The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fear of losing Senate majority in Georgia runoffs drives GOP embrace of Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday with other Republicans on Capitol Hill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Fear over losing the Senate majority by falling short in the upcoming runoff elections for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia has become a driving and democracy-testing force inside the GOP, with party leaders on Tuesday seeking to delegitimize President-elect Joe Biden’s victory as they labored to rally voters in the state.

Those intertwined efforts threaten to disrupt Biden’s hopes of establishing a smooth transition as Republicans in Washington and Georgia, worried about dispiriting the president’s core supporters, increasingly echo his unfounded claims of election fraud and back his refusal to concede.

With their power on the line and Trump still the party’s lodestar, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his allies have made clear that they are now fixated on Jan. 5 — the date of the runoff elections — rather than on Jan. 20, when Biden will be sworn in as the nation’s 46th president.

“These runoffs have become the political equivalent of ‘Braveheart’ where everyone paints their face blue and just charges across the field,” said Ralph Reed, a Georgia-based Republican and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “If we can get the Trump vote back out in the suburbs, we should be able to get this done. But it will be very hard and extremely competitive.”

Two Republican losses in January would split the Senate equally between Democrats and Republicans, giving the incoming vice president, Kamala D. Harris, a tie-breaking vote and Democrats control of all levers of government.

McConnell threw his support behind Trump’s legal challenges and said the president is “100 percent within his right” to pursue litigation, even though the Trump campaign has not produced evidence of widespread fraud. And while his position interferes with Biden’s attempt to organize an administration amid a global pandemic, McConnell said Tuesday his stance “should not be alarming.”

Top Republicans back Trump’s efforts to challenge election results

Those remarks came as the two GOP incumbents facing runoff campaigns, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, stood by their call for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign, after alleging mismanagement and a lack of transparency without providing any evidence.

Raffensperger, a Republican, said that he will stay in office and that the process of reporting results had been orderly and legal. But he faces continued scrutiny, with several U.S. House members from Georgia and the state party issuing a letter Tuesday calling for more investigations of the election.

“The president is the proverbial elephant in the room. He’s a bully, and people who have seen what’s happened to those who have gone against him don’t want it to happen to them,” said former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (R), a Trump critic. “So people who otherwise would be pretty clear-thinking and fair, or at least equitable, toss all that to the side and become sycophants to the president or his base for one simple reason — political preservation.”

Only four of the 53 Republican senators have congratulated Biden since he was projected as the winner Saturday. Asked to do so Tuesday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said, “No, there’s nothing to congratulate him about.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R), a former Missouri secretary of state, told reporters: “You know, the president wasn’t defeated by huge numbers. In fact, he may not have been defeated at all.”

Democrats expressed alarm as Republican leaders dug in and voiced their support for Trump.

“There is an epidemic of delusion that is spreading out from the White House and infecting the entire Republican Party in the wake of this election,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Tuesday. “President Trump didn’t win the election. Every single one of my colleagues knows this.”

Biden has the advantage as he pursues Georgia’s 16 electoral votes, with a lead of 14,000 votes over Trump. The contest is expected to head to a recount, but counties have until later this week to certify their results with the state.

Perdue, a former business executive and a staunch Trump ally, will face Democrat Jon Ossoff in his runoff election. Loeffler, another business executive, will face Democrat Raphael Warnock. Unlike Perdue, who was elected in 2014, Loeffler has never won statewide. She was appointed by the state’s governor to fill a vacant seat in January and then last week outpaced Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R), a conservative who is close to Trump, to make the runoff.

Control of the Senate heads into overtime as Georgia braces for runoff elections

Trump has been sowing doubts about the Georgia vote count for days — unsubstantiated claims that have widely permeated conservative media and Republican social media channels. On Friday, he tweeted vague questions about thousands of military ballots still to be counted in Georgia. “Where are the missing military ballots in Georgia?” Trump tweeted. “What happened to them?”

For McConnell, as well as Perdue and Loeffler, keeping in step with Trump — and with the White Republicans in Georgia who are loyal to him — is paramount as they go about trying to win the seats, according to GOP aides and Republican strategists interviewed Tuesday.

“President Trump helped Republican candidates across the country do better than they thought possible,” said Republican strategist Michael Steel, an aide to John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) when he was House speaker. “He retains a powerful connection with the grass roots of the party. While his ultimate future is uncertain, he will continue to exert influence over Republican officials, who know he’s central to exciting and turning out voters, especially on a runoff date like January 5th.”

The pressure on McConnell and others is not direct, but it is still pervasive. One GOP strategist close to McConnell privately said he is unaware of any specific threats from Trump’s orbit to Perdue, Loeffler or McConnell to toe the president’s line. But this strategist said GOP senators are nonetheless treading cautiously, as they have learned to do, to avoid “poking the bear.”

A separate senior strategist in McConnell’s circle privately added that most election issues will be played out by early next month — making this week’s GOP rally cry important for holding the party together but possibly moot by the date of the runoffs.

And both strategists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said McConnell and his allies are still planning on casting the Democratic candidates as enabling socialism during the campaign. But since they need Trump to remain helpful in the cause, they will do nothing to contest his stance.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, said Tuesday that issues such as Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal will be linked to the Democratic candidates, “but that’s not where Georgia is, that’s not where the country is.”

Vice President Pence announced to senators at a Tuesday lunch that he would campaign in Georgia on Nov. 20. At the White House, there are discussions about Trump heading there, too, officials said. The NRSC has dispatched several of its top aides to work out of the state GOP headquarters in Atlanta, where they are working in the same offices as Trump’s attorneys.

“There is going to be so much attention focused on it,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said Tuesday. “It’ll be almost a confirmation of which way the country is really leaning. And my gut tells me it’s going to be for divided government.”

Republicans in the state, which went for Trump by a margin of about five points in 2016, have staved off Democratic gains by generating intense support from White voters in the Atlanta area, they said.

But it is an uphill battle. In 2004, 70 percent of all voters in Georgia were White, according to exit polls. In 2016, the White share of the electorate fell to 60 percent, and Democrats won the state’s suburban Cobb and Gwinnett counties for the first time since Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976.

Democrats remain optimistic. “It’s not over, at all. Georgia is close,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. “There is this conventional wisdom that Democrats don’t win runoffs in Georgia. That’s not true. There were two runoffs in 2018 — not much Democratic money or effort behind them, and each was within 4 percent. So we are working very hard to win Georgia. And we believe that we have a very good chance of winning.”

Ossoff began a tour of the southwest part of state Tuesday, and he and Warnock are blanketing the airwaves with positive ads about their backgrounds and visions.

Stacey Abrams’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign showed the new path for Democrats, even as she came up short. As Democrats fight Republicans over ballot access and polling places, they can point to a new wave of voters that has emerged in the Atlanta suburbs, including Latinos and Asian Americans.

The first ad by Ossoff for the runoff campaign asserts that his priorities, if he joins the Senate, will be managing and fighting the coronavirus, helping small businesses and passing an infrastructure bill. “We need leaders who bring us together to get this done,” he says in the spot. Ossoff has also worked to win Black voters by touting his friendship with Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon who died this year.

“We have all the momentum. We have all the energy,” Ossoff said last week. “It is clear that a majority of Georgia voters have rejected Donald Trump and rejected Senator Perdue’s reelection.”

Warnock, as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, oversaw Lewis’s funeral and has seen his long-shot campaign rapidly gain new attention as the runoff election unfolds. On the trail, he has talked up his rise from being one of 12 children growing up in the Savannah projects to running the church the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a platform for national change.

Republicans are already running a fierce campaign against him and have shined a light on Warnock’s past comments critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank. Warnock has since written an editorial for Jewish Insider titled “I Stand with Israel,” and stated, “Without reservation, you can count on me to stand with the Jewish community and Israel in the U.S. Senate.”

Republicans have also criticized him for defending Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, during the 2008 campaign.

“These will probably be the most expensive Senate races in history. It’s really for control of the government,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R), who represented Georgia. “You have to give Stacey Abrams credit. She has been the architect of the new Democratic coalition in Georgia. . . . But my hunch is that suburban women will vote for the Republicans when Trump is not on the ballot.”

David Weigel contributed to this report.