Trump and Biden square off in Georgia on eve of epic Senate runoffs

Donald Trump and Joe Biden campaigned in Georgia for the twin U.S. Senate runoffs on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Credit: Curtis Compton / Alyssa Pointer / AJC
Donald Trump and Joe Biden campaigned in Georgia for the twin U.S. Senate runoffs on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. Credit: Curtis Compton / Alyssa Pointer / AJC

On the eve of high-stakes elections for control of the U.S. Senate, President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden staged dueling rallies Monday aimed directly at their most loyal supporters on the outskirts of downtown Atlanta and rocky, rural northwest Georgia.

The disclosure of Trump’s extraordinary demand to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to reverse his election defeat shaped the final chaotic day of campaigning, which also included a visit to Middle Georgia by Vice President Mike Pence to rally conservative evangelicals for U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

At a drive-in rally at a parking lot surrounding old Turner Field, Biden tied the hopes of Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the fate of his legislative agenda, which includes a promise to expand health care access and boost public health funding to contain the pandemic.

He said victories by Warnock and Ossoff, who need to sweep to give Democrats control of the Senate, would “be restoring hope and decency and honor for so many people who are struggling right now.”

Thousands gathered in Dalton, where Trump arrived on Marine One with Loeffler.

“There’s no way we lost Georgia, there’s no way,” Trump told the cheering crowd of thousands. “That was a rigged election.”

Despite his attacks on the elections in Georgia, and a litany of complaints and accusations he listed about votes he claimed were illegally cast in November, Trump also urged Republicans to vote Tuesday.

“It’s one of the most important elections in the history of our country, it’s a biggie,” he said.

Just as Trump mentioned Loeffler and Perdue, the crowd erupted in chants of “Fight for Trump!”

He assured the crowd that both senators had indeed fought for him, but not all Republicans have, he said.

“I’ll be here in about a year and a half campaigning against your governor,” he said of Gov. Brian Kemp, who was not invited to attend the Dalton event, and whom Trump later called “incompetent.”

Trump’s visit coincided with Loeffler’s abrupt pledge to join about a dozen other GOP senators who plan to formally challenge Biden’s election victory in Congress on Wednesday, a move that she had avoided for weeks.

“On Jan. 6, I will object to the Electoral College vote,” Loeffler said from the stage. “That’s right! We’re going to get this done.”

Perdue, who was not on hand because he’s self-isolating after contact with somebody who had contracted the coronavirus, cannot vote on the challenge because his term expired Sunday. But he has endorsed the idea, which has drawn backlash from Democrats and many fellow Republicans for undermining faith in the electoral system.

The effort is doomed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his GOP colleagues that he wouldn’t back the push to circumvent the voters’ will. Elections officials have debunked Trump’s false claims of voter fraud, and courts at every level have rejected challenges seeking to overturn the elections.

The rallies ended the runoff campaigns precisely the way they started: a furious scramble for each party’s most loyal base of supporters. Both Trump and Biden captured roughly 2.5 million votes in November — Biden narrowly won the state — giving the competing candidates a roadmap for Tuesday’s runoffs.

Biden carved a path to metro Atlanta, where soaring early-voting turnout has encouraged Democrats. More than 3 million Georgians have cast ballots in the race, and an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows a higher rate of turnout for Black and young voters who tend to vote Democratic.

In an unprecedented effort to preempt Trump’s expected attacks on the November election in Dalton, Georgia election officials spent a portion of Monday publicly debunking his repeated claims about fraud in the state. They urged skeptical voters to get out to the polls Tuesday, despite what they’ve been told by the president.

“I strongly beg and encourage you: Go vote tomorrow,” Gabriel Sterling, the state’s Republican voting system implementation manager, said during a press conference at the state Capitol. “Do not let anybody discourage you. Do not self-suppress your own vote. Do not make a self-fulfilling prophecy out of doing this.”

Republicans are relying on overwhelming turnout Tuesday to overcome the Democratic edge in mail-in votes. Trump’s appearance Monday took aim at a deeply conservative northwest Georgia area where voter participation has trailed other parts of the state.

Thousands arrived early at an airport on the outskirts of Dalton, where giant screens displayed videos promoting false claims of voter fraud and a giant American flag draped the stage.

The rallies were scrambled by the disclosure of a recording, obtained Sunday by the AJC and The Washington Post, in which Trump repeatedly badgered and cajoled Raffensperger to overturn the election outcome. His demands were rejected by the secretary of state, a fellow Republican who told the president his accusations had no basis in truth.

Biden’s and Trump’s dueling visits to the state were the crescendo of a stream of VIPs flooding the state in the last days of the runoff campaign. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris appeared in Savannah on Sunday, while Pence was at Rock Springs Baptist Church in Milner earlier Monday.

Although Pence’s visit was meant to reinforce the message for GOP faithful to get to the polls, he, too, raised questions about the integrity of Georgia’s elections.

“I want to assure you that I share the concerns of millions of Americans about voting irregularities,” Pence said. “I promise you come this Wednesday we will have our day in Congress.”

Pence then pivoted back to his message, declaring: “Tomorrow is Georgia’s day.”

Biden, for his part, did not address Trump’s call to Raffensperger directly. But with horns honking and Democratic supporters peering through opened sunroofs to cheer him, Biden pointed out that he did, in fact, win Georgia — validated by three separate tallies.

“Thank you for electing me and Kamala. We won. Three times here,” he laughed, referring to the state’s vote count, its machine recount and its hand recount.

Staff writers Mark Niesse and Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

What you need to know to vote

  • Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Be sure to bring a photo ID.
  • Before you go to the polls, check your voting location on the state’s My Voter Page at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov.
  • Voters who requested an absentee ballot but haven’t returned it yet can still turn it in at a drop box in their home county by 7 p.m.

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