The Jolt: The Georgia weekend that overflowed with GOP turmoil over a lost presidential contest

December 5, 2020 Valdosta - U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks as President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. David Perdue look on during the Republican National Committee's Victory Rally at the Valdosta Flying Services in Valdosta on Saturday, December 5, 2020. Trump urged residents to vote for Loeffler and Perdue in next month's runoffs in Georgia. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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December 5, 2020 Valdosta - U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks as President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. David Perdue look on during the Republican National Committee's Victory Rally at the Valdosta Flying Services in Valdosta on Saturday, December 5, 2020. Trump urged residents to vote for Loeffler and Perdue in next month's runoffs in Georgia. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Political Georgia has never seen a weekend like it -- two days in which local doings became the stuff of national news. A president in front of a largely maskless throng, peddling a fictitious victory, and urging a local congressman to primary a sitting governor.

Three Republican state officials -- who would normally would merit nary a mention -- spotlighted in Sunday news shows with an extraordinary message best enunciated by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan on CNN: “On Jan. 20, Joe Biden is going to be sworn in as the 46th president. And the Constitution is still in place. This is still America.”

And then Rudy Giuliani, the star, maskless witness at a state Senate hearing in Atlanta only days earlier, is hospitalized with COVID-19.

The turmoil continues today. In Atlanta, a federal judge threw out a lawsuit this morning that relied on conspiracy theories to try to invalidate Georgia’s election results that showed Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump. “They want this court to substitute its judgment for the 2.5 million voters who voted for Biden,” U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten said in court. “This I’m unwilling to do.”

Then there’s what’s happening in Athens. You know that President Donald Trump has a motive for refusing to concede defeat. In part because it’s his brand, but also because it has become a fundraising tool for what’s likely to be a 2024 bid to return to the White House.

But Republican state lawmakers who are echoing Trump’s cries of fraud have their own motive: The creation of a climate that, come January, could lead to an overhaul of election law -- with new requirements for voting by mail.

Democrats have used absentee ballots to great effect in the last two election cycles -- an advantage once owned by the GOP. Making it more difficult to mail in ballots will likely be framed as a necessary security measure -- while critics will point out that the real reason for the move is obvious.

State lawmakers are in Athens today for a session primarily aimed at just-elected newcomers to the General Assembly. Evidence of what’s likely to happen next month, when they gather more formally in Atlanta, can be found in the Republican caucus schedule for today, which shows state Sen. Matt Brass of Newnan leading a GOP discussion of state election law.

Brass also chairs the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, in charge of redrawing a host of political boundaries, for congressional to school districts, in a special session expected later next year.

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But back to this one-of-a-kind weekend. It began on Saturday morning, with Trump calling Gov. Brian Kemp and urging him to call a special session of the Legislature to overturn the will of nearly 5 million Georgia voters. The governor refused. Then came that Trump rally in Valdosta on Saturday night, intended to gin up the GOP base for U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue:

“You know we won Georgia, just so you understand," Trump said, spinning stories about votes in Georgia “coming out of ceilings and coming out of leather bags."

Between attacking the election results and warning the crowd that Gov. Brian Kemp, “needs to be a lot tougher," the president spoke about the two senators that he had ostensibly come to support, saying that Perdue and Loeffler are “respected by everybody."

And toward the end of the gathering, Trump couldn’t resist one more jab at Kemp, with this comment aimed at U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville: “Doug, you want to run for governor in two years, buddy?”

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Today is the deadline for Georgia residents to register to vote and be eligible to participate in the Jan. 5 U.S. Senate runoffs.

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We’ve told you that on Sunday morning, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan was one of a trio of Republicans declaring that the 2020 presidential contest was at an end. Gabriel Sterling, who called out Trump and Georgia’s two U.S. senators over their denialism last week, showed up on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

His boss, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, was on ABC’s “This Week.” Raffensperger attempted to explain the governor’s refusal to bow to President Trump’s demand: “At the end of the day, what they’re really trying to say is if they did that, they would be then nullifying the will of the people.”

Raffensperger also said that Trump deserved to lose in Georgia. His support dropped 10% over 2016 in Cherokee County, “which is a rich, red county,” the secretary of state said. In Whitfield County in northwest Georgia, Trump support dropped 4.5%

Raffensperger may be trying to mollify some Trump supporters with an op-ed piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, which includes this paragraph:

Many media outlets have rightly highlighted that the Trump campaign has provided precious little proof of its voter-fraud allegations. Yet for two years, few asked the same of Stacey Abrams. Through all this, confidence in the integrity of American elections suffered.

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One of those who may need mollifying is Marjorie Taylor Greene, the soon-to-be congresswoman from northwest Georgia. On Sunday afternoon, she sent out a press release with this news:

Greene met with Alabama Republican Congressman Mo Brooks in his office this week in Washington, D.C. to discuss his plans to challenge the Electoral College vote if Congress moves to certify Joe Biden as President on January 6.

Greene is looking for a U.S. senator to join the effort. We have not seen David Perdue or Kelly Loeffler raise their hands.

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Also on Sunday afternoon, news arrived with Rudy Giuliani’s coronavirus diagnosis. From our AJC colleague J.D. Capelouto:

Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, was in Atlanta on Thursday for a hearing before state senators on a Judiciary subcommittee at the Capitol. Videos show he did not wear a mask in the committee room, which was filled with elected officials, witnesses and journalists.

He was in “close proximity to senators, Senate staff, members of the media and the general public," state Sen. William Ligon, the chairman of the subcommittee, said in a statement Sunday evening.

Anyone who came into “close contact" with Giuliani should “take every precaution and follow all requisite guidelines to ensure their health and safety."

The Trump legal team issued a statement saying that prior to traveling last week to Arizona, Michigan, and Georgia, Giuliani had tested negative twice. He began experiencing symptoms and tested positive about two days after he returned to Washington and was admitted Sunday to Georgetown University Medical Center.

Surprisingly, Team Trump also says that no legislators or members of the media qualified for contact tracing. The Twitter reaction from state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta:

Little did I know that most credible death threat that I encountered last week was Trump's own lawyer. Giuliani - maskless, in packed hearing room for 7 hours. To say I am livid would be too kind. Sham senate hearing was travesty of justice. Now impact might go far beyond that.

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At 5 p.m. Sunday, Democrat Jon Ossoff began a 30-minute, Atlanta Press Club debate with an empty podium. David Perdue had nixed a debate with his U.S. Senate rival, who suggested that the Republican incumbent was fearful of incriminating himself over stock trades that had won the attention of federal authorities:

“This is a strange situation," Ossoff acknowledged, before asking the podium about Perdue's finances and what Ossoff called Perdue's refusal to push for additional unemployment relief for Georgians during the pandemic.

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The U.S. Senate debate between Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock began 90 minutes later on Sunday. Many national outlets focused on Loeffler’s refusal to admit who won the 2020 presidential contest. Beyond that, the debate was a clash of fear, pushed by Loeffler, against outrage as enunciated by Warnock:

Over the course of the hourlong debate, Loeffler referred more than a dozen times to the pastor of Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church as “radical, liberal Raphael Warnock," and she warned that U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and Washington Democrats want to use the Georgia Senate seat to ram liberal policies through Congress.

For his part, Warnock continued his previous attacks on Loeffler — possibly the wealthiest member of Congress — painting her as enriching herself at the expense of Georgians suffering during the coronavirus pandemic.

“She purchased that (Senate) seat," Warnock said. “It's done well for her. The only issue is that the people who sold it to her don't own it."

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By the way, the vast majority of Republicans in Congress have likewise avoided stating publicly that Democrat Joe Biden is the president-elect, even if few are willing to go as far as to declare President Donald Trump the general election winner.

The Washington Post dispatched its reporters to contact every Republican in the U.S. House and Senate, 249 in total. They found only 27 who acknowledged Biden’s win. The vast majority did not respond and had made no public statements indicating whether they were willing to accept the outcome of the election.

The Post was kind enough to show its work, and of the 10 GOP lawmakers from Georgia are all listed in the “unclear/no answer” category.

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Robert Redfield is out. President-elect Joe Biden picked a Harvard University infectious disease expert to lead the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Rochelle Walensky will replace Redfield at the agency that spearheaded the response to the coronavirus pandemic but also been politicized during the Trump administration.

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The incoming Biden administration also wants to revive the role of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the government’s top premier climate research agency. Over the weekend, the Washington Post named several potential new heads for NOAA -- among them Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia.

Shepherd is a past president of the American Meteorological Society, and an appointment would make him NOAA’s first Black director. But we’re told that Shepherd is inclined to stay put, to manage UGA’s growing Atmospheric Sciences Program and continue addressing climate challenges.

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GPB’s Stephen Fowler points out that Trumpish attorney Sidney Powell included in her lawsuit challenging the Georgia election results an affidavit from Mary Norwood, who lost two close elections for mayor of Atlanta.

Norwood, who once served on the Fulton County elections board, notes “late-night reporting of precincts” did her in. Another line referencing her two mayoral runs: “Campaign supporters in both elections found evidence of fraud, but not enough to “turn the election,” so I had to concede both times.”

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Over at “Trouble in God’s County, Charlie Hayslett has picked up strong hints of the Republican effort to squeeze the last vote possible out of rural Georgia. A taste:

Perhaps most interesting, 48 Georgia counties lost voting-age population between 2014 and 2019 but nonetheless did a bang-up job during that same five-year period of increasing their voter rolls. Based on the Census Bureau estimates and the Georgia SOS voter registration numbers, those 48 counties — mostly small rural counties scattered across Middle and South Georgia — saw their combined voting-age populations decline between 2014 and 2019 by a combined total of 17,100. During this same period, they added 116,136 new voters to their collective voter rolls.

What's more, the vast majority of these new voters apparently went for Perdue over Ossoff. In 44 of the 48 counties, Perdue increased his share of the vote over his 2014 performance, when he first sought and won the Senate seat. Tiny Baker County, in deep southwest Georgia, provides a good example of this pattern. In 2014, Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn literally tied in Baker County, 484-to-484. Since then, Baker County's voting-age population has shrunk from 2,626 to 2,447, according to Census Bureau estimates, and maybe as low as 2,414, if TIGC's 2020 projection is accurate.

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CNN reports that the founder of an all-Black armed activist group, which paraded through Stone Mountain Park this summer, is facing FBI allegations that he aimed a rifle at federally deputized task force officers during a September rally in Louisville, Ky.

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More about Georgia’s GOP delegation in D.C.: Most of them skipped out on Friday’s vote on a Democratic bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. The proposal has no traction in the Senate and is unlikely to become law in the waning days of the session, but it allows Democrats to push a criminal justice reform platform and ride the wave of marijuana legalization’s growing popularity.

Of Georgia’s eight Republican representatives, only two attended the vote and sided with the majority of Republicans against the bill. The six no-shows included Reps. Doug Collins and Buddy Carter. They skipped the vote to campaign with Vice President Mike Pence in Georgia.

Reps. Rick Allen, Drew Ferguson, Barry Loudermilk and Austin Scott did not immediately respond to questions about their absence. Meanwhile, all five Georgia Democrats voted in favor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act.