Republicans bank on Trump to boost turnout in Georgia runoff
Republicans fully expect President Donald Trump to create some awkward moments at a Saturday rally in Georgia that’s ostensibly designed to help Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in their runoff campaigns.
They anticipate he’ll continue to bitterly contest the state’s presidential result, castigate top GOP officials who have certified Joe Biden’s victory and perhaps devote more time relitigating the November election than the two critical races that culminate in January 2021.
But warts and all, they still think they may not be able to win without him.
Party operatives and officials believe the enthusiasm the outgoing president still produces could be enough to tame Democrats’ recent gains in Georgia and preserve the GOP’s tenuous Senate majority in Washington. Perdue and Loeffler are defending their seats against Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively, in two Jan. 5 elections that will decide the balance of power in the upper chamber of Congress.
“The downside is the very suburban college-educated people who voted against him in the general election” could be turned off by Trump’s return, said Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House Speaker who represented Georgia in Congress for 20 years. “The upside is nobody will turn out the Republican base as well as he does. … If you don’t get the Republican base to turn out, you can’t possibly win.”
How Trump factors in elections over the next several years may become a difficult dilemma for Republicans across the country once he is out of the White House and portions of the party attempt to turn the page away from his legacy. But at least for the moment, his involvement is a no-brainer for them.
The predominant Republican attitude towards Trump — even a wounded, defeated Trump — is that he remains the most potent force in the party and can singularly motivate gobs of voters who are loyal to no one but him, especially those now hearing mixed signals about the importance of participating from fringe actors in the GOP. And even if Trump’s stage routine gets messy and comes with baggage, they assess, it’s worth it.
“We let President Trump be President Trump. I don’t think anybody’s in a position to rein him in,” said Edward Muldrow, Gwinnett County GOP chairman. “He’s a fighter and I’m ok with that all day, every day. He has given the party some balls, if you will.”
Focusing on the base
In Georgia, Trump’s core base of voters largely reside in the far ends of the northern, eastern and southern sections of the state. That explains why he is set to campaign Saturday in Valdosta, a southern border city of about 55,000 people that is closer to Tallahassee, Fla. than Atlanta. His trip will come a day after Vice President Mike Pence stumps for Perdue and Loeffler in Savannah and former President Barack Obama appears at a virtual event for Ossoff and Warnock.
“I’m meeting people at the doors who are aligned with us … in some cases, they’re disillusioned, they’re down, they’re wondering, ‘Is it really worth it to go vote again,?’ ‘I only vote in a presidential.’ Them hearing from President Trump will be a genuinely helpful push,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group leading get-out-the-vote efforts for Republicans. “It will trump these irresponsible people who are trying to play games with this election.”
Ever since Perdue and Loeffler failed to cross the 50% threshold in the general election necessary to avoid a second round of voting, Republicans have been working to nationalize the January contests as a final check on Democratic power in Washington.
Consumed by baseless allegations of voter fraud across the country, Trump has complicated that focus by supporting frivolous legal challenges and casting baseless doubts on the entire voting system. In one tweet, he even suggested calling off Georgia’s runoff elections altogether as he questioned the machinery being used.
But private Republican polling has found that Georgia Republicans are largely sympathetic to the notion that this election was marred by flaws, if not all the conspiratorial claims being hurled against it. In a runoff election with an abnormal date coming right after the holidays, both sides are calculating that the winners will have more effectively persuaded their most loyal supporters to activate as voters again.
The GOP bet is that Trump’s most far-reaching claims will mostly only alienate those unlikely to cast a ballot for a Republican anyway.
“He will say what needs to be said when it comes to Loeffler and Perdue and I think that will be the helpful outcome that’s needed,” said Steven Law, the CEO of the GOP-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, which has already spent or reserved $79 million on TV and radio advertising in Georgia. “He will energize the faithful.”
Trump’s decision to campaign as a defeated incumbent president is unprecedented in modern history. After President George Bush lost reelection to Bill Clinton in 1992, he was not enlisted to campaign in the Georgia Senate runoff that year. Although Clinton visited the state on behalf of Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr., Republican challenger Paul Coverdell narrowly ousted the incumbent. Obama stayed away from the Georgia Senate runoff in 2008, deeming it unwinnable.
Trump, meanwhile, has not conceded the 2020 election and is already floating the possibility of a 2024 run. Wins by Perdue and Loeffler next month would allow him to take some credit for continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate, which could stand to stymie much of Biden’s agenda. One radio ad a Donald Trump Jr.-backed super PAC is airing explicitly states, “my father’s accomplishments are on your ballot.”
“There is no downside, there is only upside,” to Trump’s presence in the state, according to Ralph Reed, chairman of the Georgia-based Faith & Freedom Coalition. “You take Trump to the places that he overperformed David and Kelly and you put David and Kelly in the places they overperformed Trump.”
“It’s to boost turnout in an exaggerated way in rural and south Georgia,” he added. “If they turnout their vote and we turnout our vote, they lose.”
After finishing about 88,000 votes ahead of Ossoff in their November matchup, Perdue is seen as holding an advantage in the runoff. Republicans have devoted much more energy and resources toward defining Warnock as a radical out-of-the-mainstream. The onslaught has lifted Warnock’s unfavorable rating by double-digits over the last month, according to internal Republican polling provided by a strategist working on the Senate races.
But there’s still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding how much turnout will drop from the November election, when a record 4.9 million Georgians cast ballots.
Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican who represents southern Georgia and will join Trump on Saturday, said he anticipates the president will bring up his gripes with Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger in his remarks. But he also said the president would raise the stakes for the Senate runoffs, relish the fight with Democrats and in all likelihood return again.
“I don’t think this will be his last visit,” Carter predicted.
David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to email@example.com.