A race for governor dominated by Donald Trump’s election-fraud conspiracy theories. A scramble for the U.S. Senate and statewide offices shaped by the former president’s influence. And Republican critics of Trump’s false narrative left weakened or sidelined.
Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was “rigged” against him triggered a civil war within the Georgia GOP that’s raging still at the dawn of a new election year.
Those lies are reshaping races for public office across Georgia, from premier elections for governor and the U.S. Senate to lower-profile Republican primary contests that are poised to hinge on loyalty to the former president.
Georgia 2020 election investigation
Between the Nov. 3 presidential election and Jan. 6, Georgia was at the center of the biggest election dispute of modern American history. AJC reporters worked day and night for months to capture the election results and multiple recounts, allegations of fraud, investigations, legislative hearings, lawsuits, protests, rallies, press conferences. Here are stories from our ongoing coverage.
“Georgia is a central locus of this national battle for our democracy,” said Alex Keyssar, a Harvard University historian who specializes in the history of voting rights.
“In 2020, the election outcome was salvaged by principled individuals who put the evidence and democratic principles above partisan pressure. It’s a precarious situation, and this election could test those principles again,” Keyssar said.
As Trump’s influence elsewhere shows signs of waning, Georgia Republicans seem to cling as fiercely as ever to his brand of politics. Many high-ranking Georgia Republicans spent 2021 maneuvering for his endorsement — and catering to the pro-Trump activists that have surged to party gatherings across the state.
Trump has responded by venturing deeper into Georgia politics than he has in almost any other state. He’s endorsed a “Trump ticket” of four statewide candidates — and he disavowed four other powerful Georgia Republican figures.
The embrace of the pro-Trump election mythology complicates GOP election chances. Democrats hope to capitalize on the Republican infighting and prove their victories in the last election were no fluke.
And the GOP sparring over Trump gives top Democratic candidates breathing room to consolidate support and try to expand their base while Republicans focus on placating the former president.
Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC
Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC
Democrat Stacey Abrams played up that advantage in late December when she rolled out a radio ad wishing Georgians a “Merry Christmas” that didn’t mention Gov. Brian Kemp and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, her GOP rivals in the race for Georgia’s top office.
Other leading Democrats have embarked on a statewide tour promoting the bipartisan federal infrastructure plan to offer a contrast to the GOP warring.
“Georgia Republicans are more concerned with rehashing the 2020 election that they lost than they are with delivering relief and results for Georgia families,” U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, said during one of the stops.
A tight bind
The risks of what some Republicans privately call the “Trump appeasement” strategy are stark. And even though senior Republicans see a potential disaster in the making, they could be powerless to stop it.
Tens of thousands of reliable Republican voters skipped the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs amid a barrage of lies by Trump and his allies, contributing to Democratic sweeps that flipped control of the chamber and allowed President Joe Biden to pursue a more ambitious agenda.
The evidence leaves no doubt. Three separate tallies of the roughly 5 million ballots upheld Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia, legal challenges by Trump allies have been tossed, Republican election officials have vouched for the results and an audit of absentee ballot signatures in Cobb County found no cases of fraud.
Still, Trump’s unfounded claims of a “rigged” election have seeped deeply into the minds of state Republican voters. An overwhelming majority of conservatives tell pollsters they don’t believe Biden legitimately won the election, and Georgia Republicans see a controversial election rewrite as a way to “increase voter confidence” in elections undermined by pro-Trump falsehoods.
At grassroots meetings across the state, it wasn’t uncommon for pro-Trump backers to heckle Republicans seen as disloyal to the former president. The leading Georgia Republicans who have criticized Trump enter 2022 politically damaged.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan will spend 2022 pushing a post-Trump vision of the GOP rather than seeking a second term. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is the underdog in his reelection bid after famously objecting to Trump’s demand to reverse his defeat.
But there might be no better test of Trump’s clout in the nation than the race for governor. Kemp faced the former president’s fury after refusing to call a special session of the General Assembly to invalidate Biden’s win, and Perdue launched a campaign to take out his former ally at Trump’s urging.
That leaves Kemp with little room to maneuver as he tries to woo Trump loyalists without further scorning the former president. Asked this week about the risk of relitigating 2020 in the 2022 contest, the governor brought up a recent report by a conservative think tank.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen the Heritage Foundation report, but Georgia ranks No. 1 in election integrity,” he said, “and it’s easy to vote and hard to cheat here.”
It was a sister organization of the Heritage Foundation, Heritage Action for America, that first promoted many of the changes that the Republican-led General Assembly made in 2021 to the state’s voting law in response to Trump’s lies about election fraud.
Plenty of Republican candidates maintain that they’re focused on the future. Their policies tell a different story.
Butch Miller, a state Senate GOP leader running to succeed Duncan, said this month that “every minute we’re talking about what’s in the rearview mirror we’re not talking about what’s in the windshield.”
Yet he recently promoted legislation that would ban ballot drop boxes, a frequent target of pro-Trump conspiracies surrounding election fraud.
And Perdue told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was “trying to run a campaign not based on Trump and the past, but on the future.”
But he opened his campaign by criticizing Kemp for not calling a special legislative session to scrutinize election-fraud claims, contending he wouldn’t have certified results showing Biden’s victory and filing a lawsuit replete with unproven claims about absentee ballots in Fulton County.
The leading candidates trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock have also tried to promote a vision of the future even as they raise questions about the election results.
And the “Stop the Steal” conspiracies are so engrained in the minds of some rank-and-file Republican legislators that they’re preparing new efforts to pass restrictive election measures in January.
“The emergency lights are on. The threat to democracy is real and the need to safeguard the electoral system in Georgia is urgent,” said Mary Dudziak, an Emory University law professor who has written extensively on the intersection of race, civil rights and foreign policy during the Cold War.
Democrats see the election narrative not just as a rehash of the 2020 election, but also an attempt to lay the groundwork to challenge Republican defeats in the next vote.
“I can’t refute every outlandish claim the other side makes. The other side will make those claims with remarkable amnesia,” Abrams said in an interview. “I’ll use my platform to make sure people have the truth. And the best way people have a clear contrast is to tell the truth.”
Some Republicans fear an oncoming train wreck they can’t avoid. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston has warned, with increasing urgency, that his GOP brethren risk the future by dwelling on the past.
And Duncan worries that his party could waste a “golden opportunity” if its candidates don’t change course.
“The only thing standing in our way is ourselves,” Duncan said, “if we continue squabbling about the past instead of offering a compelling vision for the future.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC