UPDATE: Kemp again refuses Trump’s demand to overturn election

‘Doug, you want to run for governor in two years?’

VALDOSTA – During a lengthy Saturday morning call, Gov. Brian Kemp again refused a demand from President Donald Trump to summon state lawmakers to the Capitol for a special session to illegally overturn the November election result, according to two senior GOP officials.

Trump’s angry clash with Kemp competed with a rally meant to boost U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler ahead of the Jan. 5 runoffs for control of the U.S. Senate. Shortly before the event, Trump stepped up his Twitter attacks at his former ally, calling on him to “immediately ask” the Republican-controlled Legislature to undo President-elect Joe Biden’s narrow victory.

Kemp and other state GOP leaders have previously rejected Trump’s demands to call a special legislative session, warning that any attempt to change election laws before the runoffs would result in “endless litigation.”

This time, though, Trump’s attacks came shortly before a Valdosta rally that state Republicans hoped would focus less on his election grievances and more on energizing his loyalists to return to the polls in January — despite his false narrative that the election was “rigged.”

It’s part of his attempt to overturn his defeat outside the legal system, where lawsuits from his campaign and its allies have been rejected by one judge after another. On Saturday came the latest blow, as a federal appeals court rejected a complaint brought by a celebrity attorney to toss out Georgia’s election results.

Both publicly and privately, Trump pressured Kemp to order an audit of signatures on absentee ballot envelopes, even though the governor has no power to do so. Signatures were verified twice before absentee ballots were accepted, and conducting another check wouldn’t change the outcome of the race because the signatures cannot be traced back to ballots.

“Your people are refusing to do what you ask,” he complained in a tweet directed to Kemp. “What are they hiding? At least immediately ask for a Special Session of the Legislature. That you can easily, and immediately, do.”

Later, he said Kemp and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a fellow Republican, “fight harder against us than do the Radical Left Dems.” He added that “Republicans will NEVER forget this,” an ominous reminder that he could back a primary challenge to Kemp in 2022, perhaps from U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

At the rally, he elicited loud boos from the crowd when he jabbed at Kemp for being “afraid” of Stacey Abrams. And near the end of his speech, he invited the idea of a Collins challenge: “Doug, you want to run for governor in two years? You’d be a good looking governor.”

10/16/2020 -Macon, Georgia - U.S. Republican Senate candidate Doug Collins meets with supporters during a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Kemp, who has refrained from swinging back at the president, noted in an earlier tweet that he’s called on Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger three times to conduct a signature audit “to restore confidence in our election process.” But the governor has stopped short of amplifying some of Trump’s false claims, such as that the election was “stolen” by Democrats.

Until recently, Raffensperger was on the receiving end of most of Trump’s vitriol. The state’s top elections official has consistently said there’s no evidence of widespread fraud and said another review of signatures on absentee ballots is unwarranted, drawing fire from Trump and his allies.

Kemp and Trump won’t get a chance to hash out their dispute face-to-face. Kemp’s office said the governor won’t appear at Trump’s rally following the death of Harrison Deal, a young aide to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, whom he considered a member of his family. Deal, 20, died in a traffic accident in Savannah on Friday.

Kemp’s appearance at the rally was in doubt before the tragedy and the Twitter war. The Republican has come under increasing attack from the president, who has said he was “ashamed” to have endorsed Kemp in 2018 and criticized him for refusing to obstruct the certification of Georgia’s election results.

The governor has been measured in his response. He’s said he shares the president’s “frustration” at the outcome, while he’s repeatedly noted that Georgia law blocks him from “interfering” with the election.

Instead, Kemp has urged Raffensperger to take additional steps to verify absentee ballot signatures – which Raffensperger said is unwarranted – and authorized Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents to investigate potential voter fraud cases.