Senate runoffs in Georgia are proving ground for possible 2024 contenders

November 11, 2020 Marietta - U.S. Senator Marco Rubio speaks during a rally to unite Georgia conservatives behind U.S. Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler ahead of the January 5th runoffs at Cobb County GOP Headquarters in Marietta on Wednesday, November 11, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
November 11, 2020 Marietta - U.S. Senator Marco Rubio speaks during a rally to unite Georgia conservatives behind U.S. Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler ahead of the January 5th runoffs at Cobb County GOP Headquarters in Marietta on Wednesday, November 11, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘This is the opening bell of 2024.’

PERRY - With the U.S. Senate on the line, Georgia’s double-header runoffs are fast becoming a proving ground for Republicans seen as potential 2024 presidential candidates.

Even as votes are still being counted in Georgia, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida both stumped at “Save Our Majority” rallies in metro Atlanta. And Thursday, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas hosted a rally for incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in middle Georgia.

“We all wish these elections had been won on Nov. 3, but sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways,” Cotton told a crowd of more than 100 Republicans at the Georgia National Fairgrounds.

“He’s given you the opportunity and the honor to hold the line and make sure that Republicans remain in charge of the United States Senate. The eyes of the world are on Georgia. They’re waiting to see what happens on Jan. 5.”

The biggest name yet arrives Friday. Vice President Mike Pence will hold a pair of rallies in Gainesville and Cherokee County — two Republican strongholds. His advisers expect him to return several times before the Jan. 5 runoffs.

Pence won’t be the last prominent Republican to visit Georgia to bolster their network of donors, operatives, and activists. Plenty of other possible White House hopefuls will use the Senate runoffs against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to test their messages.

“This is the opening bell of 2024,” said Ralph Reed, a Georgia Republican operative and head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian group. “It’s the first round of American Idol. You show well in the Georgia runoff, and you advance to the next round.”

And that’s not including the biggest name of them all: President Donald Trump, who has refused to acknowledge his defeat.

The president has mused openly about another run and Georgia operatives expect him to stump in heavily-conservative areas of the state in the next few weeks, though some privately worry he will focus more on his unsubstantiated claim that the election was stolen from him than the Senate races.

‘Last line of defense’

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, other big-name Republicans are trying to shift the focus to the pivotal runoffs.

Senate Republicans launched a national campaign headed by veteran strategist Karl Rove to oversee fundraising for the twin races, lining up high-profile figures from all 50 states for the effort. An array of potential contenders, including former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, are involved.

FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2020, file photo, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., right, speaks during a campaign event for Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., left, at the Recteq facility in Evans, Ga. Six years after being elected in an expensive and heated race, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton is on the ballot again and he's campaigning hard — just not in Arkansas. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2020, file photo, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., right, speaks during a campaign event for Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., left, at the Recteq facility in Evans, Ga. Six years after being elected in an expensive and heated race, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton is on the ballot again and he's campaigning hard — just not in Arkansas. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP, File)

Credit: Michael Holahan

Credit: Michael Holahan

“This is the last line of defense to conservative values,” Rove said on Fox News. “If we don’t have a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, they’re going to have a clear path to this nutty agenda.”

At the events, the White House hopefuls aren’t typically making the case that Republican losses would give Democrats complete control of Washington. That would acknowledge that President-elect Joe Biden defeated Trump, which many Republicans have refused to do.

Instead, they’ve warned of a tilt in the balance of power if Democrats flip the seats. Speaking to hundreds in Cobb County, Rubio didn’t once mention Trump’s name while playing up the importance of the vote.

“This is literally the showdown of all showdowns,” he added. “This is Georgia’s decision to make. But it’s America that will live with the consequences.”

And Scott, the incoming chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an interview that he believes Democrats will “change all the rules” to pack the U.S. Supreme Court and adopt new regulations, a claim echoed by many GOP campaigns.

“We’ve got to get our votes out. You can have the right message and lose,” he said. “So what we have to do here is make sure voters go to the polls. You want to get them in the bank.”

At the Perry event, Cotton tacitly acknowledged that Biden won the election, warning of a “nightmare dystopian scenario” of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as a tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 Senate should Ossoff and Warnock win.

Senators David Perdue, left, Kelly Loeffler, center, and Florida Senator Rick Scott, right, joined together for a rally on Friday, November 13, 2020 at Black Diamond Grill in Cumming, GA.  Both Georgia candidates head to a run-off election in January.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Senators David Perdue, left, Kelly Loeffler, center, and Florida Senator Rick Scott, right, joined together for a rally on Friday, November 13, 2020 at Black Diamond Grill in Cumming, GA. Both Georgia candidates head to a run-off election in January. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

“He’s leading right now, you’re in the middle of a recount, there’s litigation in other states,” Cotton told reporters, referring to Biden. “But we have to be prepared for that. We have to be prepared for Joe Biden winning.”

Democrats will have plenty of firepower, too. Party officials expect Harris and former President Barack Obama — who both stumped in Georgia in the final days of the campaign — to return to rally early voters.

And campaign strategists say they’ll welcome Biden if he chooses to stump in Georgia while setting up his administration. Judging by his recent comments in a private call to supporters, he could be considering that possibility.

“We’re going to run into some real brick walls initially in the Senate unless we’re able to turn around Georgia and pick up those two seats,” Biden said on the call, “but even then it’s going to be hard.”

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