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The Trailer: The double feature in Georgia

In this edition: A bitter fight in Georgia gets underway, Republicans try to mollify a fringe that happens to agree with the president about “voter fraud,” and ballot initiatives show victories for marijuana, tax cuts and mass confusion.

The newsletter will be back on Tuesday, taking a short break over the weekend, because it's just too hard to think of the usual kickoff joke. This is The Trailer.

ATLANTA — As Georgia's double-feature Senate runoff began, the Democrats who will decide whether Joe Biden has a 50-50 Senate or a Republican majority got the same question, again and again.

Doesn't your party always lose runoffs in Georgia? What's different this time?

“Look at this crowd,” Jon Ossoff, who is challenging Sen. David Perdue, said Tuesday. He pointed to the crowd waiting for him at an outdoor car rally. “Georgia Democrats are liberated. We feel inspiration and momentum. We just delivered this state for Joe Biden. We have the wind at our backs.”

Two days later, after the latest of his many events focused on saving the Affordable Care Act, Rev. Raphael Warnock got his crack at the what's-different-this-time puzzle. “This is a very different state than 2008,” said Warnock, who is challenging Sen. Kelly Loeffler. “We've been working really hard for a decade. We've registered hundreds of thousands of voters in this state.”

After the closest presidential election in Georgia's history, with negligible ticket-splitting, both sets of candidates see a state that's tilting their party's way — turn the base out, and they win. Republicans have already raised tens of millions of dollars for the two-month campaign, helped by a Trump campaign “recount” fund that's mostly marked for ongoing races. Democrats have piled up money, too, wooing donors on the premise that the new president won't have an agenda without them.

The first full week of campaigning has laid out the Republicans' theory of the race: Georgians have no idea what they're getting with these guys. Loeffler has accused Warnock of believing in “Marxist ideology” and enabling anti-Semitism, while Republicans have accused Ossoff of, well, everything — from wanting to defund police departments to accepting support from the Communist Party to being financially entangled with “China,” thanks to a $5,000 check that a Hong Kong telecom company cut to his documentary firm. 

“Jon loves China! Jon loves China” chanted hecklers who unfurled a PRC flag as the candidate began speaking Tuesday. The cumbersome logistics of the car rally, and the din of some horns, drowned them out.

There's an accidental harmony to Georgia's runoffs, which have already revealed how much sharper Republican attacks have gotten during the Trump presidency, and how much bolder Democrats have gotten in the suburban South. Ossoff, a former congressional staffer who went on to make investigative documentaries, ran for an open House seat when President Trump pulled its incumbent into his Cabinet. 

The result was the most expensive House race in American history, which Ossoff lost, and then a leftward march in Atlanta's suburbs that flipped that seat in 2018 and, eventually, helped Biden carry the state. In the meantime, tens of millions of dollars were spent attacking a candidate who just turned 33.

“I think that the Democratic candidates in Georgia no longer care what national Republicans say about us,” Ossoff said.

But they say an awful lot about Democrats, and in four years Republicans have gone from mocking Ossoff as a try-hard college kid to warning that he could destroy the country as we know it — and that Warnock would do worse. Ossoff didn't get elected to the House, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York did. Republicans came out of the Nov. 3 election confident that they could link almost any Democrat to the socialists in their caucus.

That got underway this week. Loeffler, a multimillionaire who poured tens of millions of that money into her primary campaign, had barely attacked Warnock before now. (She had to secure a spot in the all-candidate primary.) On Thursday, she launched ads that reminded voters of how the longtime pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church had defended Jeremiah Wright when Barack Obama came under fire for attending his church, and of how he'd once referred to bad police as “thugs and gangsters.” Jewish Insider and the Washington Free Beacon ran stories about Warnock's signature on a letter criticizing Israel and his association with Black Liberation Theology advocate James L. Cone.

“Raphael Warnock celebrated Fidel Castro in his church,” Loeffler said at a rally with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida on Wednesday, speaking below an image of herself and Perdue in which she was wearing a pro-police Thin Blue Line badge on a camo hat. “He has a Marxist ideology. Why is he running for the Senate? We don't know. Let's have him answer for that.”

Republicans deployed similar lines against Democrats all year. None of them had been on camera with Fidel Castro; most of them, unlike Warnock, had run for something before. Like those other Democrats, the initial strategy of both Ossoff and Warnock was to talk about defending health care and accuse Republicans of trying to distract from it. Ossoff and Warnock were first on the air in the runoff, with the former talking over soft music about building a post-pandemic economy and the latter joking that Republicans would accuse him of anything to distract from “trying to take away health care in a pandemic.”

That worked, barely, for Joe Biden last week. Pushed by reporters Thursday about what voters who were hearing these stories for the first time should think, Warnock went a little further.

“I have spent my whole career standing up against bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, wherever it shows up and whoever the source is, and I'll continue to do that,” Warnock said. “Kelly Loeffler, on the other hand, sits down for interviews with known White supremacists, and she gleefully accepts the endorsement of a candidate who traffics in the QAnon conspiracy theory that is rife with hatred and bigotry.”

The “White supremacist” reference was to Jack Posobiec, a conspiracy theorist who has parlayed that into a gig covering politics for the One America News. The QAnon candidate was Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has not stopped trafficking in conspiracy theories since her easy win in a safe seat — and with whom Loeffler campaigned, part of a successful effort to dominate the conservative vote in the primary.

The Republican strategy is to make these Democrats completely unacceptable, even to the suburbanites who swung away from Trump. The Democratic response is to portray the Republicans as crooks, addicted to distraction. At his rallies, Ossoff mocks Perdue, a multimillionaire who is less wealthy than Loeffler, for living on an exclusive island “behind three gates.” A moment in their final debate last month gave Ossoff a boost that may have driven down Perdue's vote enough to force the runoff — the Democrat flatly calling his rival a “crook,” for, like Loeffler, buying stock in companies that were expected to benefit from the pandemic after both of them attended an exclusive Senate briefing. Both claim to have been cleared of wrongdoing.

Ossoff, so far, has leaned into the campaign more than Warnock, holding multiple rallies and taking reporters' questions afterward. That has earned him plenty of free media, while Republicans, perhaps temporarily, are losing airtime to a recount of the presidential election — one they've associated themselves with, by calling on the Republican secretary of state to resign without saying in any way how he mishandled the election.

But there are nearly eight weeks to go, and airwaves are uncluttered by other advertising. Perdue and Loeffler took no questions through Thursday, as the party machinery geared up for every part of the campaign — raising money, sending volunteers back to the doors, and framing the race as a last stand against socialism.

Less has been said about what the Senate might actually do in the next two months, after stimulus negotiations faltered. Democrats, who have piled up resources with both the campaigns and with Stacey Abrams's Fair Fight , are trying to wrench the conversation back to the pandemic, just as Biden had, with a bet that didn't work in other years: An ordinary runoff electorate might not want to elect Republicans.

“I think it must be really hard to explain why you're for getting rid of health care in the middle of the pandemic,” Warnock said in Atlanta. “It must be really hard to explain how you've done a great job profiting off of the pandemic, and increasing your wealth portfolio, but you have not managed to provide any covid-19 relief to the people of Georgia in months. ”

Reading list

“Fear of losing Senate majority in Georgia runoffs drives GOP embrace of Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud,” by Robert Costa, Paul Kane and Erica Werner

Why the president's party is echoing his refusal to concede.

“The GOP’s Georgia boogeyman: Chuck Schumer,” by Marc Caputo and James Arkin

Can Republicans make the senator from New York infamous?

Pressure mounts on state Republicans as lawsuits challenging election results founder, by Elise Viebeck, Tom Hamburger, Jon Swaine and Emma Brown

How long can the president's party hold out?

“A race for the base is fast underway in Georgia Senate runoffs,” by Greg Bluestein

Inside the runoff, on the ground.

“Trump insists he’ll win, but aides say he has no real plan to overturn results and talks of 2024 run,” by Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker

How the president's private and public positions on conceding the race crash into each other.

“His fellow Republicans turned on him, but Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger isn’t backing down,” by Reis Thebault and Amy Gardner

The trials of a swing-state election manager.

“Even as the dust settles, Republicans optimistically turn to 2022,” by Kirk A. Bado

Can the GOP win the House in two years?

On the trail

ATLANTA — On Wednesday morning, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger walked outside the state capitol to make an announcement: The nearly 5 million ballots cast in last week's presidential election would be recounted by hand.

Moments later, a small group of protesters were gathering at another part of the complex, which had been encircled by temporary fencing, to challenge the vote count. A half-dozen prayer activists circled the area on a “Jericho walk,” invoking the biblical story of Israelites who circled the ancient city for seven days until its walls fell. And about 3 p.m., a “Stop the Steal” caravan organized by the conspiracy news site Infowars arrived; one of the channel's hosts, Owen Shroyer, celebrated the recount as the first step in proving that Joe Biden was not the president-elect. 

“The Democrats are panicking in Georgia, aren't they?” Shroyer shouted through a bullhorn. “Why is that? Because they just said in Georgia, they're going to do a hand recount! Now, the odds of Joe Biden winning in a hand recount are slim to none, and slim just left town.”

That wasn't true. Biden's margin over Trump at the end of the initial count was 14,057 votes — slim but about 100 times larger than the margins that are typically overturned by recounts. But rumors about the election have been flying fast, and elected Republicans here have encouraged them more often than they've corrected them. 

Both of the GOP's incumbent senators, who face runoffs Jan. 5, have called for Raffensperger to resign. Retiring Rep. Douglas A. Collins, who spent the final weeks of his unsuccessful Senate run campaigning with Trump defenders such as Carter Page and Michael Flynn, is heading up the Trump campaign's recount effort. The president spent much of the campaign warning that he could lose only if the election were stolen; emboldened by elected Republicans, Trump's most devoted supporters are taking that seriously and literally.

I honestly think the difference in the vote, between Trump and Biden, is fraudulent, said Mark Summers, a 63-year-old retired accountant who attended one of Wednesday's rallies. I really do. Because when I've seen Biden rallies, you might have two dozen people there. I went to a Trump rally that was organized with just two days of advance, and there were 35,000 people there.

In Georgia, while both elected Democrats and rank-and-file liberal activists are frustrated by the protests, there's no worry about the recount. In interviews this week, they predicted that Biden's advantage over Trump would hold up against challenges, especially after the Trump campaign's first lawsuit alleging voting irregularities was dismissed.

I think most of the legal things that they're doing are shooting themselves in the foot, said Bill Waggener, 73, walking out of a Tuesday night car rally for Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff. “Going after the secretary of state is the dumbest thing that I ever heard. It's his party that's angry. He's actually dealing with the election. He's doing a good job, and they don't like it because they didn't come out the way they expected it to — or, I should say, the way they wanted it to.

The Republican protests carried a whiff of irony, too. Georgia Republicans had mocked Stacey Abrams, the Democrats' 2018 nominee for governor, when she acknowledged her defeat without officially conceding, and Republicans everywhere had made fun of Hillary Clinton for questioning the legitimacy of her defeat in 2016.

“When he won and people wanted a recount, Trump didn't say anything,” said Schante Johnson, 46, after the Ossoff rally. (Recounts in the three closest 2016 states were requested by Green Party nominee Jill Stein and concluded with only minor changes to the Trump-Clinton margin.) “So why do he thinks that everyone is cheating? He was planting this seed about five months ago because he had a feeling that he was going to lose anyway. It's ridiculous.”

The president, who has not made remarks on camera since Nov. 5, has not poured himself into the fight to overturn election results to the degree that Democrats feared. Although his attorneys are continuing to file lawsuits, arguing that the votes in key states should not be certified — a play to deny Biden 270 electoral votes — they've been unsuccessful, flooding the zone with affidavits that show no evidence of fraud. Liberal nightmares of the president rallying to stop the count or trying to impound ballots have not unfolded.

Trump has nonetheless gotten nearly every elected Republican to resist saying that he lost, fostering hope that a recount or whistleblower or friendly judge will block Biden from the presidency. Unlike him, they are not saying that the final count will return Trump to the White House. On Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida rallied with Loeffler at the Cobb County Republican Party’s headquarters, and neither of them commented on the election results or the Georgia recount until asked about it by reporters.

“Since I’m not here on a daily basis, I can’t comment on the circumstances behind what they argued,” Rubio said. “The state has election laws. When a race is close and the stakes are this high, that’s when you realize there’s this process that occurs four weeks after an election to get the certified numbers. That happens in every election, all the time. And that’s the process that should be allowed to work forward here.”

Like most Republicans, Rubio was cutting a path between Trump's outright rejection of the election and an admission that Biden, like the rest of the candidates who've been declared the winners since Tuesday, actually won. At the rally, many Republican activists took the Rubio position: that the election was confounding enough to demand some scrutiny before everybody moved on.

“I don't trust the presidential election. I think that was a farce,” said Geoff Reznik, 60, a high school football coach. “I think it's razor-thin one way or the other. 

But Reznik said that an audited vote count would answer a lot of questions, and the looming Senate runoff has already found Republicans, perhaps accidentally, moving on. Although Perdue did not attend the rally, his wife, Bonnie, warned that Republicans “won't recognize America” if Democrats took the Senate, a statement that made no sense in a reality where Trump might still be president. Hours later, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted, then deleted, a warning that Republican losses in Georgia could make Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris the “tiebreaker” in a 50-50 Senate; that, too, only made sense if Harris had won the election.

This message isn't getting through to the faction of Trump supporters who believe the election may have been fraudulent and could be overturned with recounts or lawsuits. And it is only a faction. Just two dozen people joined the noon protest outside the capitol on Wednesday, and perhaps 200 joined the Infowars-organized protest, a number that included dozens of people traveling in the caravan from other states. But their widely shared premise was that the election in Georgia might have been certified already, with questions swirling, had they and the president not questioned the count.

They had heard stories online, some of them lacking context. They questioned counts that were initially misreported, and some said that Democrats had blocked access to poll-watchers in Michigan, referring to a video that showed election officials in Detroit blocking a window as protesters chanted outside. (Official poll-watchers from both parties were in the room.) 

The stories from Georgia were rarer, and protesters placed some hope in them. Celestine James, 55, said she personally filed a complaint over irregularities that she'd seen in Savannah's Chatham County, worrying that some ballots had been counted twice. She was optimistic that a hand recount would uncover any double-counting, errors or fraud, and “put peoples' minds at ease.” 

Still, asked how a recount would prove that some votes should not have been cast — Collins, for example, argued that some felons ineligible to vote in the state might have gotten ballots — James wasn't sure. Other Republicans, who avoided the noise of the Infowars rally, said they were distraught about the slow vote count and how, in their state, ballots counted last put Biden ahead. But they looked forward to a day when they had clarity about it.

“Unity as a country is of utmost importance,” said Jim Tully, 57, after attending the Rubio event. “If we start throwing people under the bus in the middle of the game, look, that is not how we operate as Americans. I think we should go grab Brad Raffensperger by both elbows and say: 'Come on, brother, we're here to help.' ”

Ad watch

Let's Get to Work, “Change America.” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, does not take it over until Georgia's runoff elections are nearly over. But he's already freelancing in the state with a TV ad. Like most of his advertising, it consists largely of him talking, first reacting to a clip of Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer saying wins in Georgia could “change America,” then warning that victorious Democrats would “cut police funding” and “eliminate private health insurance,” two left-wing ideas that don't have the votes to pass the House or Senate.

Kelly Loeffler, “A Radical's Radical.” Democratic Senate nominee Raphael Warnock tried to pre-but Republican attacks with a memorable, albeit derivative, commercial warning that “the negative ads are coming.” They're here. Loeffler's up with two ads, one that reminds voters of Warnock's criticism of police misconduct, and this one, which plays back video from 2008 of Warnock calling Rev. Jeremiah Wright a “prophet.” It's the first appearance by Wright on Georgia's airwaves since a GOP PAC ran ads linking Barack Obama to his former pastor, 12 years ago.

In the states

As the votes from last week keep getting counted, and as the picture in congressional and state legislative races got darker for them, liberals took solace in another set of elections: ballot initiatives. It was a mixed year for liberal causes, with some big defeats on taxes and election reform but wins on drug reform and the minimum wage. Here's the gist, issue by issue.

Election reform. Conservatives scored a big win in Missouri, where an effort to undo a voter-backed reform measure passed two years ago succeeded. Amendment 3 undid part of the “Clean Elections” measure, with a campaign that portrayed it as an updated, voter-focused improvement while restoring the power of the GOP's legislative supermajority to draw new maps in 2021. Reformers attacked it as a “dirty trick” from “Jefferson City politicians,” but it passed by two points; the initial Clean Elections measure had passed by 34 points.

Independent redistricting succeeded in Virginia and New Jersey, two states where Democrats would otherwise run the mapmaking process next year. Both parties ganged up on measures designed to reduce the importance of partisan primaries, with Floridians rejecting a proposal to create Louisiana-style “top two” primaries and Massachusetts voters rejecting ranked-choice voting. And Mississippi got rid of an archaic, Jim Crow-era law that required candidates for governor to win a majority of state legislative districts in addition to the popular vote. But both red Alabama and blue Colorado passed measures that will prevent noncitizens from voting in any election; some municipalities in other states allow them to vote in local but not federal races.

Drug decriminalization. It won everywhere, expanding the map of states where recreational marijuana is legal — just months before the incoming Biden-Harris administration is expected to decriminalize the drug. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota backed full legalization, while voters in Mississippi approved a medical marijuana measure and rejected language that would have left some implementation questions up to the state's Republican legislators. Recreational marijuana will be legal next year in 15 states and the District of Columbia, and the vast majority of Americans will live in states where medical marijuana is legal. And as expected, both the District and Oregon decriminalized possession of natural hallucinogens.

Taxes. Arizona's shift to the left did not go as far as Democrats wanted — the state legislature looks likely to stay Republican — but voters narrowly approved a new 3.5 percent tax on income over $250,000 for single filers. Elsewhere, anti-tax forces had a good year, killing Illinois's proposal to introduce a progressive income tax, rejecting an effort to weaken California's 42-year-old tax-limitation amendment, and strengthening a similar amendment in Colorado that has survived years of Democratic rule.

Abortion rights. Two closely watched measures tracked the fate of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in their states. In Louisiana, where the Trump-Pence ticket triumphed by 19 points, voters amended the state constitution to add that nothing in it could “secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.” That passed by 24 points, with help from some conservative Democrats. In Colorado, where the Biden-Harris ticket is heading for a 14-point win, an attempted ban on all abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy failed by 18 points.

Affirmative action. Californians rejected a measure that would have repealed the state's prohibition on “preferential treatment to persons on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin,” a conservative victory that came when the state was far more friendly to Republicans. Even as Democrats won the state in a rout, Proposition 16 failed by 13 points, and might have helped two Asian American Republican candidates for Congress in close Orange County races, where they ran solidly ahead of Trump.


… 23 days until runoffs in Louisiana 
… 32 days until the electoral college votes 
… 53 days until runoffs in Georgia 
… 69 days until the inauguration