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Trump looms over Georgia's high-stakes Senate races, worrying Republicans

The president is scheduled to hold a rally in the state Saturday after having spent weeks attacking GOP elected officials.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump departs after a video teleconference call with members of the military on Thanksgiving at the White House.Patrick Semansky / AP

ATLANTA — President Donald Trump is ending his time in the White House as his bid for it began: waging a scorched-earth crusade against members of his own party.

With party control of the Senate hinging on a pair of runoff races in Georgia, Trump has spent the last few weeks trying to undermine confidence in an election he lost and attacking Republican officials here whom he once endorsed.

In interviews, Georgia Republicans projected confidence that Trump's false claims of rampant fraud and his continued efforts to sow doubt about the integrity of Georgia's electoral process won't keep their voters home next month — simply because the stakes of the Jan. 5 runoff elections are so clear.

But some did reveal concerns, while others called for party unity. In a state where the split between Democratic- and Republican-aligned voters is as tight as it can be, they know that if even a small segment of Trump supporters — or ticket-splitters — opt out, victory is more difficult.

"This is by far the toughest race we will ever navigate," said a Republican operative familiar with Sen. David Perdue's re-election campaign. "It's the most important, and it is the toughest.

"It's a very straightforward path, but it's a very windy road to get there," this person added. "Right now, I would say, I have never seen the Republican Party more united in understanding what's at stake and understanding what has to be done to stop it. ... People have different priorities in the meantime of what they're doing."

Trump and some allies have been lobbing baseless claims of a rigged election across the country, zeroing in on Georgia after he lost the state to President-elect Joe Biden by fewer than 13,000 votes. Trump has saved some of his strongest ire for Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, and he has pushed them to take measures to overturn the election that the men have said would be illegal.

Trump tweeted Tuesday that if Kemp would simply handle November's election as he wants — in effect disenfranchising a significant number of Democratic voters, many of whom are Black — he could "call off" the runoffs.

Gabriel Sterling, a Republican who is the state's voting system implementation manager, rebuked Trump at a news conference Tuesday.

"It has to stop," he said of the fury aimed at state officials, pointing to threats that Raffensperger, his family and other election workers have received. "Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language."

Trump responded by calling the election "rigged" on Twitter and suggesting that state officials were engaged in a cover-up.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, has been vocal in dispelling the theories Trump and his allies have promoted in recent days. In an interview, he said he is "fearful" that the rhetoric "is negatively affecting these runoff races."

"And I am strongly encouraging both the president and his team and Republicans in general and the senators to redirect their energy to getting re-elected and to not get caught up in this massive wave of misinformation, because that's exactly what it is," Duncan said. "It is a massive, unsubstantiated wave of misinformation. There's not been any signs of systemic or organized fraud here in Georgia. And as the lieutenant governor of this state, I'm proud of that, regardless of the fact the person I voted for didn't win."

A call for party unity

Trump is scheduled to visit Georgia on Saturday to campaign for Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., who are facing off against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively, after no candidate hit the 50 percent threshold last month.

State Republicans are hopeful that he will focus his message on getting the two elected, not on last month's election. In an open letter shared Wednesday with NBC News, 18 former Georgia Republican leaders called for the party to come together around that goal.

Former Sen. Saxby Chambliss was one of the signatories. He said in an interview that the letter was a response to "comments coming in from several different camps about the fact that people ought to think about not voting on January 5th."

"That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever," he said. "And then those of us that were talking about it, it occurred to us that we ought to do something about it."

Chambliss said he wants Trump to cease his attacks on Kemp and Raffensperger, both of whom he defended as having followed the law. He said claims of widespread voter fraud "continue to be unsubstantiated."

He said he expects Trump to explain why electing Perdue and Loeffler matters, particularly to those considering not voting.

"He needs to remind them that he's got a legacy that he wants to see upheld," Chambliss said.

Others echoed the sentiment.

"I want him to focus on the future and protecting the values that he served and ran on," said Loeffler campaign adviser Eric Johnson, a former GOP leader in the state Senate, who signed the letter. "Where Trump may have been defeated, the Republicans down ballot did well. So to me, that says whether or not they like the president, they don't like the left's agenda.

"Regardless of what happens with election fraud, control the U.S. Senate — Republicans aren't stupid," he added. "They can do the math. They know 52 to 48 are better than 50-50."

Jay Williams, a Georgia GOP strategist, said he doesn't expect Republican voters to choose to "cut off our nose to spite our face."

The only truly damaging thing Trump could say Saturday would be "stay home," he added.

"I can't tell you how many rank-and-file folks I talk to, and officials, that are just absolutely convinced that there's this massive voter fraud going on," he said. "So it obviously has some kind of effect. And I think him coming down here actually helps with alleviating that, unless he does say something crazy, but we'll find out."

'I hope and pray that it stops immediately'

Republicans in the state have promoted the importance of keeping the Senate in GOP control to provide a check on a Democratic president. But the candidates themselves have sought to walk a fine line on that messaging, as it acknowledges that Trump will no longer be in the White House next year.

The delicacy of that position was on display last week, when a man interrupted Perdue at a campaign event to ask what he was "doing to help Donald Trump in this fraud case."

The audience began cheering. Perdue pointed out that he had called for Raffensperger's resignation and said he wanted to see additional lawsuits aimed at overturning the results.

Meanwhile, influential conservatives like L. Lin Wood, a Georgia lawyer and Trump ally, advised supporters Wednesday not to vote in January.

Speaking at a rally, Wood said Loeffler and Perdue haven't yet "earned your vote."

"Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election, for God's sake?" said Wood, who is seeking an injunction to stop the runoffs. "Fix it! You've got to fix it!"

Duncan said such rhetoric has alarmed him.

"Very intelligent, successful, accomplished individuals that I know in just everyday walk of life are getting hooked in to these random, one-off Twitter posts or Facebook posts that takes anybody 10 seconds to debunk, and they're getting sucked into it," he said." And I don't know where this is coming from. I don't know where the energy's at, but I hope and pray that it stops immediately."

Some on the left have even seized on that energy. Billboards paid for by the Really American PAC reading "Perdue/Loeffler didn't deliver for Trump, DON'T Deliver for them" began appearing across the state recently.

Justin Horwitz, the group's founder and president, said that nine such billboards are up and that the group plans to place at least 20, all in areas that voted for Trump in excess of 70 percent last month.

A Georgia Republican strategist said: "It's Democrats doing it as if they are right-wing nuts. It's brilliant. It's brilliant because it's exactly what Lin Wood would say."

The strategist said Trump "can decide if he wants to be a plus or minus" during his trip to the state, adding, "He has the ability without a doubt to come down here and blow this thing up."

Some Republicans are ready to turn the page

Voters interviewed in Forsyth County, northeast of Atlanta, where Trump won about 66 percent of the vote, said they would be voting for Perdue and Loeffler.

Ken Prevette, a Republican, said that he didn't think much of Perdue and Loeffler but that he believes the country needs checks and balances and that a unified government wouldn't be good. He said he "reluctantly" voted for Trump, praising some of his efforts while condemning him as a human being.

"His inability to recognize that he's not as great as he thinks he is cost him the election," Prevette said. "And so now this Senate election, to me, is pretty important."

Prevette added that it's well past time for Trump to accept the election results.

"I thought it showed a lack of class on Stacey Abrams when she refused to acknowledge that she had lost the election for governor last time," he said. "And I would be a hypocrite if I didn't say I feel the same way about Trump and what he's done. I understand that it was a very close election, but I think his ego got in the way of the reality."

Runoffs in Georgia have historically favored Republicans. But with the increased national exposure, a flood of donor money, increased efforts to register voters and a president who is firing at his own side, Republicans acknowledged that this time could be different.

"I've been doing this 20 years," said Williams, one of the strategists. "I've never seen something insane like this."

Trump posted a tweet Wednesday that could help calm some Republican anxieties.

"Will be going to Georgia for a big Trump Rally in support of our two great Republican Senators, David and Kelly," he said. "They are fantastic people who love their Country and love their State. We must work hard and be sure they win."

Alex Seitz-Wald contributed.