Donald Trump’s refusal to say whether he would accept the result of next month’s election presented yet another challenge Thursday for his struggling campaign, as even his staunchest allies worried that his unprecedented comment could undermine a centuries-long tradition of peaceful transition of power.
Trump’s remarks that he will keep voters in “suspense” over whether he would accept the outcome of the vote overshadowed the rest of Wednesday’s third and final presidential debate, and it forced his Republican allies in Georgia on the defensive again after weeks of damaging reports about his lewd remarks about women.
Democrats pounced on the refusal, with many echoing Democrat Hillary Clinton’s take that his “horrifying” view proves he is unfit for the job. As Democrats try to expand the electoral map by competing in traditionally Republican Arizona, Clinton’s Georgia supporters hope they rev up her support in the Peach State.
“Donald Trump is just going through the stages of denial. He’s going to lose and he’s coming to grips with the fact he’s going to lose,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said in an interview. “I don’t think any of us can predict, plan or expect what he’s going to do. But he’s already done so much damage to our democracy that folks view this as a very bad chapter that needs to end.”
The Republican nominee’s camp, meanwhile, sent mixed signals on the remarks as it tried to manage the fallout.
Some of his top advisers said he would support the election victor without a doubt.
But Trump, while joking at a rally Thursday in Ohio that he would honor the election result “if I win,” also got serious. “Of course I would accept a clear election result,” he said before adding that his concerns about voter fraud might not make that possible. He then alleged that Clinton’s campaign was trying to “rig” the election.
Trump allies raised similar warnings.
“The fact that they would cheat in an election? That would be nothing compared to what they’ve done,” said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who invoked questions about the Clinton Foundation’s ties to the State Department when pressed Wednesday night in the post-debate spin room about Trump’s remarks. “The Clintons would go to any extent to influence the election.”
‘Genie is out of the bottle’
The comments put top Georgia Republicans, who have stood by Trump while criticizing some of his most stunning statements, in a new bind. Just as the revelation of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video with Trump bragging about groping women put them in a difficult spot, they were left to answer Thursday about another controversy.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the state’s top elections official, has combated Trump’s allegation that the election was “rigged” without attacking the GOP nominee. On Thursday, the Republican said in a statement that he and other elections officials are working to ensure “secure, accessible and fair elections” and called on Trump for a change of heart.
“At the end of the day, I believe the American people and Donald Trump will stand by the results of the election after the process has been completed and that we will have a peaceful transition of power,” Kemp said.
And Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, made clear that Deal “will support the winner of the presidential election” regardless.
“As for the hypothetical on what Donald Trump would, could or should say, well, that genie is out of the bottle,” Riley said. “Again, the governor will support the winner of this election; our country stands united. Anyone who assumes we aren’t would be mistaken.”
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston also panned Trump’s remarks, saying through a spokesman that Americans can be confident in the sanctity of the voting system.
“Thousands of dedicated professionals and volunteers work to secure our electoral process each time ballots are cast,” Ralston spokesman Kaleb McMichen said. “On Election Day, our country will begin yet another peaceful transfer of power — no matter the outcome.”
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, perhaps Trump’s highest-profile Georgia supporter, has called on Trump to stop raising the specter of a “rigged” election, but he declined to comment Thursday. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who faces a November vote for a third term, did not immediately comment.
Some Georgia Republicans, however, echoed Trump’s fears. Among them was state Sen. Josh McKoon, who recalled the gut-wrenching feeling of being in a room with a candidate who lost a statewide election by less than 1 vote per precinct.
“We all know there is a temptation to interfere with that integrity. It’s why we have poll watchers. It’s why both parties have thousands of lawyers around the country trained and deployed during the election,” McKoon said. “I think asking any candidate to pronounce that he or she won’t challenge the results of an election in advance is absurd.”
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said in the post-debate spin room that there’s a reason for his reticence: Al Gore retracted his concession to George W. Bush in 2000 to contest the election. And Donald Trump Jr., one of his father’s confidantes, left open the prospect he could contest the election.
“He will go with the will of the people — barring voter fraud,” the younger Trump said. “We want an honest process. And that’s what we are watching.”
A cheap ‘cliffhanger’
Democrats welcomed Trump’s comments as another in a series of gifts that have helped Clinton’s poll numbers surge.
The once-tight presidential race has shifted squarely in the Democrat’s favor. She’s built a hefty advantage in national polls and solid leads in every battleground state Trump needs to win. Recent polls show the races in traditionally Republican Utah and Texas are tightening, too. And she has stepped up her efforts in Arizona, where she’s leading in recent polls.
That strategy has so far bypassed conservative Georgia, which hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1992. But a pro-Clinton super PAC invested at least $1 million in an ad blitz in Georgia this week promoting the Democrat, and Georgia operatives say she could make a final push in the state.
And Democrats hope the remarks give their supporters an extra reason to go to the polls — and his supporters an extra one to stay home. Michael Smith of the Democratic Party of Georgia said Trump treated “this cornerstone of our democracy like a cheap season finale cliffhanger.”
“Just like so many other critical issues,” he added, “Donald Trump’s depth of knowledge of how elections work is as about as shallow as a $10 wading pool.”
Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a potential 2018 Democratic candidate for governor, called it a “petty, petulant and absurd rejection” of our nation’s founding democratic principles that demeans his campaign.
“We should be ashamed of anyone who would place his ego above our nation’s stability,” she said, “and I trust his advisers will convince him to do what is right.”
Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.The Associated Press contributed to this article.