A GOP civil war rattles Georgia Republicans at inconvenient time

Senators David Perdue, left, Kelly Loeffler, center, and Florida Senator Rick Scott, right, joined together for a rally on Friday, November 13, 2020 at Black Diamond Grill in Cumming, GA.  Both Georgia candidates head to a run-off election in January.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Senators David Perdue, left, Kelly Loeffler, center, and Florida Senator Rick Scott, right, joined together for a rally on Friday, November 13, 2020 at Black Diamond Grill in Cumming, GA. Both Georgia candidates head to a run-off election in January. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

This is not how Georgia Republicans imagined the first days of a pivotal runoff campaign would go.

Instead of unity and bonhomie, a full-blown civil war has erupted at a moment when Republicans can least afford it. President Donald Trump is stoking the infighting, leveling false claims about the vote. And resurgent Democrats just narrowly flipped the state for the first time in nearly three decades.

Now, a state party already riven by the rivalry between U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins for much of the year is plunged into deeper infighting ahead of Jan. 5 runoffs to decide control of the U.S. Senate.

This conflict has bloodied the state’s top elections official, who has gone from a low-profile GOP figure whose name most Georgians could hardly pronounce a few weeks ago to a human litmus test on politics in the Trump-era.

To some, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is a hero for defending the integrity of a vote that featured no widespread fraud. To others who believe Trump’s claims, he’s an easy target of derision, the man who allowed the election to be rigged for Democrat Joe Biden in Georgia.

With a handful of Georgia county elections directors behind him, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announces the start of a hand recount of the November 3 presidential election during a briefing outside of the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday, November 11, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
With a handful of Georgia county elections directors behind him, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announces the start of a hand recount of the November 3 presidential election during a briefing outside of the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday, November 11, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The latter view has drawn top Georgia Republicans, who have fixated on Trump’s false narrative that the election was stolen.

U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Loeffler - who both rally voters to “hold the line” in the GOP-controlled Senate - led the charge to appease Trump, demanding Raffensperger’s resignation without citing publicly any evidence to justify their calls. Other Republicans have criticized his oversight of the vote, without going so far as to ask for his ouster.

Raffensperger has fired back with a fact-checking spree to debunk the conspiracy theories spread by Trump and his allies. He’s called Trump’s Georgia head a “liar,” claimed the senators “folded like a cheap suit” and said the president authored his own defeat by sowing doubts about mail-in votes.

It’s all happening as Democrats are aiming for historic victories. Joe Biden became the first Democratic White House hopeful to capture the state since 1992. In the runoff, Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are banking on a rival party mired in disarray.

Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Jon Ossoff, right, and Raphael Warnock acknowledge a crowd of supporters during a rally at the Cobb Civic Center on Sunday, Nov.15, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. (John Amis/Atlanta Journal & Constitution via AP)
Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Jon Ossoff, right, and Raphael Warnock acknowledge a crowd of supporters during a rally at the Cobb Civic Center on Sunday, Nov.15, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. (John Amis/Atlanta Journal & Constitution via AP)

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

“We are getting a good look at who the grownups are in the party and who the charlatans are,” said Karla Jacobs, a conservative writer and activist who is an outspoken critic of Trump.

“The GOP has got to decide who they want to be going forward. Are they going to be the party of rude loudmouth culture warriors, or are they going to be the party of sound government? They can’t be both, and they obviously can’t put together a lasting statewide coalition by trying to be both.”

‘Fear the wrath’

At the center of the swirl, of course, stands Trump. His loyal base will make or break Republican hopes of maintaining control of the Senate, and state leaders are tiptoeing around even the tamest steps toward accepting his defeat for fear of infuriating him and evoking one of his famous tweet-storms.

It’s having a real-world consequence on the Jan. 5 runoffs. In a normal election, the two incumbents would fast be making the case that a Republican-controlled Senate would serve as a check on an incoming President Biden. But that also means acknowledging Biden’s victory, which they’ve yet to do.

Perdue addressed the balancing act in a friendly Fox News interview last week on his chances in the runoff.

“It could go either way. There are a lot of voters who are Trump voters in Georgia who are disheartened. They’re angry because they think that the president didn’t get a fair shake in Georgia,” he said, adding: “We’ve got to convince people their vote is going to be counted and counted accurately.”

Interviews with more than a dozen Republican officials and activists reflected the squeamishness.

Most privately expressed fears that the GOP warring, along with Trump’s false claims of fraud, risks alienating independent-leaning voters who typically vote Republican but sided with Biden this year. Only a handful of former elected officials would speak openly about their worries.

“I am concerned that everyone is so afraid of offending Trump that it stifles them from being able to focus on moving forward to the task ahead, which is winning the Senate,” said Allen Peake, a former GOP state legislator from Macon.

“If you are an elected official, and want a future in politics, you have to fear the wrath of Trump. And to me, that’s not a healthy scenario.”

Senators David Perdue, left, Kelly Loeffler, center, and Florida Senator Rick Scott, right, joined together for a rally on Friday, November 13, 2020 at Black Diamond Grill in Cumming, GA.  Both Georgia candidates head to a run-off election in January.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Senators David Perdue, left, Kelly Loeffler, center, and Florida Senator Rick Scott, right, joined together for a rally on Friday, November 13, 2020 at Black Diamond Grill in Cumming, GA. Both Georgia candidates head to a run-off election in January. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland called on Raffensperger and other state officials to more forcefully address the unsubstantiated allegations of fraud, or risk more Georgians who “may throw up their hands and say, ‘Why vote?’”

“Everyone in politics has got to be aware of this, but the longer this goes on, the worse the disgust gets,” he said. “Once these rumors and charges get out there, more black helicopter theories show up.”

‘Come to terms’

The divisions also foreshadow a volatile election for Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and other Republicans in 2022, when they’ll not only likely face a Democratic ticket headed by Stacey Abrams but also potential primary challenges backed by Trump.

That’s because the president has vented his anger at both Raffensperger and Kemp, who plays little role in the election but has been the target of Trump’s animosity before. He was repeatedly insulted by Trump for rolling back pandemic restrictions and derided for his decision to pick Loeffler for the Senate.

The governor, meanwhile, has notably stayed out of the fray, even as Trump tweets broadsides aimed at Kemp urging him to “get tough.” In an interview, he refrained from firing back at Trump but expressed broader “frustration” at the electoral system.

“I understand why he’s frustrated. He’s a fighter,” Kemp said of his decision to certify the state’s 16 Democratic electors. “But at the end of the day, I’ve got to follow the laws of the constitution of this state. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Fueled by Trump’s tweets, some of the president’s supporters called for him to take extreme – and unfeasible – steps to stop Georgia from certifying the vote.

A group of dozens of far-right demonstrators, led by provocateur Alex Jones, marched on the state Capitol to demand a “special session now” – though Kemp and other state leaders have shot down the idea, saying it would result in “endless litigation.”

A bemused Democratic state Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick took in the scene from just outside the statehouse, chuckling at their demands that Kemp be impeached and for lawmakers to return to Atlanta.

“Why? No one could articulate that for me.”

Other Georgia Republicans have drawn fire. Duncan angered some conservatives by going on CNN to amplify the fact that there was no evidence of systemic ballot fraud in Georgia.

The man he bested in a bitter 2018 GOP runoff for lieutenant governor, David Shafer, is now the Georgia Republican Party’s chairman and has aggressively promoted Trump’s false fraud claims. He’s also privately urged fellow Republicans to refute the “Raffensperger/Duncan” narrative, raising questions of a possible rematch with Duncan in 2022.

Some party leaders are trying to steer attention from Trump and toward the Senate races. Republican strategist Karl Rove, who has acknowledged Biden’s victory, helped launch a national effort to raise cash for the runoff candidates called the Georgia Battleground Fund.

One of the Georgians involved in the initiative is Eric Tanenblatt, a long-time operative who has played a key role in other Republican runoffs. In an interview, he preferred to focus on the weeks ahead, when the election results are certified and investigations are concluded.

“As soon as this gets behind us, the better. I just think that people are very passionate, and they are very disappointed,” he said. “But they need to come to terms with the outcome. And once we get past this, we consolidate and live to fight another day.”

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