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The Trump-fueled peril for the GOP in Georgia

The Fix’s Amber Phillips analyzes how some of the rhetoric from Trump allies could depress Republican turnout ahead of the Georgia Senate runoff elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

Late last week, concern was building among Republicans that President Trump’s baseless attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election might lead their voters to sit out Georgia’s all-important Senate runoffs, which will determine control of the chamber. If elections are rigged, the logic goes, why bother? And why reward people who supposedly haven’t stood up enough for Trump’s specious claims?

So Trump weighed in with a brief message.

The election was indeed a “total scam,” he assured, “but we must get out and help David and Kelly, two GREAT people” — referring to Sens. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.).

But then Trump promoted a markedly different message on Monday night. He retweeted a user who suggested that it was pointless to elect Republicans like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who had just certified their states for Joe Biden.

“Watching the Arizona hearings and then watching Gov. Ducey sign those papers, why bother voting for Republicans if what you get is Ducey and Kemp?” the user said. Trump also retweeted another user who asked rhetorically, “Who needs Democrats when you have Republicans like Brian Kemp and Doug Ducey?”

The tweets weren’t about the senators, but the message dovetails with the GOP’s nightmare scenario in Georgia: that people will simply throw up their hands either because they don’t trust their elections system or because they view the likes of Perdue and Loeffler as meek warriors on Trump’s behalf. The mixed messages epitomize that challenge particularly as Trump prepares to hold a rally in Georgia this weekend, with some Republicans worrying that he will focus more on himself than on the senators and deliver a message that could be counterproductive.

Several people around Trump are indeed questioning whether to back Loeffler and Perdue.

Then-Trump attorney Sidney Powell alluded at a news conference last week — and not subtly — to the idea that Loeffler might have participated in rigging the election to earn herself a spot in the runoff, rather than Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.). This is despite Collins having finished six percentage points and nearly 300,000 votes behind Loeffler. Powell’s claim that even Republicans might have rigged their own elections was thought to be part of the reason she was swiftly removed from Trump’s legal team a week ago, but she had made a similar claim before joining it.

Another Trump-adjacent lawyer has been even more explicit. L. Lin Wood, a Powell ally who has spearheaded challenges on behalf of Trump in Georgia, has repeatedly tweeted that Republicans should at least consider sitting out the runoffs.

When one user implored him to vote for Perdue and Loeffler in the name of saving the Senate, as Trump had suggested, Wood responded, “I choose not to vote in another fraudulent election with rigged voting machines & fake mail ballots. … This is not about an election. This is a color revolution to overthrow our government.”

(Wood tempered his comments somewhat Sunday, endorsing a user who wrote, “No one is urging Georgia Republicans not to vote in Senate runoffs!” But Wood had tweeted multiple times to that effect.)

Wood’s relationship to Trump’s attorneys is somewhat nebulous, but the president two weeks ago promoted a story that described Wood as having “joined Trump’s election team.”

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, whom Trump awarded a Medal of Freedom this year, similarly suggested that Trump backers might hold out on supporting GOP candidates in Georgia.

“You know, it’s funny how these Never Trump people want us to save their bacon right now while they sat on their butts and ridiculed Trump and us for voting for him,” Limbaugh said. “Now they’re asking — the Never Trumpers are asking — people to show up and vote to make sure that the Republicans keep the Senate. Why, it’s almost like when the Democrats use Blacks for voting and then ignore them.”

Like Wood, Limbaugh later tempered his comments.

Roger Stone is another Trump ally who has been tied to supposed boycott efforts — albeit in a way that his camp denies. The Daily Beast reported last week on a website encouraging people to write in Trump’s name in the runoffs that purported to be affiliated with a dormant super PAC affiliated with Stone, whose prison sentence Trump commuted this year. But an attorney for the super PAC, the Committee for American Sovereignty, claimed after the Daily Beast inquired that it “did not pay for this website” and suggested Democrats were behind it. (In addition, you can’t even write in candidates in a two-person runoff.) The website remains live, though, and still says it was “paid for by the Committee for American Sovereignty.”

While the effort’s provenance is unclear, if it’s something nefarious, the irony is pretty thick; indeed, Stone himself has taken pride in his reputation as a dirty trickster. Similarly, hashtags like #WriteInTrumpforGA have cropped up on social media, with that one trending on Twitter last week — though it’s not clear how much actual Trump supporters are promoting it. In addition, a Democratic-allied group has put up crowdfunded billboards in Trump-heavy counties in Georgia saying, “Perdue/Loeffler Didn’t Deliver For Trump, Don’t Deliver For Them.”

You can count me as skeptical that all of this will eventually matter to a significant degree. For one, there is still more than a month until the Jan. 5 runoffs — a time during which Trump’s election challenges could subside. The importance of the runoffs for the GOP is also indisputable, given that the Senate is its only claim to power in the legislative or executive branches. (Democrats need to win both seats to get a 50-to-50 Senate, at which point they would control the chamber via Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris’s tiebreaker.) You can expect a healthy dose of that kind of messaging in still-conservative-leaning Georgia, and even swing states tend to like divided government.

Also, Republicans tend to do better in runoffs than they do on Election Day, which has happened repeatedly in Georgia. And there were more votes for GOP Senate candidates than Democratic ones in both races the first time around last month. Even if the GOP base is somewhat depressed, there is some margin for error built in, generally speaking.

But here’s where the danger comes in for Republicans: If Trump wants to — or even if he just goes off-message — he can blow all that up. Trump has always been Trump first and a Republican second. The GOP has always been a matter of convenience rather than conviction for him. If he’s truly sore about losing and the lack of Republican support he has gotten for his challenge to the election results, all bets are off.

To the extent that he humors the GOP in its quest to hold the seats in Georgia, it will be because he wants to keep a seat at the table — or perhaps keep his family members viable for future runs under the party’s banner. But his loyalty is never a given, as evidenced by his anti-Fox News quest over the past month. There is a really valid question when it comes to how much Trump truly cares about the Georgia races. You could even argue that full Democratic control of Washington might be good for him post-presidency, as it would provide a better punching bag.

A perhaps-likely outcome is one suggested by Newt Gingrich and a Loeffler campaign adviser to the New York Times this week: that Trump maintains his baseless claims of fraud but says it only reinforces the need for a resounding GOP win.

“You can’t say the system is rigged but elect these two senators,” said Eric Johnson, the Loeffler adviser and former Republican leader of the Georgia state Senate. “At some point he either drops it or he says I want everybody to vote and get their friends to vote so that the margins are so large that they can’t steal it.”

Even if Trump desires to remain in good standing with his party, though, his sense of persecution and his conspiracy-mongering could win the day and could depress the GOP base if voters throw up their hands. If Kemp is some kind of RINO to you, after all, why would you believe Perdue and Loeffler were any better?

It might not be enough to matter, but it could certainly make things more interesting. And given Trump’s tendency to fly off the handle — combined with his status as a lame duck who doesn’t need to appeal to voters — all eyes will be trained on what he says this weekend