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Trump roils Georgia GOP as party waits to see if presidential visit helps — or hurts — in crucial Senate runoffs

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)

President Trump’s planned trip to Georgia on Saturday to campaign for two Senate candidates in tight runoff races has some anxious Republicans concerned that he could do more harm than good by repeating false claims about the voting system, attacking GOP officials and further inflaming a simmering civil war within the state party.

That war showed no signs of abating this week, with competing GOP factions growing increasingly angry and distrustful of one another.

Leading the charge on one side were two lawyers who say they support Trump. At a fiery news conference Wednesday, they urged Republicans to withhold their votes from the Jan. 5 runoffs if leaders do not fight to overturn the November election results in the state, which Trump narrowly lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump escalates baseless attacks on election with 46-minute video rant

Republican state legislators, meanwhile, aligning themselves with Trump’s baseless claims, held hearings Thursday in the Georgia Capitol to hear testimony about alleged voting irregularities — echoing similar GOP-orchestrated events in other state capitals in recent days that have sought to undermine public faith in election results.

Races between Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Jon Ossoff (D) as well as Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D) will be decided on Jan. 5. (Video: The Washington Post)

Other Republicans denounced the claims. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and a senior member of his staff, Gabriel Sterling, blamed Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric for a surge of threats against state and local election officials and even Raffensperger’s wife and grown children. And more than a dozen longtime Georgia Republicans penned a letter urging the party to come together and focus on winning the Senate seats.

“Without every vote cast for President Trump and all our Republican candidates on November 3 also being cast in the U.S. Senate runoffs, the trajectory of our State and Nation will be irreparably altered on January 5th,” said the letter, which was signed by prominent Republicans such as former governor Nathan Deal and former senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.

At the center of it all is an embittered, lame-duck president who is furious with some Republican leaders in Georgia for not helping him overturn the election — and has often been less interested in GOP efforts when they do not benefit him.

The president, Republican advisers say, is key to persuading his die-hard supporters to vote for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in a lower-turnout special election that will determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years. Republicans hold 50 Senate seats, with Democrats holding 48. But Trump could also do considerable damage, some in the party fear, by pushing some moderate Republicans to stay home or vote for the Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff, who is challenging Perdue, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is up against Loeffler.

Trump’s baseless election fraud claims in Georgia turn Senate runoffs into a ‘high-wire act’ for Republicans

A large number of Trump’s backers are urging other Republicans — including Loeffler and Perdue — to propagate his unsubstantiated claims of election fraud and fight harder to overturn the results of the election. At rallies for both candidates, Trump receives louder chants than anyone else. Backers often yell, without prompting, “Stop the steal!” — even as other Republican candidates try to focus the crowd.

Trump has repeatedly spread baseless claims about voting in the state and attacked Republicans, particularly Gov. Brian Kemp. Some Republicans fear that could depress turnout among suburban voters in places outside Atlanta that support Trump far less — and that cost him the election in the state.

Trump claimed Thursday that rooting out fraud would help Loeffler and Perdue, but he again offered no evidence of improper voting. “The ‘Republican’ Governor of Georgia, @BrianKempGA, and the Secretary of State, MUST immediately allow a signature verification match on the Presidential Election,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “If that happens, we quickly and easily win the State and importantly, pave the way for a big David and Kelly WIN!”

Trump’s argument relies on the baseless notion that an audit of signatures on ballot envelopes would reveal that thousands were accepted without proper verification. There is no evidence to support his claim. And even if an audit were conducted, it would be impossible to isolate the votes associated with those ballots envelopes, as the two are separated in the early stages of vote processing.

At a rally Wednesday in Alpharetta, a few miles north of Atlanta, pro-Trump lawyers Lin Wood and Sidney Powell cast doubt on the legitimacy of any election held with the equipment and rules used on Nov. 3. It was, essentially, a don’t-get-out-and-vote rally. Wood encouraged the crowd of hundreds to protest outside Kemp’s home, demanding a special session on the election, then the governor’s resignation. Wood also told the crowd not to vote for the Senate candidates unless they demand a special session of the Georgia legislature on Dominion Voting Systems, the voting-machine company that Trump and his allies have falsely claimed rigged the election in Georgia and elsewhere.

“As far as I’m concerned, lock him up,” Wood said of Kemp, who certified Biden’s win in Georgia two weeks ago.

Wood paced back and forth onstage, repeatedly calling for Kemp to leave office.

“He’ll never get my vote again,” Wood said. “He’s never going to get your vote again, is he?”

GOP election official in Georgia blames Trump for fostering violent threats

A chorus of “No!” rang out from the crowd.

Powell insisted results in Georgia and other states were altered, although the hand audit of all Georgia ballots completed last month disproved that. She suggested an election be conducted entirely with paper ballots “that are signed and have a thumbprint on them,” which would violate Georgia’s constitutional requirement of a secret ballot.

“I would encourage all Georgians to make it known that you will not vote at all unless your vote is secure,” Powell said. “There should not be a runoff, certainly not on Dominion machines.”

Trump campaign and Republican National Committee officials say the lawyers — Powell and Wood — do not represent them or the president, though Trump at one point said Powell was on his legal team, only to reverse course.

Georgia state Sen. William Ligon (R), who chaired Thursday’s Senate hearing, said the theme of the allegations being leveled by the president “is reflected in what we’re seeing at the ground level.” Ligon said he had never gotten so many angry calls from constituents about an issue.

Some Georgia Republicans have begun to push back.

Lawrence “Lane” Flynn, the chair of the DeKalb County Republican Party, said he has been dealing with issues with the DeKalb County elections board for the past month, mostly concerning the volunteers needed — sometimes on short notice — to help settle questions over ballots.

“You’ve got these lunatics out there, Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, just inventing absolute fiction,” Flynn said. “Anytime it goes to court, it gets laughed out. And so they don’t take it to court — they just have rallies and speeches where they can say whatever they want with no fact checking. And that apparently is what some people want to hear, and so they believe it.”

Flynn added that only a handful of people have told him they might skip the runoff, saying that the “loudest and angriest voices get heard the most, no matter how many or few of them there are.”

The letter this week from longtime Georgia GOP figures was designed to signal concern on behalf of the party that the two Senate seats are in jeopardy.

“We have watched with increasing concern as the debate surrounding the state’s electoral system has made some within our Party consider whether voting in the coming runoff election matters,” the group wrote.

Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, this week warned of the perils of Trump’s rhetoric beyond the potential political fallout for Republicans in the short term.

“Even after this office requested that President Trump try and quell the violent rhetoric, being born out of his continuing claims of winning states where he obviously lost, he tweeted out: ‘Expose the massive voter fraud in Georgia,’ ” Raffensperger said. “This is exactly the kind of language that is at the base of growing threat environments of election workers who are simply doing their jobs.”

The visit Saturday by Trump — who will host a rally in the conservative southern Georgia city of Valdosta — will be a pivotal moment.

Aides say RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and others have talked Trump into making the trip by arguing he would be credited for the Senate wins if he went — and blamed for losses regardless.

Potentially adding to the drama, Perdue appeared to tacitly acknowledge Biden’s victory in a video recording obtained by The Washington Post on Thursday. The recording, of a video meeting helded Wednesday with members of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Perdue spoke pragmatically about the role a GOP-controlled Senate could play as a check on the Biden administration.

Some allies have also noted to Trump that Republican control in the Senate could help in 2024 should he run again and would limit his exposure to investigations from that chamber after he is out of office, said advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on internal discussions. Advisers have also argued to Trump that a GOP majority in the Senate will keep Biden from reversing his policies.

Aides note that in his tweets, Trump has encouraged Georgians to vote and pushed back on arguments from supporters that it is not worth it. His eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and others close to the president are working to support the senators, with a political action committee airing ads with Trump Jr.

“It’s imperative we’re united in this fight to save our country from Democrats’ lurch toward socialism, and President Trump’s visit will remind Republican voters what’s at stake,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

The RNC has sent a team of about 600 canvassers to the state. Other groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, are knocking on doors, as well.

How much Trump is willing to help remains unclear.

He has shown less interest in keeping a Republican Senate than other GOP leaders have. Advisers say he has been frustrated at how some GOP senators have criticized him, and others have said that Trump this year appeared distracted or disinterested when party leaders tried to involve him in their plans to win Senate races.

The president would regularly stop meetings with Senate advisers to complain, officials said, about how senators such as Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina criticized his “perfect” phone call that led to his impeachment.

In one meeting, as aides were talking about keeping Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in her seat, he homed in on Sara Gideon, the Democrat challenging Collins, to describe her as “very attractive,” according to two people present. He turned to several of the men in the room and jokingly winked, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings.

The Trump team’s dismissiveness of Senate races was apparent in Michigan, as well. Even though NRSC officials saw John James early in the race as the top Senate candidate there, Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, circulated a six-page memo warning against a James candidacy and said he could hurt the president’s chances. (James was the GOP nominee but lost to the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Gary Peters.)

Even in Georgia, with the extraordinary confluence of two Senate races on the ballot in a presidential swing state, there were signs over the summer that Trump was not focused on anything other than his own political needs.

In a White House meeting about keeping the Senate, attended by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) and other aides, a discussion about the state took a turn when Trump brought up House candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene’s support of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, according to people familiar with the discussion.

“Q-an-uhn,” he said, mispronouncing the name of the group, telling those present that it is made up of people who “basically believe in good government.” The room was silent again before Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, leaned forward to say he had never heard it described that way. Trump had similarly praised QAnon, which the FBI has identified as a potential domestic terrorist threat, during an August news conference.

What you need to know about Dominion, the company that Trump and his lawyers baselessly claim ‘stole’ the election

Despite Trump’s apparent ambivalence about the Senate races, national Republican strategists have found ways to send resources into Georgia. The RNC, for instance, gave $7 million each to the NRSC and the party’s House campaign arm in October, even though some Trump advisers preferred the Trump operation keep all the money.

But Trump has privately complained about Loeffler, particularly that Kemp picked her to replace the retiring Isakson without adequately consulting the president, according to multiple advisers. Trump grew annoyed with Perdue, whom he likes and regularly golfs with, after Perdue said in a leaked call that Republicans may face challenging odds in Georgia, aides said. Officials say he wants both to win but is angry that Georgia voted against him.

Neither Loeffler nor Perdue talks about electoral fraud on the campaign trail — unless forced by questions from voters or journalists or provoked by Trump supporters in the crowd.

After McDaniel was recently in the state, she told others she was surprised at the voter anger — and some of the baseless theories that Trump’s supporters believed. On several occasions during a visit last month by Vice President Pence, the crowd interrupted him to argue for more efforts on Trump’s behalf. He awkwardly waited for the chants to stop.

Repeatedly, the politicians have tried to focus on the Senate, and what Democratic control of the U.S. government could mean, while voters returned to helping Trump.

After a call from Trump’s supporters of “Stop the steal!” during an event in Georgia last month, Perdue replied with more ambiguous language. “Hold the line,” he said. The crowd stuck with “Stop the steal!”

Dave Weigel contributed to this report.