Gov. Brian Kemp was endorsed by President Donald Trump in Georgia’s 2018 Republican primary, and became a hero to many of the state’s conservative voters earlier this year when he refused to impose COVID-19 restrictions. A group of conservative economic experts recently ranked him second among the nation’s governors.
But at campaign rallies for Georgia’s two Republicans senators this week, Governor Kemp’s name generates loud boos and even chants of “lock him up!” – the same treatment once given to Hillary Clinton.
The governor’s sin? Defending the integrity of his state’s November election, which was recertified as a win for Joe Biden for the third time on Dec. 7. In the weeks since the vote, President Trump has insisted, contrary to all evidence, that he won Georgia and other key swing states, as well as the election overall. He has attacked Mr. Kemp on Twitter, calling him a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and encouraging other Republicans to run against him in 2022.
Mr. Trump has always put a premium on personal loyalty. But this postelection period – in which he has continued to press unfounded claims of fraud, even as President-elect Biden prepares to take office – has presented Republicans across the country with a stark test, and created new fissures in the party. In many cases, the divide between those who back Mr. Trump’s claims of fraud and those who admit, however regretfully, that he lost the election aligns with whether those officials have actual responsibilities over elections or are simply lobbing criticism from the sidelines.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who previously had a close relationship with Mr. Trump, became the target of critical tweets by the president after he certified Mr. Biden’s victory in his state. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who waited six weeks before finally congratulating Mr. Biden on his win, also found himself the subject of an angry presidential tweet.
In Georgia, the party fracture is particularly acute, and has created an awkward messaging problem for Republicans as the state moves toward two Jan. 5 runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Incumbent GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have conspicuously sided with the president in bashing their own state’s election apparatus and the Republican officials in charge of it. They’ve accused GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of failing to deliver “honest and transparent elections,” and called for him to resign. This week, Senator Loeffler declined to rule out disputing Mr. Biden’s win when Congress meets to ratify the Electoral College results next month, which could force members to vote on the matter (though the outcome would almost certainly not change).
By amplifying Mr. Trump’s baseless fraud charges, the senators could undermine their own reelection efforts – since fueling doubts about the integrity of Georgia’s voting could conceivably depress GOP turnout. At Mr. Trump’s rally in Valdosta, when Senator Loeffler tried to talk about the importance of holding on to Georgia’s Senate seats, she was interrupted with chants to “stop the steal.”
Yet both senators, like many other Republicans, seem to have calculated that their political survival depends upon remaining in Mr. Trump’s and his supporters’ good graces. And keeping those supporters angry over a “stolen” election could in fact prove to be a powerful political motivator, even after Mr. Trump has left the White House.
“The Republican Party is splintered right now, and I think it will continue to splinter more depending on what happens with President Trump,” Marjorie Taylor Greene, representative-elect for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, tells the Monitor. “If he’s not in the White House over the next four years, you’re going to see his base, the MAGA base, continue to grow.”
“You have to vote”
Ms. Greene, who co-owns a commercial construction business with her husband, shocked many in America with her successful congressional campaign as an unapologetic purveyor of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which contends that many prominent Democrats are actually Satan worshippers and child sex traffickers.
In the shadow of an empty shopping mall parking lot in Duluth, Ms. Greene, who has been embraced by the president, is welcomed with cheers and selfie requests. It’s one of more than a dozen scheduled stops on a “Save America” bus tour to rally GOP voters ahead of the Georgia runoffs.
“No matter what you hear on social media, you have to vote,” Ms. Greene tells a crowd of a hundred or so voters with MAGA flags and shirts that read “Stop the Steal.” Other speakers on the tour – including former vice presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, and Utah Sen. Mike Lee – make similar appeals about the importance of voting.
The tour is an effort to reverse the apathy and disappointment canvassers were hearing from Republican voters after the election was called for Mr. Biden, says David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, which organized the tour and has put $10 million toward get-out-the-vote efforts.
More specifically, he says, it’s an attempt to counter some of the less helpful GOP messaging around the runoffs.
At a press conference earlier this month, pro-Trump lawyers Lin Wood and Sidney Powell encouraged Republican voters in Georgia to sit out the Senate runoffs as a form of protest. In an interview with Ms. Powell, Lou Dobbs, an anchor on the Fox Business Network, said, “If the people in Georgia are dumb enough, after what they have gone through in the Nov. 3 election to then go toward Jan. 5 in a runoff and think that changing nothing will change the outcome, then the people of Georgia aren’t half as smart as I believe them to be.”
Many Republican voters attending a recent rally with Vice President Mike Pence outside the Augusta airport say they hope election officials have learned from their “mistakes” in November.
“Maybe now, with more attention, they won’t try it again in January,” says Rhonda McNeely, who works at Big Lots. “But we can’t take our eye off the ball.”
Becky Strobel, a medical assistant, says she does plan to vote – but anticipates that fraud will occur. “The more of us who turn out and vote, the harder it is for them to steal it,” says Ms. Strobel. “Obviously they can still steal it, like they did in November, but it makes it harder to argue.”
“It all comes down to the Peach State,” trumpets Mr. Pence from a stage decorated with Christmas trees and big red bows. From the risers behind him, a man yells, “Kick Kemp out!” and the rallygoers around him laugh.
“If Kemp doesn’t stand up for Trump like Trump stood up for him, I won’t vote for him again,” says Ms. Strobel. “This will all come back to bite Kemp.”
View from Richmond County
For the GOP officials trying to defend the integrity of the election process, refuting fraud allegations has felt like a never-ending saga – with new rumors seeming to spring up as quickly as they can be put down.
“Every day you whack one idea down – it’s a rumor whack-a-mole – and then another one pops up. It’s just endless,” Mr. Raffensperger commented in a recent virtual discussion with other secretaries of state. “But there is no proof to anything. Everything they have said, there are facts on our side.”
As part of his ongoing effort to reassure the public, Mr. Raffensperger recently announced a signature audit in Cobb County – something President Trump had pushed for – though he said it would not change the outcome of the presidential election.
Few Georgia officials straddle this line in the sand more than Sherry Barnes, an Augusta attorney who serves as both chair of the Richmond County GOP and vice chair of its Board of Elections. From her office near the courthouse in downtown Augusta, Ms. Barnes says she doesn’t dispute the general claims of voter fraud. But she insists it didn’t happen in her jurisdiction.
Richmond County had the largest turnout in its history, she says, and the fact that they held a safe and secure election amid COVID-19 was impressive. Like Mr. Kemp, Ms. Barnes might be in a position to address any instances of fraud if actual evidence were to emerge. In the absence of any such evidence, however, she suggests that problems might have occurred elsewhere in the state – perhaps Atlanta and its suburbs – but not here.
“Even with our recount, we only came up with seven votes different out of 87,530 votes,” says Ms. Barnes. “What we did was right.”
She’s had voters call her office to ask about rumors of election officials hiding suitcases of ballots underneath tables, and tried to reassure them that in Richmond County, they don’t allow tablecloths. But she doesn’t reject the idea that something like that could have occurred elsewhere.
“We have it out in the open here. But if the other counties did that, that’s wrong,” says Ms. Barnes. “It tends to make people question the validity of the election.”
Regardless, she adds, Georgians need to focus on reelecting Senators Perdue and Loeffler.
Right now, it’s an all-hands-on-deck effort to win the Senate runoffs, agrees Congresswoman-elect Greene. Republicans need to turn out despite any grievances they may have with other party officials. There will be time to deal with those concerns later, she says.
“Leading into the 2022 elections,” she says, “we’ll handle our family business then.”
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