US President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Valdosta, Georgia, US, December 5 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ELIJAH NOUVELAGE
US President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Valdosta, Georgia, US, December 5 2020. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ELIJAH NOUVELAGE

Washington — US President Donald Trump and president-elect Joe Biden will each make last-minute campaign appearances in Georgia for candidates in two runoff elections that will decide whether Republicans retain control of the US Senate.

For Trump, the visit comes days after pressuring top Georgia officials in an extraordinary 62-minute call to find enough votes to overturn his loss to Biden in the state — the latest in an increasingly desperate series of moves to change the results in his favour.

During the call on Saturday, Trump repeated his unfounded claims of vote fraud and told Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger he was running a “big risk” by not intervening in the election.

“I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break,” Trump said on the call.

Republicans need Trump to stoke turnout among his base for the January 5 Senate elections so that GOP senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler can successfully defend their seats. Yet many in the party fear his efforts to alter the outcome of the presidential race could turn off their voters.

Biden will be stumping on behalf of challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff as he takes a break from assembling his cabinet ahead of his January 20 inauguration.

Georgia has been a key target for Trump as he has advanced baseless claims that voter fraud cost him re-election in November. Trump has accused the state’s Republican leaders, including governor Brian Kemp, of being in league with a Democratic conspiracy to rig the election.

“The president is creating a lot of turmoil among Republicans,” said Edward Lindsey, a Republican strategist and former GOP leader in the Georgia assembly. “That cannot help but have somewhat of a dampening impact on the president’s most ardent supporters.” He called Trump’s rally — only the president’s second appearance in the state during the runoff campaign — “a double-edged sword”.

Trump took his efforts to a new level over the weekend, pressing Raffensperger and other Georgia officials in a call on Saturday to “find” enough votes to overturn the result.

“Look, all I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes,” Trump told Raffensperger. An official recount has affirmed that Biden beat Trump by 11,779 votes in the traditionally Republican state. The claims risk dissuading Republican voters from returning to the polls, if they buy Trump’s assertions that Georgia’s elections can’t be trusted.

Biden is likely to focus on Trump’s conduct during his Monday visit as he urges Democrats to the polls. And Trump, at a rally in the town of Dalton, is likely to be just as focused on his own political future as those of Perdue and Loeffler.

On Wednesday, the day after the Georgia runoff, Congress will convene in a joint session to ratify Biden’s electoral college victory. Trump has urged Republican lawmakers to challenge electoral college tallies from several battleground states, including Georgia, and has encouraged his supporters to stage a large protest in Washington.

Trump is likely to split his rally time between the Georgia election and the January 6 certification of the electoral college results, a person familiar with his thinking said. The person asked not to be identified because Trump frequently ad libs at his rallies.

Trump ‘priority’

“Keeping a Republican majority in the Senate has been a priority for the president from the beginning,” Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said. “He will be rallying voters to support senators Perdue and Loeffler and warning that their opponents are leftist extremists who support higher taxes, the job-crushing Green New Deal, and amnesty for 11-million illegal aliens.”

In a December 5 rally for the two candidates, Trump praised them, but spent just as much time attacking Georgia’s voting system and complaining about his loss.

“As you know, a major issue in this state is voter fraud. It’s been a big issue for a long time but never like this,” Trump said at the earlier rally.

On Twitter, Trump’s attacks on Georgia’s election integrity have far outweighed posts encouraging support for Perdue and Loeffler. “I love the Great state of Georgia, but the people who run it, from the Governor, @BrianKempGA, to the Secretary of state, are a complete disaster and don’t have a clue, or worse,” Trump posted on Dec. 29, tagging Kemp’s Twitter account.

The two Republican senators have largely tiptoed around Trump’s unprecedented post-election fight so as not to alienate the mercurial president ahead of the election. They’ve cast the Senate race as a fight to “hold the line” and maintain a legislative check on Biden’s power — an implicit acknowledgment that Trump was defeated.

But Trump’s fight to reverse the election has split the party, and his attacks on the Peach State’s election integrity, including far-fetched conspiracy theories, could undermine Republican get-out-the vote efforts.

Similar mixed signals from the president may very well have contributed to his own defeat. He repeatedly declared mail-in voting vulnerable to fraud ahead of the November election, which likely contributed to a large advantage for Democrats among ballots delivered by mail in battleground states like Pennsylvania.

Lindsey cited a SurveyUSA poll in December that showed 39% of Georgia Republicans have little or no confidence that votes in the Senate race will be counted accurately. The poll also found that 65% of the state’s Republicans believe Trump won the election, but that votes were lost or changed to give Biden the edge.

During the Saturday call, Trump told Raffensperger: “You know, the people of Georgia know that this was a scam, and because of what you’ve done to the president, a lot of people aren’t going out to vote, and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative because they hate what you did to the president. OK? They hate it.”

Lawyers’ antics

Trump’s allies have encouraged such unfounded beliefs in the state.

On December 30, Trump’s lead campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani made unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud in the state’s election at a Georgia Senate sub-committee hearing and said the results should be reversed to reflect a Trump victory.

“The same fraud that went on in the prior election is going on right now with the mail-in ballots,” Giuliani said of the Senate race.

Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, Republican lawyers who have circulated some of the most outlandish conspiracy theories about Trump’s defeat, at one point called for Republicans to boycott the Senate runoff election. “Because the fraud was so egregious, we don’t know that Loeffler and Perdue should even be in a runoff!” Powell wrote in a December 30 tweet.

Trump met with Powell at the White House in December and discussed naming her as a special counsel to investigate allegations of voter fraud, according to people familiar with the matter.

Though he’s paid scant attention to the Senate race compared to his own post-election fight, Trump has blitzed supporters with digital fundraising appeals that highlight the runoff.

“Pres Trump needs YOU to FIGHT for Senators Loeffler and Perdue,” reads one of the text messages sent to supporters. A link from the message leads to a web page that reads, “Georgia Election Fund!” and “securing these two official Senate seats is absolutely paramount”.

But 75% of each contribution first goes to Trump’s personal Save America PAC. The rest is divided between “DJTP’s Recount Account” and the Republican National Committee.

Bloomberg

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