prophetic because of Trump’s statements.
On Friday evening, the president continued to raise supporters’ doubts about the Georgia election system by labeling the two Senate races “illegal and invalid” in a Twitter thread. He also claimed that “massive corruption” took place in the general election, the reversal of which would “give us far more votes than is necessary to win all the Swing States.”
Other voices on the right also have tried to undermine trust in Georgia’s election system. At a rally last month, Lin Wood, a pro-Trump lawyer unaffiliated with the campaign, urged state Republicans not to vote in the runoffs because the system can’t be trusted. Wood filed an election lawsuit aimed at halting the runoffs, but a federal judge dismissed the suit early last week.
But it’s not just fringe elements of the party sounding the alarm. Over the weekend, Ted Cruz and 10 other Republican senators and senators-elect said they plan to object to certifying Biden’s win on Wednesday because of “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud.” The push has sparked an intra-party fight over whether it will undermine Republican election prospects in the short and long term. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had previously warned his GOP colleagues not to vote against certifying the Electoral College result, warning that it “isn’t in the best interest of everybody.”
Cruz, and the other senators, including Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Mike Braun of Indiana, announced they would follow Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s lead and vote against certifying the 2020 results unless a 10-day audit of the vote in key states is conducted. There’s no chance their objections will force such an audit, so the action is largely a protest vote -- but it represents a rare break with McConnell’s firm control of his conference.
“Whether or not our elected officials or journalists believe it, that deep distrust in our democratic processes will not magically disappear,” said Cruz, who has presidential aspirations for 2024. “It should concern us all. And it poses an ongoing threat to the legitimacy of any subsequent administrations.”
Throughout his four years in office, Trump often has been his own worst enemy, needlessly shooting himself in the foot. In his final days in office, the president’s attacks on the integrity of the election process in the critical swing states are giving Democrats more rhetorical ammunition to turn out voters either sympathetic to their cause or simply eager to oppose Trump.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, while campaigning Sunday night in Savannah, Ga., said Trump’s phone call to Raffensperger showed that he is growing increasingly desperate in his failed attempts to overturn the presidential election results.
“Have y’all heard about that recorded conversations?” Harris asked the crowd at an event for Ossoff and Warnock. “Well, it was certainly the voice of desperation, most certainly that. And it was bald, bald-faced, bold abuse of power by the president of the United States.”
In her remarks, Harris also criticized Trump over his characterizations of the runoffs as “illegal and invalid,” saying that he is “suggesting that the people of Georgia are trying to commit a crime.”
“And I raise all of this to remind us to ask a question always when we see these powerful people that are trying to make it difficult, trying to make it confusing, trying to invalidate our voice,” she said.
Biden will travel to Georgia on Monday for an event urging Democrats to turn out for Ossoff and Warnock.
As Republicans warn that attacking the election process could backfire, Democrats are thanking Trump for handing them another powerful issue. Several also thanked him for his botched attempt to increase by $1,400 the $600 stimulus checks Congress passed late last month, which aligned him with the opposition party and put Republican leaders in the awkward position of opposing the increase just a week and a half before the runoffs.
Though Perdue and Loeffler voted in favor of the $600 COVID relief checks, both quickly pivoted in support of the beefed up version. They also scrambled to introduce a legislative package -- designed to fail -- that linked the $2,000 checks to the creation of a bipartisan commission to review the presidential election and make recommendations for reforms to Congress, along with a full repeal of legal protections for social media and other tech companies.
On Sunday, Stacey Abrams, who waged a close but unsuccessful battle for Georgia governor in 2018, argued that GOP leaders’ opposition to the larger checks has “galvanized” Democratic voters to turn out on Tuesday for Ossoff and Warnock.
“It’s the Republicans who have done it for us,” she said during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”
Those types of self-inflicted wounds are exactly what McConnell and Georgia Republicans are worried about – even as Perdue and Loeffler have little choice but to welcome Trump to Georgia Monday in a final plea for Republican votes.