The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republican challengers in Georgia share a specific complaint: The incumbents acknowledge reality

David Perdue speaks during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates for Senate at Banks County Dragway in Commerce, Ga., on March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

There may not have been a more validated election in American history than the one that took place in Georgia on Nov. 3, 2020. Voting was conducted on electronic voting machines — a more accurate system of tallying votes cast — with paper backups. Those backups allowed for a hand recount of the ballots cast in the state, which took place a few weeks after the election. There was also a machine recount of the ballots in December, with the margins changing very little.

At the same time, a number of allegations about suspicious activity or fraud have been raised and dismissed. A flurry of claims raised by President Donald Trump in a phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) on Jan. 3 were dismissed on the call and/or in a news briefing the next day. Then there were the grease fires that popped up regularly, such as ballots were double-counted (they weren’t) or that the chain of custody on ballots was broken (though no fraudulent ballots have been identified).

Then there’s the claim that ballots were gathered illegally and submitted in bulk at drop boxes. This is apparently the subject of an upcoming film by one of the first recipients of a pardon by Trump, Dinesh D’Souza, in which he claims to use cellphone geolocation data to identify 2,000 people who harvested ballots in various states. Setting aside questions about the specific accuracy of that data, collecting legal ballots illegally doesn’t invalidate the ballot — as Raffensperger himself made clear even as he announced an investigation.

What results is the electoral equivalent of the coach who refuses to acknowledge his team’s loss, complaining repeatedly to the refs about points that shouldn’t have been counted and writing letters to the league about purported violations of where the foul lines were drawn. He still lost, and it’s not going to change anything, but it seems to make him feel better.

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In that scenario, though, the stakes are far lower. If the players on his team think they should have won or if their parents do, it’s disappointing but not a crisis. In the case of Georgia’s election, though, a large portion of the state has been convinced that the foul lines were drawn in the wrong place and the game stolen, and any time you get a large group of people to believe a thing, you create an opportunity for an unscrupulous or similarly deluded actor to profit by playing to that outrage.

Both Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp (R) are seeking reelection this year and are being targeted in Republican primaries by candidates who accuse them of colluding with the refs to throw the game. There’s Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who’s running for secretary of state and who was recorded in recent days telling an audience that he would work to rescind the 2020 election results. Then there’s former senator David Perdue, now looking to unseat Kemp as governor, and who has declared flatly that his reelection loss last year was a function of the election being stolen.

Again, because the benefits of believing the election was stolen are equivalent to the benefits of pretending to believe the election was stolen, it’s hard to say the extent to which either Hice or Perdue really thinks that sufficient fraud occurred to overturn the election. (Perdue’s loss, we’ll note, came not in November but in the Jan. 5 runoff, well after all this scrutiny was paid to Georgia’s elections systems.) But both have identified this embrace of stolen-election talk as a differentiator with their Republican opponents.

The distinction between belief and opportunism is particularly important when considering Hice. Prompted by an undercover activist to say whether he’d decertify the state’s results, Hice insisted that he would work to do so — but that there were legal steps that needed to be followed before he could.

In other words, he may simply think there is a path to decertification that in reality doesn’t exist. It’s hard to say.

Perdue seems more committed to the fantasy. In an interview, he declared that “most people know that something untoward happened in November 2020.” He dismissed “the hyperbole that you saw come out right after the election” — a reference with a not-entirely-clear target, given how he’s leaned into Trump’s endorsement — but pledged to try to reanimate a case dismissed last year in which fraud was alleged in Georgia’s Fulton County. Again, there’s no evidence for this, and not because the courts are serving as a roadblock. But the thing about maintaining the confidence of your target is that you have to keep hope alive, and this appears to be where Perdue is finding a source of hope.

The former senator also appeared at a rally over the weekend in which Trump sought to bolster Perdue’s candidacy. Perdue flew a bit closer to the sun than intended, responding approvingly when the crowd began to chant “lock him up” in apparent reference to Kemp. He later claimed that he thought the crowd was saying “lock them up,” a reference to the unnamed whoevers who did all the fraud. But this, too, is telling: Building a campaign heavily centered on agreeing with nonsense risks seeing the nonsense grow outside of your control. If you’re going to claim the refs were cheating and the lines were poorly drawn, it’s hard to draw the line against claims about the ball having been cursed by a witch or what have you.

One more problem looms, one to which Hice alluded. Step one in combating reality is getting the realists out of office. Step two is probably harder: getting reality to somehow conform to what your base wants to see. Trump can keep claiming fraud indefinitely since he’s not in a position to do anything about it. The governor and secretary of state working together would probably be expected to make a bit more headway.

The coach suddenly becomes the head of the league. He can change the rules, fire the refs, redraw the boundaries — the sorts of voting changes we saw in other states, including Georgia. But how does he go back and win that one game?

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