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In Georgia Senate runoffs, Democrats relegate Trump's fraud claims to sideshow status

With the Republican candidates caught up in Trump's failing effort to overturn the election, Democrats seek to clarify the stakes of next month's elections.
Image: President Donald Trump holds up his fist as he leaves the stage at the end of a rally to support Republican Senate candidates at Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta
President Donald Trump holds up his fist as he leaves the stage at the end of a rally to support Republican Senate candidates at Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta, Ga., on Saturday.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

ATLANTA — While President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the results in Georgia from last month's election have dominated much of the conversation around next month's Senate runoff elections, Democrats here are mostly treating those efforts as a sideshow.

As Rudy Giuliani, the president's attorney, was pitching state lawmakers on doing just that during a visit to the state Capitol on Thursday, Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff was in Cobb County telling supporters they no longer need to be consumed by what the president is doing. Rather, he said, it's time to look forward to what Democrats could achieve with the House, Senate and presidency.

"We don’t have to think about him anymore," Ossoff said of Trump. "We don’t have to talk about him anymore."

It isn't new for Democratic campaigns to talk around the president on the campaign trail, instead opting to focus on issues such as health care and Covid-19 relief. But unlike past Trump-centric matters, such as former special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation or the president's impeachment, Trump's continued contest of the election results is hyperlocal to Georgia. And his efforts to discount votes in Democratic-leaning areas seek to disenfranchise voters — many of them Black voters — whom Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, the two Democratic candidates, are working to turn out again in the Jan. 5 runoffs.

Asked about Trump's attempts to undermine the result of the election after that same Thursday campaign event, Ossoff said he viewed the efforts as "an open attack on the voting rights of Black Americans in Georgia."

"Look, Republicans might not be successful this time around, but they're clearly laying the groundwork for attacks on our democracy in the years to come, and that is obviously very worrying," an Ossoff campaign spokesman told NBC News, adding, "We're not laughing this off at all, but our campaign's incredibly focused on turning out the people who voted for Joe Biden."

During a virtual rally the following day alongside 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist credited as the key player in flipping Georgia blue for the first time in decades, and former President Barack Obama, Democrats stuck to outlining the difference a Democratic vs. a Republican-controlled Senate will mean for President-elect Biden's administration.

"Anybody listening right now, you need to realize this is not just about Georgia," Obama said. "This is about America and this is about the world. And it's within your power, in fact, to have an impact."

Trump's efforts to contest last month's results were an afterthought.

In debates held Sunday night, Ossoff and Warnock did not make much mention of Trump's ongoing campaign to change the results. Instead, the Democratic candidates and allies have zeroed in on Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler's stock-trading controversies, saying they prioritized personal gain over their constituents during the pandemic.

Perdue, R-Ga., and Loeffler, R-Ga., have defended their actions, both repeatedly pointing to having been cleared of wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, Trump's efforts have fallen short both nationally and in Georgia, where his campaign's latest effort included suing to invalidate the entire election and pushing Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, to call for a special session of the Legislature to appoint pro-Trump electors and order a signature audit of absentee ballots, which Kemp has said he does not have the authority to do.

On Sunday, Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said that “is not an option that is allowed under state or federal law," adding, "The judicial system remains the only viable — and quickest — option in disputing" the results.

For Republicans, Trump's crusade has played a central role in the campaign thus far, with his refusal to accept the results limiting just how far Loeffler and Perdue can go in promoting themselves as the last line of defense against the Democratic agenda.

"What's at stake is the Senate majority," Loeffler said during Sunday's debate with Warnock when asked if her framing of the importance of her election amounted to an acknowledgment that Trump had lost.

When the president visited Georgia on Saturday, he forcefully pushed back on calls from some allies who said Republicans should stay home next month in protest of last month's election. But he still made the baseless charge that the election was rigged and that the January election might be, too. And he continued to take aim at Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also a Republican.

"So don't listen to my friends, just go out, just go out. And you know what they are saying, they are saying, we want you to fix the system," he said. "We are going to fix the system. But the system will be fixed when these people get in. They'll get in and we will fix the system."

The crowd at Saturday's rally was firmly aligned with the president's point of view, chanting "stop the steal" and "four more years." When Perdue took his turn to speak, the crowd drowned him out with a chant of "fight for Trump."

Voters have similarly confronted Republicans at campaign events in recent weeks about what they are doing to boost Trump's effort.

“I don't know if y'all saw the rally last night, but David Perdue was drowned out and just about shouted off the stage by the president's supporters in Valdosta," Ossoff told reporters Sunday. "This was supposed to be a rally for Senator Perdue."

State Republicans have expressed concern over whether continued focus on the outcome of the election will depress turnout for the next one. Some Republicans just want to move on.

"This is a pivot point for us as Republicans, right?" Duncan in an interview with NBC News. "This is a very, very important pivot point.

"I think there's some lessons to learn here as Republicans, and we've got to be paying attention to this," he added. "We can't be so emotionally wrapped up in the results that we lose focus on learning from this."

Yet, GOP voters on both sides of this divide expressed understanding of just what's on the line next month. Should Warnock and Ossoff win, Democrats will control the Senate in a 50/50 split with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote. Should either Loeffler or Perdue win, Republicans will maintain control.

And while the ongoing battle over last month could harm GOP turnout, the big risk Democrats face is complacency after Biden's election, something Obama highlighted Friday.

"And one of the frustrations that I had during my presidency was oftentimes, folks, or even my supporters, they'd say, 'well, you know what, we got Barack in now,'" he said. "And Michelle, she's first lady, she looks pretty. She's doing great work and now we trust them and so we don't have to do anything now."

Jay Williams, a Georgia GOP strategist, told NBC News the high stakes of the election will "override" any stay-home energy being promoted on the right.

With the state so evenly split, any defections could make a significant difference in the outcome.

"I don't know if there's this massive motivation on the Dems' side to make sure they have full control of everything," he said. "I just think they're going to have some people that are like, 'We got rid of Trump, and that's what we wanted to do, and we're going to stay at home.'"