In one sharp exchange, a Trump backer quizzed McDaniel on why Georgia voters should bother to invest more “money and work when it’s already decided.”
“It’s not decided. This is the key — it’s not decided,” McDaniel told the crowd of dozens, nodding toward Perdue’s roughly 88,000-vote advantage over Democrat Jon Ossoff in the first round of voting.
“So if you lose your faith and you don’t vote and people walk away, that will decide it.”
Two scenes, two contrasts
The two scenes demonstrated at once the best hopes and worst fears of Republicans in Georgia.
In Pickens County, two former archrivals — who weeks ago battered each other for the votes of the GOP faithful — set aside their differences to help ensure, as Collins put it, a future of “Republicans rising up again from the ashes” to maintain control of the U.S. Senate.
“This was not a defeat — this was a victory. Because come January 5, the nation and the world is gonna see Georgia stand up” and elect the two Republicans, Collins said.
And in Cobb, one of the nation’s top Republican officials tried to persuade loyal Trump supporters to return to the polls in January to defeat Ossoff and Democrat Raphael Warnock despite the president’s allegations that the vote was marred by droves of illegal mail-in ballots.
The GOP candidates have tried to navigate those conflicting messages for weeks, appeasing Trump by calling for Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign and refusing to acknowledge the president’s defeat, while also presenting themselves as a “Senate firewall” and a check on a “potential President Biden.”
In a week, Trump will get a crack at the competing narratives — urging Republicans to trust a “very fraudulent” election system he claims is poisoned against him — when he stages a rally for the incumbents that will likely be held in South Georgia.
He’s not toned down his criticism, including calling Raffensperger an “enemy of the people” at a Thanksgiving Day press conference.
Georgia Democrats have happily cheered on the Republican civil war, and some have egged on chatter from pro-Trump figures about skipping the vote altogether or writing in the president’s name — which isn’t allowed on runoff ballots.
The Democratic candidates have largely steered clear, with Ossoff on Saturday dismissing the fraud claims as a “nonsense and distraction” amid a new surge of coronavirus cases.
“We need to be focused on containing the spread of this virus and rushing direct financial relief to ordinary Americans who are suffering,” he said at a Saturday round of visits to small businesses.
Republican leaders can’t afford to dismiss Trump’s claims so easily. Loeffler and Perdue are singularly focused on re-energizing the party’s base — and mindful that antagonizing the president could cost them support in a race without his name on the ballot.
And as McDaniel’s event in Cobb demonstrated, the constant drumbeat of fraud allegations could turn off even the hardcore devotees who show up at party rallies on holiday weekend mornings.
McDaniel told those voters to “focus on the mission at hand” even if they’re infuriated by Raffensperger’s decision to certify the vote.
“We’ve got to focus on January 5th right now,” McDaniel said. “We can deal with those other things later.”