Georgia’s two U.S. senators called on the state’s top elections official, a fellow Republican, to resign Monday in a shocking attempt to appease President Donald Trump and his supporters ahead of Jan. 5 runoffs for likely control of the U.S. Senate.
U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue provided no evidence to back up claims of unspecified “failures” with the November election that was overseen by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who said flatly that he’s not stepping down: “It’s not going to happen.”
The two Republicans were attempting to energize conservatives upset over Trump’s loss to President-elect Joe Biden, who is on the cusp of becoming the first Democrat to win Georgia since 1992. Biden led Trump by over 12,000 votes Monday evening.
But the criticism flies in the face of comments from other state elections officials and other Republican leaders who say there’s no evidence of wrongdoing.
Hours earlier, a state elections official held a press conference at the Capitol focused on debunking several conspiracy theories alleging missing or mishandled ballots. Raffensperger said he would continue to ensure that the election is fair.
“My job is to follow Georgia law and see to it that all legal votes — and no illegal votes — are counted properly and accurately,” Raffensperger said. “As secretary of state, that is my duty, and I will continue to do my duty. As a Republican, I am concerned about Republicans keeping the U.S. Senate. I recommend that Sens. Loeffler and Perdue start focusing on that.”
Raffensperger has spent months assuring Georgians that their votes count and that the state’s new voting system, which added a paper ballot to the process, is secure.
State election officials said claims that military ballots went missing are false, as are claims that ballots were dumped in Spalding County. Also false are allegations about ballot harvesting, double-counted ballots or inaccurate results. The lone elections lawsuit filed in Georgia, involving ballot handling in Chatham County, was quickly dismissed last week.
Democrats and, more privately some Republicans, worried that the critique would undermine the public’s faith in the electoral system at a precarious time.
“Democrats flipped the state blue, and Republicans didn’t like it," said Sarah Riggs Amico, a Democrat who challenged Perdue and lost in her party’s June primary. "And in the Donald Trump era, if you can’t win fairly, you scratch and you claw and sue in hopes you get the outcome you couldn’t achieve for yourself fairly.”
A Trump strategy
Trump and his closest advisers have demanded that state Republican officials pursue this strategy of questioning the integrity of his election loss.
Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer recently appeared with several other Trump loyalists, including U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, at a “stop the steal” rally in Buckhead where they asserted without evidence that election shenanigans contributed to Trump’s defeat.
And Trump’s campaign announced Sunday that Collins, who finished third in the U.S. Senate special election, will lead the effort to find evidence of “irregularities that will prove that President Trump won Georgia.”
Until now, though, the two U.S. Senate candidates had steered clear of the back-and-forth, mindful that repeating the falsehoods could also send a message to the conservative faithful to stay home on Jan. 5, when dual runoffs are likely to decide control of the Senate.
That changed with the Monday afternoon bombshell, when both put their names behind a call for Raffensperger to resign because “management of Georgia elections has become an embarrassment."
“We believe when there are failures, they need to be called out — even when it’s in your own party,” said the joint statement from Perdue and Loeffler, which didn’t include any specifics. "The secretary of state has failed to deliver honest and transparent elections. He has failed the people of Georgia, and he should step down immediately.”
The Trump campaign appears to have coordinated with the Senate Republicans, both top allies of the president. Shortly after they called for Raffensperger’s resignation, Trump tweeted that Georgia would be a “big presidential win” even though officials from both parties say an expected recount in the state isn’t likely to change the outcome of the race.
Some Republicans worried that the effort to discredit the election could backfire.
“We need a reality check,” said former state Sen. Fran Millar, a Republican. “Unless there’s overwhelming evidence that would change the result of the election, we need to walk away and focus on retaining the U.S. Senate majority.”
Even critics of Raffensperger acknowledged that there wasn’t a “meltdown” with the state’s voting system this election, though they believe paper ballots filled out by hand would be safer.
“There’s a lot of noise right now without evidence,” said Jeanne Dufort, a member of the Coalition for Good Governance, an organization that’s suing the state over its voting system. “I don’t see any evidence there was a systemic meltdown of any sort that would make you not have confidence in the outcomes.”
The rift over Raffensperger sparked an internal GOP elections fight at a critical moment.
The balance of power in the U.S. Senate will be at stake during Georgia’s runoffs on Jan. 5, when Perdue faces Democrat Jon Ossoff and Loeffler is opposed by Democrat Raphael Warnock. And Republicans can ill afford a deeper divide after a brutal special election clash between Loeffler and Collins.
Gov. Brian Kemp, a former top elections official himself, said through a spokesman that the surge of mail-in ballots sparked by the pandemic should be a “wake-up call” for Raffensperger, but he didn’t go as far as the two senators in calling for the secretary of state’s resignation.
Earlier Monday, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan went on CNN to defend Raffensperger.
“We’ve not had any sort of credible instances raised to our level yet,” Duncan said, adding: “At this point we’ve not seen any sort of credible examples.”
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Local and state election officials haven’t found evidence of anything more than minor issues caused by human error in a handful of counties, Gabriel Sterling, the state’s voting system manager, said during a press conference before the senators' statement.
“The facts are the facts, regardless of outcomes,” Sterling said. “That’s one of the things we’re focusing on here, is getting our count accurate and right.”
Problems have been corrected before results are finalized, Sterling said. County election offices must certify results by Friday, and Raffensperger is required to certify statewide elections by Nov. 20.
Elected in a narrow runoff in 2018, Raffensperger has drawn fire from some Republicans after he agreed to mail ballot request forms to all active voters before the June primary because of the pandemic. Democrats scored record turnout during that round of voting.
Brandon Phillips, a former chair of the Georgia Trump campaign, said the base has been “grumbling for some time and it’s only gotten louder.”
“If there’s one thing you need in a runoff, it’s your base,” Phillips said. “It’s a smart move for both senators to be on the same page with the base going into a runoff.”
Democrats, meanwhile, were in the awkward position of defending a Republican who has also been a frequent target of their criticism.
A spokesman for Fair Fight, the voting rights group founded by Stacey Abrams, slammed the “bizarre" decision to call for Raffensperger to quit.