Faith shaken in system, Trump’s Georgia supporters consider skipping U.S. Senate runoffs

A vocal group of Trump loyalists in Georgia believe President Donald Trump's repeatedly debunked claim that the vote was “rigged.”. Georgia Republicans hope a recent counteroffensive will convince them otherwise. Former Trump attorney Sidney Powell told a crowd at an Alpharetta park this week to boycott the runoff vote. About 1,000 people attended that rally. After Powell’s rally, a Grayson resident said she’s considering skipping the runoff to send a message to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp

Aimee Nobile is a former Democrat who “saw the light” and became a die-hard Donald Trump supporter. She attends conservative rallies, promotes Republican causes to friends, blows up Joe Biden and other Democrats on social media.

In short, she fits the profile of the type of Georgia voter that U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue would normally consider a lock to return to the polls for Jan. 5 runoffs that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.

But this isn’t a normal election. The Milton sales executive is among a vocal group of Trump loyalists in Georgia who believe the president’s repeatedly debunked claim that the vote was “rigged.” And though she abhors the thought of Democratic victories, she says she’s genuinely conflicted about voting in the January runoffs.

“How am I supposed to vote? I don’t have the answer. And I’m frustrated,” Nobile said, ticking through options she is not confident are secure. Even if people do vote, “does it count?”

ExploreWhy Gov. Kemp won’t attend Trump’s Georgia rally on Saturday

There is no evidence of widespread or systemic voting fraud. Courts have dismissed dozens of lawsuits by Trump’s campaign and his allies seeking to overturn the election results. Georgia’s Republican election officials have rebutted claims of a “stolen” election and certified Biden’s victory. Federal officials, including U.S. Attorney General William Barr, have also debunked accusations of systemic irregularities.

But remarks by Nobile and other Trump supporters at GOP rallies across the state this week suggest that years of unsubstantiated claims about structural electoral flaws have eroded faith in the system at a time when Georgia races have never been closer.

In interviews with dozens of Republican voters and activists, many said they were confident in the election or that they would set aside concerns to vote against Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. But others openly debated whether to participate in the runoffs.

About 1,000 people turned out for a rally Wednesday in Alpharetta where former Trump attorney Sidney Powell encouraged them to boycott Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs on Jan. 5. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
About 1,000 people turned out for a rally Wednesday in Alpharetta where former Trump attorney Sidney Powell encouraged them to boycott Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs on Jan. 5. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“There has been a shift in enthusiasm among some regular Republican voters who will honestly tell you that they don’t know who they will vote for or are defensive about voting early or on Election Day,” said John Wood, a longtime activist in Savannah who has urged Republicans to vote.

“They want to tell you about their fears and essentially vent to someone about the frustrations — and their hopes that Trump will still be inaugurated for a second term,” Wood said.

‘Firewall’

Georgia Republicans hope a recent counteroffensive will convince the fence-sitters otherwise. Trump staged a rally for thousands of supporters in Valdosta, where the senators are banking on surging turnout to offset Democratic gains in metro Atlanta.

“Don’t be dismayed by what’s happened,” said Vernon Jones, an outgoing state legislator and Trump loyalist, to a rollicking packing the city’s airport. “We need to have a united front. We’ve got to hold the line.”

And a tide of GOP figures, national and local, are urging conservative voters to ignore the pleas from former Trump attorney Sidney Powell, who told a crowd of more than 1,000 Republicans at an Alpharetta park this week to boycott the vote until Georgia ditches newly purchased voting machines — a system approved by GOP legislators.

“This is literally the firewall,” Gov. Brian Kemp said this week on Fox News. “I think we all have to pull together and figure out what we have got to do to assure people that their votes are going to count.”

But a series of events over the past week showed just how challenging that could be.

Even as U.S. Rep. Doug Collins campaigned Nov. 28 for the first time with his former rival Loeffler, there were signs that the effort to overturn the election in Georgia, which he led on behalf of the Trump campaign, may have damaged her chances.

At that event in Marietta, GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was asked by voters why Republicans should bother to invest time and money in the runoffs if they’re rigged.

“It’s not decided. This is the key — it’s not decided,” she pointedly responded. “So if you lose your faith and you don’t vote and people walk away, that will decide it.”

Irv Allison, a McDonough retiree, is among the Republicans planning to vote despite his misgivings about the electoral system. Specifically, he expressed fears that Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic gubernatorial nominee vilified by conservative media, will somehow “control the vote.”

“I am worried that it’s not going to be a valid election. I’m sure I’m going to vote in the runoffs,” he said. “But it’s a two-edged sword. Are you wasting your vote if you vote? I would tend to err on the side of voting.”

Tammy Converse of Grayson, a Trump supporter, says she may not vote in the state's  U.S. Senate runoffs, even if that means ceding control of Congress to the Democrats. “I don’t think we should vote until we fix the systems. We need to let them know that it’s not acceptable,” she said of state Republican leaders. “It’s tough. But I don’t think any voting is acceptable until they prove it’s safe.” Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tammy Converse of Grayson, a Trump supporter, says she may not vote in the state's U.S. Senate runoffs, even if that means ceding control of Congress to the Democrats. “I don’t think we should vote until we fix the systems. We need to let them know that it’s not acceptable,” she said of state Republican leaders. “It’s tough. But I don’t think any voting is acceptable until they prove it’s safe.” Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

He wasn’t alone in his unease. After Powell’s rally on Wednesday, Tammy Converse of Grayson said she’s considering skipping the vote to send a message to Kemp after he refused Trump’s demands that he illegally block the certification of the vote.

“I don’t think we should vote until we fix the systems. We need to let them know that it’s not acceptable,” she said of state Republican leaders. “It’s tough. But I don’t think any voting is acceptable until they prove it’s safe.”

Even if that means ceding control of the Senate to Democrats?

“I’m torn. I don’t know. I’ll be watching to see what they can do before then,” she answered, before pausing. “I’m really angry.”

‘Worth voting’

The two Senate incumbents have little room for error. Georgia voted Democratic for president for the first time since 1992 by fewer than 13,000 votes, and Ossoff and Warnock are racing to rebuild the coalition that helped propel Biden to victory.

With margins so tight, even the slightest dip in voter participation from either party could prove the difference.

“Republican need to get as high turnout as they possibly can, and if turnout is down just a few points lower for this runoff, it undermines their chances,” said Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.

“They’ve got to convince Republican voters it’s worth voting,” he added. “And Trump’s message that the election is stolen and that you can’t trust the people running this one isn’t helping.”

That’s not lost on senior Georgia Republican officials, who are urgently pleading with voters to focus ahead on the runoffs rather than backward at Trump’s November defeat.

Conservative activist Matt Stout attended a rally Wednesday in Alpharetta where speakers urged the people there to skip voting in the Jan. 5 runoffs for the U.S. Senate. But he's confident “everyone will vote despite the conflicting messages.” Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Conservative activist Matt Stout attended a rally Wednesday in Alpharetta where speakers urged the people there to skip voting in the Jan. 5 runoffs for the U.S. Senate. But he's confident “everyone will vote despite the conflicting messages.” Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Savannah Uber driver Rob Henderson understands what’s at stake. He showed up at the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport on Friday to participate in a rally Vice President Mike Pence was holding for Loeffler and Perdue. “The election should be the most secure thing ever,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s rigged or what, but it needs to be more secure than your iPhone. But I’m still voting in January. There are problems in government, but we still participate in it.”

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan warned that Trump’s rash accusations risk “alienating” supporters in the long term. And 18 former Republican leaders called on Trump supporters to vote or wind up in a scenario where “the trajectory of our state and nation will be irreparably altered.”

From the grassroots level, that could be a tough sell. Matt Stout, a veteran Republican field organizer, held a giant “STOP THE STEAL” sign at a pro-Trump rally this week. But he also said he was confident that “everyone will vote despite the conflicting messages.”

“The problem is that we’ve got to make sure the votes are properly counted,” he said.

Tifton Mayor Julie Smith fears Trump’s “fraud train” talk could haunt the GOP for elections to come.

“I supported Trump. I’ve been a Republican for many, many years. And what I’m seeing is Trump supporters who are supporting him and him only,” rather than the party, she said. “We’ve got to get back to a united message.”

Nobile, the Democrat-turned-Trump loyalist, has heard the same arguments. And she said she recognizes that “anything is on the table” if Democrats control both Congress and the White House.

Still, she said, the talk of voting fraud she’s heard over the years has shaken her faith in the election system.

“I don’t know how to vote. I’ve had people knock on my door. I have a flyer to scan if I want to request an absentee ballot,” she said. “But what’s the way to vote?”

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