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'Makes me sick': Georgia Republicans seek to ride Trump shock to holding Senate control

The GOP's infighting after it underperformed in this historically red state could play into the hands of Democrats. Some conservatives hope it will jolt them.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Republican U.S. Senators from Georgia Loeffler and Perdue walk together at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia
Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, R-Ga., walk at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport following President Donald Trump's arrival in Atlanta on July 15.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

MARIETTA, Ga. — Conservative voters are shocked by how Election Day turned out in Georgia, but now Republicans are trying to convert the anger at Democratic successes into GOP wins in January.

More than a week after the election, some Republicans continue to cling to hope that a recount will reverse President-elect Joe Biden's lead here and hand President Donald Trump a victory in a state that hasn't backed a Democrat for the White House in nearly three decades. While the state remains "too close to call," Biden is ahead by about 14,000 votes.

Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler is battling Democrat Raphael Warnock in a runoff. Republican Sen. David Perdue's race against Democrat Jon Ossoff is rated "too close to call" by NBC News, and Perdue has begun to mount a runoff campaign, bending to the possibility that he may fall short of the 50 percent threshold to win outright.

Both parties seem eager to make the Senate races a referendum on whether Biden's party should control Congress. If Democrats were to grab both seats, they would control the Senate.

"The road to socialism does not run through Georgia!" Loeffler told the crowd at an event here with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Veterans Day. "Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi — you're not going to take Georgia."

Some conservative voters in the state say they are astonished and upset that what they considered safe Republican territory slipped from their grasp. Perdue and Loeffler have echoed Trump's insinuations of impropriety in the election, which are unsubstantiated but are believed by some of his followers here.

"There's so much voter fraud it makes me sick," said Jill Hovies, 70, of Kennesaw. "I think Hollywood has bought this election. The far-left mob and the media have bought this election. It's not fair. It's a complete fraud."

There has been no evidence of pervasive voter fraud in the United States, but Trump has insisted that it is to blame in places where he trails Biden. Even without Georgia, Biden has won enough states to become the next president, NBC News projects.

Georgia's Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, said Wednesday that there will be a hand recount of all paper ballots in the state. He rejected calls this week by Loeffler and Perdue to resign over claims of election misconduct for which they didn't provide evidence, and he said they should focus more on maintaining a GOP Senate.

Even though Biden's margin is substantial, Hovies said she's "praying" that the recount reverses the result and that she is "disappointed" in Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp, also a Republican, for failing to uncover fraudulent ballots.

"I don't understand how it went to Biden," she said. "I really don't. It's sad. It's frightening."

Hovies and others here at an event hosted by the Cobb County GOP, in an Atlanta suburb that is trending toward Democrats, said that if there are two runoffs in January, they will vote for Perdue and Loeffler.

Loeffler is also leaning into a national message.

On Tuesday, she released a negative ad linking Warnock, a prominent Black pastor, to controversial remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and claiming that he "sympathizes with Marxists and socialists" and "wants to make your neighborhoods less safe."

Appearing Wednesday on MSNBC, Warnock portrayed Loeffler as having used her office to profit.

"She's done a really good job protecting her own portfolio when she heard about the coronavirus pandemic. ... Georgians have not seen real relief in several months," he said. "She'd rather talk about all of these things because I imagine it must be difficult to explain why you want to get rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic."

Democrats are also trying to parlay the presidential race into enthusiasm among their base.

At an Ossoff rally, speaker after speaker emphasized the stakes for the Senate, presenting it as a choice for Georgians about whether to allow Biden to pursue his agenda or allow the GOP to obstruct it.

"We need this new administration to be able to successfully fight this virus, promote economic recovery, expand civil rights, pass criminal justice reform. And if Mitch McConnell controls the Senate, nothing will get done. Washington will be mired in partisan gridlock," Ossoff said in an interview before he took the stage. "I think people want to see this president-elect succeed at a moment of crisis. And that's why these races are so important."

For Republicans like Scott Johnson of Marietta, who serves on the state Board of Education, holding the Senate is paramount to stopping the Democratic agenda.

"It's the most important thing. More important than Thanksgiving and Christmas," he quipped. "We didn't ask to be the political center of the universe for the next eight weeks, but we will be."