Georgia Republicans center campaigns on false claims of election fraud

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks with state Sens. Burt Jones (left) and Brandon Beach during a "2020 Election Integrity Townhall" meeting Tuesday in Rome. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks with state Sens. Burt Jones (left) and Brandon Beach during a "2020 Election Integrity Townhall" meeting Tuesday in Rome. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

ROME — The organizers at the door handed out soft-pink “Trump Won” signs to each attendee. An out-of-state radio host spouted far-right conspiracies. Speaker after speaker insisted that Joe Biden couldn’t have won the November election and that Georgia couldn’t be a blue state.

The gathering this week in Rome might seem like a pro-Donald Trump fantasy convention. But this was no fringe group. Some of the biggest stars in the Georgia GOP were in attendance.

State Sen. Burt Jones, a wealthy executive who is expected to run for lieutenant governor, was given a hero’s welcome. A fellow Republican, state Sen. Brandon Beach, regaled the group with stories about standing up to the party establishment. Two other congressional candidates worked the room.

And U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene opened by telling the crowd, “I do not think Joe Biden won the election.”

Across the state, candidates for public office are repeating Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged and the contest was stolen from him. Many are running for local office and state legislative seats, while some are seeking the most powerful posts in the state.

The conspiracy theories are already complicating GOP primaries in Georgia, as Republicans try to fend off ascendant Democrats fresh off a string of victories in November’s presidential election and January’s U.S. Senate runoffs.

The leading candidates competing to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock have raised questions about the election results and echoed the phony narrative of widespread voting fraud in Georgia.

And the early maneuvering in races for statewide posts, including governor and secretary of state, have focused on debunked claims that voter fraud was rampant in Georgia last year.

The evidence is clear. Three separate tallies of the roughly 5 million ballots upheld Biden’s narrow victory, court challenges by Trump allies were squashed, and state and federal election officials have vouched for the results.

An audit of absentee ballot signatures in Cobb County found no cases of fraud. While investigators are still probing more than 100 complaints from November, they would not change the election result even if every allegation is substantiated. Neither would a lawsuit pushing for a deeper review of Fulton County ballots.

But Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of a “rigged” election have seeped deeply into the Georgia GOP and left his critics marginalized.

July 13, 2021 Rome - A supporter uses her smartphone to take a picture as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks during a “2020 Election Integrity Townhall” meeting Tuesday in Rome. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
July 13, 2021 Rome - A supporter uses her smartphone to take a picture as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks during a “2020 Election Integrity Townhall” meeting Tuesday in Rome. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed a broad majority of conservatives support a Republican-backed election overhaul that includes new restrictions on voting. A spate of national polls, including from CNN, indicate most Republicans don’t believe Biden won.

The few Georgia Republicans who have spoken in defense of the results have faced ridicule from their own.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who oversaw the election and rejected Trump’s demand that he overturn its results, is the underdog in his race against a formidable GOP challenger endorsed by Trump. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan opted against a reelection bid to focus on his vision for a post-Trump era.

In an interview, Duncan said every time Republicans falsely assert the election was stolen it “makes the pathway for Democrats even easier.”

“Our job, as Republicans, is to walk into every GOP meeting whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable and convince them there’s no fraud,” he said.

“Some days, it’s like convincing people hundreds of years ago that the Earth isn’t flat. That’s really what the conversation feels like.”

A 2022 narrative

The fallout is not unique to Georgia. A Washington Post analysis found hundreds of Republicans who filed paperwork to run for congressional offices or state legislative seats across the country have seconded Trump’s lies about his defeat.

But Georgia will play an outsized role in the 2022 election. Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to battle for a second term against Stacey Abrams, a Democratic voting rights advocate who framed him as an architect of voter suppression. The race for Warnock’s seat will help determine control of the Senate.

Gov. Brian Kemp announces his bid for reelection Saturday at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry. (Clay Teague/The Macon Telegraph via AP)
Caption
Gov. Brian Kemp announces his bid for reelection Saturday at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry. (Clay Teague/The Macon Telegraph via AP)

Credit: CLAY TEAGUE

Credit: CLAY TEAGUE

Even the GOP candidates who don’t promote lies about a “rigged” election have talked about restoring confidence in an electorate that’s scarred by them. Under pressure from Trump and his allies, Kemp formally launched his reelection campaign by emphasizing support for new voting restrictions.

One of his Republican rivals, party-switching ex-lawmaker Vernon Jones, has demanded reviews of the election despite no evidence of systemic irregularities — and no chance of affecting the outcome of the race.

The false narrative looms large in the Senate race, too. Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia football great inching toward a run, has repeated Trump’s claims that the results were fraudulent, and he has shared other conspiracy theories about the vote on social media.

Several of his potential rivals have also keyed on the issue, making it a standard on the campaign trail. Latham Saddler, a banking executive and Navy SEAL, questioned whether voters could trust the results despite no evidence.

“When you look back at the election, there is so much fog around the issue. It’s hard to say if Biden really received about 81 million votes,” Saddler said in an interview. “I don’t think anyone really knows, but you had people from both sides who lacked confidence.”

Expressing similar thoughts was Gary Black, the state agriculture commissioner and so far the highest-profile Republican in the Senate race.

“I’ll tell you what, (Biden) was sworn in,” Black said. “There have been questions here in Georgia. I can’t speak to any other state, but what happened in Georgia was a mess. We’ve taken steps to correct that, and I’m going to fight to make sure we have trust in the system.”

‘Outcasts’

The lies are shaping the race against Raffensperger, too, who is under constant fire from fellow Republicans even as he tries to stabilize his image with conservatives by shifting the focus to Democrats.

Armed with Trump’s support, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice said Georgia would have stayed in the GOP column if the election was “fair.” David Belle Isle, another Republican opponent, also has made a string of false and misleading statements about the election.

State Rep. Bee Nguyen, the Democratic front-runner for the seat, said the rhetoric only weakens the nation’s democracy by trying to undermine “the most secure election conducted in our state’s history.”

“It’s no longer about policy for them because they have nothing else to offer Georgians,” Nguyen said. “It’s a dangerous tactic that causes irreparable harm — and history will not look upon them favorably.”

John Fredericks, the host of "The John Fredericks Show," holds a “Trump Won” T-shirt with Suzi Voyles, a Republican candidate in the 6th Congressional District, at his side Tuesday during a rally in Rome. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
John Fredericks, the host of "The John Fredericks Show," holds a “Trump Won” T-shirt with Suzi Voyles, a Republican candidate in the 6th Congressional District, at his side Tuesday during a rally in Rome. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

At the event in Rome, billed as an “election integrity” town hall that was hosted by Women for America First, organizers fumed at Kemp for not calling a special legislative session to invalidate the November election. Others talked of decertifying Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff’s win, which is not legally possible.

And the crowd of about 100 rewarded Burt Jones with loud cheers as he recounted how he and two other GOP state senators were stripped of powerful posts because they had aggressively pushed to overturn the presidential vote.

“We were the outcasts because we spoke out. But it hasn’t stopped us,” Jones said. “We’re still talking because the people are on our side.”