The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump has been blasting Georgia’s election system. Many Republicans plan to vote in the Senate runoffs anyway.

The audience waits for President Trump to speak at a rally on Dec. 5 in Valdosta, Ga. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

SAVANNAH, Ga. — There's no question in Angie Mingledorff's mind that some sort of chicanery happened in Georgia's Nov. 3 election, handing the state's electoral votes to a Democrat for the first time since 1992. Mingledorff said she "can only hope and pray" that President Trump remains in office on Jan. 20 and wants to see his claims of voter fraud fully explored.

But in the meantime, she’s not letting her lack of faith in the voting system keep her out of the voting booth on Jan. 5 — or her co-workers, or her family. The extraordinary pair of Georgia runoff elections on that day, with the balance of power in the U.S. Senate on the line, is too important to her.

“I have heard some of my people, some of my co-workers who say I don’t think it’s worth it because of all the fraud,” said Mingledorff, 59, a waitress at a Western Sizzlin’ in Savannah, who attended a rally headlined by Vice President Pence on Friday, then stayed after to watch Air Force Two depart. “Oh no, you have to vote. You have to make a stand. You have to make it count.”

In the weeks since President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 election, including a win in this traditionally pro-GOP state that has been affirmed by multiple recounts and an audit, Trump and his allies have waged an unrelenting effort to undermine the legitimacy of the outcome.

They have spread baseless claims of fraud that have been summarily dismissed by courts, investigators and election officials, and they have blasted Georgia’s GOP leaders, who have stood firmly by the integrity of their work, as “RINOs,” an acronym for “Republicans in name only.”

Most worrisome to some Republicans have been the calls in some pro-Trump circles for GOP voters to boycott the Senate runoffs in protest, or to show up and write in Trump’s name rather than cast ballots to keep Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in office. The open question for many of the party’s top strategists has been whether voters will turn out when they are being told, even with zero evidence, that the voting system is broken.

But interviews here with Republican voters and local party leaders show that many are comfortable with that potential cognitive dissonance and intend to vote on Jan. 5. Many have been buoyed by Trump’s own admonition to vote despite — even because of — his claims of fraud, as he did during his rally in Valdosta last weekend, when he warned his followers that if they let Democrats “steal Georgia again, you’ll never be able to look yourself in the mirror.”

“We understand the importance of these two senatorial runoffs, we get it,” said Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.), who also spoke at Pence’s rally in Savannah. “We’re still mad as hell about what happened with the president. But we can do both. We can still vote, and we can still get these two senatorial candidates reelected and still be mad about what’s happening with [the] president.”

Georgia GOP voters, he said, “can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Two weeks ago, Lawrence “Lane” Flynn, the chairman of the Dekalb County Republican Party, was trying to figure out how to convince conservatives with fears of election fraud that they need to vote on Jan. 5. It’s an easier sell after Trump’s urging, he told The Washington Post.

“It’s been trending in the right direction for people like me whose concern is driving turnout and having people come to the polls,” Flynn said. In November, he added, “I was concerned that this whole don’t vote thing … would keep going. That sort of petered out. I think it may still exist, but I’m increasingly confident that we’re going to get the turnout that we expect to get and a hard-fought runoff election.”

The runoff pits Perdue and Loeffler against Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. If both Democrats win, the party would knot the upper chamber at 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris holding the tiebreaker after she is inaugurated.

Trump’s fraud assertions have forced Loeffler and Perdue to walk a tightrope between warring factions of their party with less than a month until the runoff, supporting the fraud claims of the GOP’s most popular politician, even as Republicans worried those claims would smother turnout. The conundrum was apparent at Sunday’s nationally televised debate between Loeffler and Warnock, when the sitting senator refused to say who she thought won the 2020 presidential election, despite being asked five times.

Earlier this month, Perdue appeared to tacitly acknowledge that Trump lost the 2020 election in a private video recording obtained by The Post of the Senator’s meeting with the Republican Jewish coalition.

“We know what this change of command at the top will mean with our foreign relations,” Perdue said in the video, adding: “If we can keep the majority in the Senate, we can at least be a buffer on some of the things that the Biden camp has been talking about in terms of their foreign policy.”

Perdue has also privately pointed to the challenges of campaigning in the Trump era and the potential benefit of running now without the president on the ticket. Addressing donors on a conference call earlier this month, Perdue spoke of an “anti-Trump vote in Georgia” and said the runoff is about getting “enough conservative Republicans out to vote” who might have opposed Trump’s reelection.

But publicly, he has been supportive of Trump’s efforts, even saying at Trump’s rally in Valdosta that he and Loeffler would “fight to make sure you get a fair square deal in the state of Georgia.”

Remarks from both Perdue and Loeffler were interrupted by rallygoers who shouted “Stop the steal!” and “Fight for Trump.” One man interrupted a Perdue event at an Atlanta-area gun club with Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) to ask what Perdue was doing about the fraud.

Since then, even Republican legislators who have demanded more detailed examinations of fraud have encouraged people to vote. Georgia Sen. William Ligon, of White Oak, chaired a special judiciary subcommittee on fraud claims and says his office has received hundreds of calls and emails from Trump supporters who want the legislature to investigate further.

This month, the subcommittee hosted Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose team showed a video that it said shows evidence of election fraud in Fulton County, echoing similar GOP-orchestrated events in other state capitals that have sought to undermine public faith in election results.

But even Ligon said he wasn’t encouraging Republicans to sit out the pivotal election.

“It would be foolish to think, ‘Well I’m just not going to vote in the next election, because I thought this one was stolen,’ ” said Ligon, who received praise from Trump at the Valdosta rally for his efforts. “No, you say ‘I’m going to vote and I want it fixed because they’re going to be elections after the next one in the next one in the next one after that.’ ”

Kurt Hoffman, a Republican who also attended Pence’s event in Savannah, said he was trying to encourage friends and loved ones suspicious of the election system to cast ballots anyway.

“Whether there’ll be fraud in this election on January 5, well I hope not, but you’ve got to try,” he said, shortly after Pence’s plane departed. “You’ve got to keep trying. If you don’t try, then the battle is lost.”

Flynn, the Dekalb County GOP chairman, said that while there are still pockets of Republicans who may sit out the runoff because of the fraud claims, the bulk of Republicans he’s talked to plan to vote. For now, he’s putting away his election fraud counterarguments, even though he opined that some Georgia Republicans will vote on Jan. 5 while wearing “Stop the Steal” shirts.

“If that’s what you have to do to make somebody feel better, you know, I’m okay with that,” he said. “As long as you’re voting, I don’t care what you wear.”

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