Trump, Pence to campaign in Georgia as Senate runoff turnout concerns grow among GOP

One expert said depending on what Trump says, it could be the "decisive moment."

December 4, 2020, 5:00 AM

The president and vice president are heading to Georgia to headline rallies for the state's two senators as a growing number of Republicans express direct and indirect concerns that rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump and some allies claiming the presidential election was "rigged" could suppress GOP turnout for the runoff election in January. The runoff will determine which party controls Congress' upper chamber.

"So many Republicans live and die by what Trump says, and so if he says that the system's not to be trusted, the machines aren't registering the votes properly, then that'll increase the number of people who will believe it. And the logical next step is, OK, so why bother to go vote?" said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia and an expert in Southern politics.

In the nearly four weeks since Joe Biden was projected to be the winner of the 2020 presidential election, Trump has refused to concede, peddling false claims and outright conspiracies of mass election fraud and voting switching, even as Republican elected officials who supported his reelection increasingly acknowledge that Trump lost, and that claims of widespread voter fraud that have been rejected in more than two dozen lawsuits in battleground states across the country are without merit.

But many of his allies in Georgia, including the state Republican Party's chairman and Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, have yet to come out against the president or knock down his false claims, even though both senators are facing another election on Jan. 5 that will be conducted under the same procedures and using the same equipment -- an election that Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and others in his office have defended as fair and accurate and certified for Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Pence is headlining a rally for Loeffler, Perdue and Public Service Commission candidate Bubba McDonald, who is also competing in the runoff, that starts at 2:30 p.m. Friday. On Saturday, Trump will travel to Georgia for an airport hangar rally with Loeffler and Perdue, hosted by the Republican National Committee. Unlike the vice president, who has already campaigned in the Peach State for the senators, pushing a strong "get out the vote" message while praising the two senators and recycling his campaign stump speech, Trump is more of a wildcard.

PHOTO: Vice President Mike Pence waves to supporters at a rally in Canton, Ga., along with Sen. David Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Nov. 20, 2020.
Vice President Mike Pence waves to supporters at a rally in Canton, Ga., along with Sen. David Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Nov. 20, 2020.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

"The president's visit could even be the decisive moment depending on which direction he goes. I'm sure the candidates themselves and other Republican leaders are saying, "When you go down there, talk up Loeffler, talk up Perdue, tell those guys, you gotta be sure and go out and vote for them ... but we know that the president often doesn't listen to these handlers -- indeed maybe usually doesn't listen to them," Bullock told ABC News.

The president continued peddling election misinformation in a 46-minute speech that was posted on his Twitter account on Wednesday. In the speech he said "may be the most important speech (he's) ever made," Trump falsely claimed that votes cast on Dominion Voting Systems machines, which are used in many states across the county, including in Georgia for all in-person voting, switched votes cast for Trump to votes cast for Biden. The conspiracy has been shot down by the company, a coalition of state and local election officials, and specifically in Georgia by the state conducting an audit of the presidential contest, which consisted of election officials counting -- by hand -- every single ballot cast in the race and found a variation of the original machine-counted results and the hand counted results was just 0.1053%. A typical variance is between 1% and 1.5%.

Attorney General William Barr publicly knocked down his boss' claim, as well, telling The Associated Press Wednesday that both the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security "haven't seen anything to substantiate" the claim that "machines were programmed essentially to skew the election results."

Trump's remarks came not long after two Trump-supporting attorneys, Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, who was once on the president's campaign legal team, held what they called a "Stop the Steal" rally north of Atlanta where they told the crowd to not vote in the runoff. Wood also said the two senators "have not earned your vote" and voters shouldn't turn out again to cast ballots for them.

"Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election?" Wood said, donning a red MAGA hat.

Powell, adding fuel to the fire, said, "There should not be a runoff -- at least on Dominion machines."

"Stop the Steal" is a pro-Trump group that quickly emerged following the 2020 election fueled by baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. It's led by popular pro-Trump social media activists and has been organizing rallies across the country calling for the results to be overturned.

"Lin Wood and Sidney Powell are totally destructive. Every Georgia conservative who cares about America MUST vote in the runoff. Their dont (sic) vote strategy will cripple America," tweeted former Speaker of the House and Georgian Newt Gingrich on Thursday.

Gingrich, one of the most prominent Republican politicians from Georgia, may have come to Twitter to urge GOP voter participation, but it was just over two weeks ago when he penned an op-ed for Fox News claiming this election was "focusing a spotlight on election law cheating on a scale which threatens the survival of our freedoms," and repeating the same false conspiracy theory about vote switching in battleground states, including Georgia. It also included other false claims about the state's process, such as that the rejection rate for absentee ballots for this election was suspiciously lower than previous elections. In actuality, Republicans have conflated rejection rates, comparing this year's rejection rate because of signatures only to previous total rejection rates, which include the biggest category of rejected ballots: the ones that arrive late.

On Wednesday, a group of 18 former elected officials and "longtime party activists," including Kemp and Loeffler's predecessors -- former Gov. Nathan Deal and former Sen. Johnny Isakson, respectively -- penned an open letter to their fellow Georgia Republicans urging them to stay focused on the runoffs and writing that they've "watched with increasing concern" as some Republicans weigh whether voting in the runoff election matters at all.

"We say today, without equivocation, that without every vote cast for President Trump and all our Republican candidates on November 3 also being cast in the U.S. Senate runoffs, the trajectory of our State and Nation will be irreparably altered on January 5th," they wrote.

While the signatories did not do so explicitly, the letter implies they're worried that continuing to harp on the last election -- and continuing to claim it was unfair -- will not be a winning tactic come January. They wrote that while they "must always act to ensure the integrity of the elections process," that effort can't "detract from a mission that only Georgia Republicans can accomplish: maintaining control of the U.S. Senate."

PHOTO: President Donald Trump listens during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 3, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump listens during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 3, 2020, in Washington.
Evan Vucci/AP

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a top Republican state official in Georgia, has been direct, saying in multiple television interviews that he worries the misinformation will not just negatively impact GOP turnout in the Senate runoff, but also the Republican Party down the road, urging Trump and others in the party "to refine their approach to how we handle this post-election process."

"There's two parts that really are concerning to me. One is the short term and the Senate election, and making sure we don't alienate any voters that we need to show up for Sen. Loeffler and Sen. Perdue," Duncan said in a CNN interview Monday night. "And I think, secondly, we run the risk of alienating voters longer term."

Gabriel Sterling, the voting system implementation manager in Raffensperger's office, told ABC News Live Prime anchor Linsey Davis Wednesday night that he wishes Loeffler and Perdue -- who both called for his boss' resignation "at Trump's urging," according to Sterling -- would come out and dispute the president's false claims, saying he thinks that "if they showed some leadership, they would get more votes, rather than less."

Sterling has been patiently answering reporters' questions -- often the same question multiple times -- in near-daily press conferences as the state conducted three counts of the votes in the presidential race. But on Tuesday afternoon, he unleashed at the podium in the Georgia State Capitol, his anger palpable as he made direct pleas to the president and both senators to condemn violent threats against election workers.

He said these threats have been born out of the troves of unsubstantiated claims about the election, which he directly accused Trump, the holder of the loudest megaphone spewing this narrative, of inspiring.

Even so, he said on ABC News Live Prime that he still plans to support Loeffler and Perdue in the runoff because, as a Republican, he wants to see his party maintain control in the Senate. But he believes the president has put Loeffler and Perdue in an untenable situation by refusing to admit that he lost.

"They don't want to lose the Trump supporters, but by acting this way they're going to lose another chunk of supporters, and so it's a box they can't get out of and the president -- it was unfair of him to put them in the situation. It's unfair of him to continue to question the outcome of this election, not just in Georgia, but in Arizona and Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. There is no proof of any vast conspiracy. It's just not there," Sterling told Davis.

The Democratic candidates facing Loeffler and Perdue -- Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively -- haven't weighed in on the conundrum impacting the GOP, which UGA professor Bullock said is "so counterproductive."

"If you didn't know better, you'd think it was a Democratic plot," he said.

Around the same time as Pence's rally in the state Friday, the Democratic Party, riding high off their presidential candidate winning Georgia's electoral votes for the first time since 1992, will whip out their not-so-secret weapon once more.

Former President Barack Obama, who headlined a drive-in rally for the Democrats in Atlanta the day before the general election, will participate in a virtual rally with both Senate candidates, 2018 gubernatorial candidate and Fair Fight founder Stacey Abrams and Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Nikema Williams, who is also the congresswoman-elect for the state's 5th Congressional District.

PHOTO: Former President Barack Obama, flanked by senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, speaks during a Get Out the Vote rally in Atlanta, Nov. 2, 2020.
Former President Barack Obama, flanked by senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, speaks during a Get Out the Vote rally in Atlanta, Nov. 2, 2020.
Elijah Nouvelage/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

While the pandemic-conscious event won't physically bring Georgians out, it will showcase Democrats' unified front, which is important because Democrats need to win both seats in order to control the Senate with Harris as the tie-breaking vote.

Historically, Democrats have done poorly in runoffs in Georgia, even losing when they were the leading candidate in the general. But Bullock said that the "potential abyss within the Republican Party" caused by Trump's election misinformation could help rewrite that history.

"The Democratic side, it looks like it is united ... even progressives who might prefer someone further left than either the Democratic candidates, nonetheless are sending in money, or if they're here in state, (are) ready to go out and work on behalf of the two Democrats, so there's no hesitancy on the part of the Democrats, no concerns about problems in trying to secure their election," Bullock said.

There is at least one super PAC, called Really American, that is trying to capitalize on the president's false election claims and calls from his allies to essentially boycott the runoff. The PAC, which is supporting the Democratic Senate candidates, launched a billboard campaign in Georgia that was met with swift rebuke from the Georgia GOP.

"Perdue/Loeffler Didn't Deliver For Trump, DON'T Deliver For Them," one billboard reads.

On Twitter Thursday, the group unveiled its next billboard, which features a quote from Wood, one of the lawyers at the "Stop the Steal" rally.

"Where's Loeffler? Where's Perdue? They have not earned your vote -- Lin Wood, pro-Trump Lawyer," the billboard reads.

According to the PAC's page on small-dollar Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue, 12 billboards are already up, another seven are currently being built and eight more have been purchased.

ABC News' Will Steakin and Olivia Rubin contributed reporting.

Related Topics