President Donald Trump will stump on Saturday for Republican U.S. senators in Georgia facing January runoffs, but some in his party worry he may do more harm than good if he stays focused on personal grievances over his loss in the Nov. 3 election.
Trump has repeatedly and without evidence asserted widespread fraud in the November election, a claim rejected by state and federal officials, including in Georgia, which Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry in a generation.
The outgoing president has also attacked Republicans who have refused to endorse his claims, such as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Statewide recounts, including a painstaking review by hand of some 5 million ballots, turned up no significant irregularities.
Trump’s penchant for making his political rallies all about him – and now, about his claims the U.S. electoral system is rigged – has raised concerns among some Republicans that his appearance in southern Georgia could end up turning voters away.
“If he spends most of his time talking about the two candidates, how wonderful they are, what they’ve achieved,” he could help, said Matt Towery, a former Georgia Republican legislator who is now a political analyst and pollster.
“If he talks about them for 10 minutes and spends the rest of the time telling everyone how terrible Brian Kemp is, then it will only exacerbate things.”
The Jan. 5 runoffs pitting the two Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, against Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Democrats would need to win both seats to deny Republicans a majority they could use to block large parts of Biden’s legislative agenda.
Earlier this week, two lawyers who been involved in legal challenges to Biden’s win, Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, explicitly told Trump’s supporters not to vote in the runoffs unless Republican state leaders act more aggressively to overturn the presidential election results.
Trump’s attacks have drawn impassioned rebukes from election officials from both parties, including Gabriel Sterling, the Republican manager of Georgia’s voting systems, who this week blamed the president and his allies for threats of violence against election workers and officials.
“I think the rhetoric they’re engaged in now is literally suppressing the vote,” Sterling told Reuters on Friday.
Trump’s refusal to concede has forced Loeffler and Perdue to walk a fine line. Even as they warn voters of the dangers of a Democratic Senate majority, they will not say that Biden won the White House, and echo Trump’s attacks on Raffensperger.
On Friday, Trump posted on Twitter that the best way to ensure Perdue and Loeffler win is to uncover fraud and declare him the winner.
“Spirits will soar and everyone will rush out and VOTE!” he wrote.
Trump’s attacks could hurt the senators with voters in two ways, said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Atlanta’s Emory University.
By undermining faith in the process, Trump could convince some of his backers there is no point in voting in January. At the same time, his attacks on Kemp and other officials could turn off moderates who might otherwise be inclined to support the incumbents.
“The more Trump talks about the presidential election and gets into criticism of how the election was run here, the bigger a problem that is for the Senate candidates, and the greater likelihood that he could reduce enthusiasm among a segment of the electorate,” Abramowitz said.
Vice President Mike Pence held a rally in Savannah on Friday to support Perdue and Loeffler and was greeted by chants of “stop the steal” from attendees.
“I know we’ve all got our doubts about the last election, and I actually hear some people saying, ‘Just don’t vote.’ My fellow Americans, if you don’t vote, they win,” Pence said.
Former President Barack Obama held a virtual event with Warnock and Ossoff at the same time. Biden said on Friday he will also travel to Georgia at some point to campaign with the Democratic candidates.