Essential Politics: Trump’s election attacks split Georgia GOP, adding more uncertainty to Senate runoffs

Gabriel Sterling, a top Georgia elections official, speaks at a Nov. 30 news conference in Atlanta.
Gabriel Sterling, a top Georgia elections official, at a Nov. 30 news conference in Atlanta in which he condemned attacks on the state’s voting process and threats against election workers.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)
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Three and a half weeks from now, voters in Georgia will choose the state’s two senators and, with that vote, decide which party will have a majority in the chamber.

Just maybe, by then the rest of the Republicans in the Senate will have publicly admitted that President Trump lost the November election. But that concession, which should be something Americans could take for granted, no longer comes guaranteed.

Trump’s open defiance of the election result, which many Republicans initially brushed off as nothing more than a temper tantrum, has turned far grimmer, more serious and longer lasting, thanks in large part to Republican officials who have enabled him.


On Monday, the members of the Electoral College will meet in their state capitals and formally ratify Joe Biden‘s victory, but it’s no longer clear that even that will end the effort to subvert the election. Some Trump supporters in the House say they plan to challenge the result when Congress meets on Jan. 6, the day after the Georgia runoff.

The drive to overturn the election by ginning up groundless claims of fraud has split the GOP. The fault line showed plainly this week as 17 Republican state attorneys general — many of them ambitious for higher office — several Republican senators and 106 GOP members of the House publicly backed a long-shot effort by Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton to have the Supreme Court throw out the election results from Georgia and three other states Biden won.

A few Republican elected officials, including the attorneys general of Georgia and Ohio, publicly opposed the Texas suit. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Friday she was “surprised” and “really disappointed” by the degree of support the move had received from her fellow Republicans. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called the idea of further challenges to Biden’s victory “madness.”

Many more, however, stood uneasily on the sidelines, trying to avoid taking a position.

The consequences of that split in the GOP have played out most dramatically in Georgia — one of the two states that gave Biden his closest victories. Trump’s claims have pitted his ardent supporters, including Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, against those who oversaw the election, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his predecessor in that job, Gov. Brian Kemp, whom Trump has publicly denounced.

That internal fight has added still more uncertainty to a double runoff election that remains impossible to predict.

An election that turns on turnout

Only a few things can be said for sure about the Jan. 5 runoff election that pits Perdue against Jon Ossoff and Loeffler against the Rev. Raphael Warnock. The most important is that fewer people will vote in a special election a few days after New Year’s than the roughly 5 million who cast ballots in the presidential contest.

It’s a cliché of political reporting that election results depend on turnout. In truth, most elections depend on a mix of persuading swing voters and mobilizing your own supporters. In this case, however, the cliché is true: After a year of nonstop campaigning, the number of persuadable swing voters is almost surely tiny. Victory will go to the side that does the best job of minimizing the drop-off from November.

In that first round, Perdue ran almost exactly even with Trump statewide, getting slightly more votes than the president in the Atlanta suburbs, slightly fewer in the extremely pro-Trump counties in the state’s northwestern corner. Ossoff, by contrast, ran nearly 100,000 votes behind Biden. A significant chunk of Biden’s voters appear to have taken part in the presidential contest but didn’t fill out the rest of their ballot, a fairly common occurrence in elections.

The pattern in the Loeffler-Warnock race is more complicated since they’re running in a special election to fill a vacancy. The November election in their case was a free-for-all featuring multiple candidates from each party. Biden, however, did a bit better than all the Democratic candidates combined.

So the Republicans, especially Perdue, start out with a bit of an advantage. But several big factors could erase that edge, and Trump plays a large role in each of them:


Start with Black voters, who were key to Biden’s victory.

Ossoff ran most seriously behind Biden in Atlanta and parts of south Georgia, a pattern that suggests he didn’t do as well as he needed to among Black Georgians. That’s a problem he encountered in 2017 when he narrowly lost a special election to fill a seat in the House.

The history of Georgia runoffs might suggest that problem would get worse in January: Turnout among Black voters often has declined significantly in the state’s runoff elections.

But Warnock’s presence on the ballot — and the prospect of his becoming the first Black senator from Georgia — could help keep Black voter turnout high, helping both Democratic candidates.

So could Trump.

Many Democratic strategists feared that the party’s voters, many of whom were heavily motivated to defeat Trump, might lose interest in voting once he lost his reelection bid. But Trump’s refusal to accept the results and his attacks on the legitimacy of the vote have kept Democratic motivation high.

In particular, Trump and his chief lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, have made race a key element of their claims. They’ve repeatedly asserted that Trump had the election stolen from him by corruption in cities with large Black communities, such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta, even though the biggest swings against Trump came in suburban areas. Those barely veiled attacks on the legitimacy of voting by Black Americans could act as a powerful mobilizing force.

At the same time, Trump’s attacks on the election have kept fervor high among his strong supporters. Even though many of them believe the November election was fraudulent, there’s little evidence that they’ll pass up a chance to vote in the runoff.


But the strife might hurt Loeffler and Perdue among a small, but important, slice of voters — traditional Republicans who voted for Biden in November because they couldn’t stomach Trump, but who weren’t ready to cast a vote for a Democratic Senate candidate.

Just as the videotaped killing of George Floyd this year caused a significant number of white Americans to reassess their reluctance to believe what Black Americans have long told them about systemic racism, Trump’s virulent, race-based attacks on the election might cause some white Georgians to reconsider their doubts about what Stacey Abrams and other Black leaders in Georgia have long said about race bias in the state’s elections.

Moreover, as Georgia’s Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, said in an interview Thursday with Judy Woodruff on PBS’ “Newshour,” the attacks on the electoral process may have seriously damaged the party’s image with less partisan voters.

“A small group of folks have been willing to put out misinformation based on fractions or slivers of the facts or truth and spun it out there to large crowds and said, ‘Hey, look, we don’t like the outcome of this election, so we’re going to stir the pot,’” Duncan said. At some point, he added, Trump’s supporters will start to realize they’ve been “duped.”

“It’s not American. It’s not democracy,” he said. “This is not our finest moment, and my hope is that we quickly move past this.”

Action at the Supreme Court

The justices could rule as early as Friday afternoon on Texas’ effort to throw out the results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. David Savage will have the story as soon as the ruling comes.


Our Georgia coverage

Although Black voters played a major role in Biden’s victory, they weren’t the only factor. Jenny Jarvie and Jennifer Haberkorn looked at the important role of the state’s small but growing Asian American population.

In the regular election, Democrats outspent Republicans in most key races nationwide, but in the runoff, the GOP holds a big money advantage, Sarah Wire and I wrote. That’s largely because of very heavy spending by four political committees controlled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), some of which don’t have to disclose their donors.

“We’re going to spend whatever it takes to hold these seats. The feeling is, it’s all on the line here,” said Jack Pandol, the spokesman for all four of the McConnell-linked committees.

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The transition

Biden has largely ignored Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, instead focusing on rolling out his Cabinet picks and laying out his plans for combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, most of his choices for senior positions have been well received, but there have been a few bumps.

As David Cloud and Eli Stokols wrote, in choosing Lloyd Austin, a retired general, to head the Pentagon, Biden may have underestimated the opposition among Democratic lawmakers to compromising the principle of civilian control of the military.

Austin, who retired from the Army four years ago, will need a waiver from both houses of Congress of the law that says a former officer cannot head the Defense Department until he or she has been out of uniform for seven years. He’ll likely prevail — in part because Democrats won’t want to block the potential first Black Defense secretary — but the effort will take some extra work from Biden and his team.

A more difficult confirmation battle faces Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget. As Doyle McManus writes in his column, Republican senators claim Tanden’s frequent tweets hurt their feelings. That’s an odd position for senators who spent four years repeatedly insisting they hadn’t seen Trump’s latest Twitter assault, but Tanden has become the focus of GOP fire. That could block her nomination, even as the focus on her may provide cover for other Biden nominees.

Finally, Anna Phillips wrote about the Trump administration’s rush to sell California oil leases on its way out the door. The sale faces all-but-certain legal challenges, but it’s a good example of the departing administration’s efforts to get as many of its policies as possible into place before leaving office.


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