Republican Infighting Threatens GOP Chances In Georgia Senate Runoffs
Updated at 10:42 a.m. ET
Campaigning in Georgia's two Senate runoffs is well underway, but Republicans are still fighting over the state's November election and casting doubt on its voting system without evidence.
The possible effect of the mixed messaging on Republican turnout in January is worrying some of Georgia's conservatives.
The state's Republican election officials have repeatedly asserted there's been no evidence of widespread fraud.
But incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler have called on Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign, without evidence of wrongdoing. President Trump has also criticized Raffensperger and called out Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who received Trump's endorsement in 2018.
"We could be handing [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer control of the Senate by the Republican disarray," conservative talk show host Erick Erickson said last week on WSB radio. "It's a little bit frustrating to see the Republicans squabbling with each other over this when frankly there's no sign that the election was stolen in Georgia."
Trump tried to counter these concerns on Friday, tweeting that though the November election "was a total scam ... we must get out and help David and Kelly, two GREAT people. Otherwise we are playing right into the hands of some very sick people."
Donald Trump Jr. has also called the suggestion of skipping the January runoffs "nonsense."
Kemp echoed criticism of the election system while formally certifying the results last week, awarding President-elect Joe Biden the state's 16 Electoral College votes.
"I've heard directly from countless Georgians. They expect better, and they deserve better," Kemp said of several thousand uncounted ballots discovered during an audit. The state's election officials have said the audit's margin of error was within the expected error rate of hand-counting ballots.
"We are going to suppress our own vote"
Still, Republicans including Vice President Pence, who campaigned in Georgia on Nov. 20, are urging supporters to trust the system again in January: "Vote, Georgia, vote to reelect David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to the United States Senate," he called out to hundreds gathered at an outdoor rally in Canton, Ga.
"You're seeing many Republicans now speaking out and saying, 'If we undermine faith in our election system, if we tell people that perhaps their votes didn't count, we are going to suppress our own vote,' " said Brian Robinson, a Georgia Republican strategist.
"Typically you can expect Democrats to take potshots at Republicans, but when Republicans take them at each other it's not helpful," Raffensperger said in an NPR interview. "I'm sure Democrats have just gone out and bought a box of popcorn and are enjoying the show. We need to really unify as Republicans and make sure that we help our senators get across."
A pro-Trump Georgia lawyer, Lin Wood, who tried unsuccessfully to stop the state's election certification, vowed not to vote in the runoffs if the "unlawful" November election isn't addressed.
He is requesting a special session to change election law, an idea that Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston have rejected because it would result in "endless litigation."
While still a fringe position, a political committee associated with onetime Trump adviser Roger Stone urged voters to punish the GOP by writing in the president's name on the runoff ballots.
"With enough write-ins in the Georgia senate race, we can tilt the balance in Georgia in Trump's favor!" . "If we can do this, we have a real chance at getting these RINO senators to act on the illegitimate and corrupt election presided over by a Democrat party that is invested in the Communist takeover of Our Great Nation."
Writing in candidates is not allowed in the upcoming races, because they're runoffs between the top two candidates from the Nov. 3 election.
Voters such as Kristen Jones, who attended the Canton rally headlined by Pence, have questions about the system going into January.
"How can you have an election after it was completely fraudulent? I mean that should be every Georgian's question right now," she said.
Jones said she will still vote again, but she knows someone who has pledged never to do so after the November election. "That just made me so terribly sad," she said.
Republicans have advantages going into these elections. Historically, they've always won runoffs in Georgia, and Republicans in both Senate races earned more votes than Democrats in November, even as Biden carried the top of the ticket.
Plus, Robinson argued, Republicans have the upper hand in terms of motivation.
While Democrats have accomplished their goal of defeating Trump, Republicans still have a lot on the line.
"[Democrats are] polishing their trophy and beginning to settle in for a long winter's nap now," he said. "It's going to be much harder to energize [Democrats] with a scary message, motivate them with fear. It's very easy to motivate Republican voters with fear because Republican voters are terrified of what's coming down the pike if Biden, [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and Schumer control all the levers of power in Washington."
But the big unknown is what kind of damage the election integrity questions will do to Republican turnout.
"We don't know how voters are going to respond to this," Robinson said. "We just don't know."
"With the runoffs, the margins are going to be close. And so you need to get every single voter back out, and I don't think this is the way to do it," Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan said of the Republicans' election questions.
She said the Democrats' past history of losing runoffs in Georgia doesn't apply, because the level of resources and excitement is unprecedented. Plus, she said, Democrats have an "X factor" this time around: hope, because Biden narrowly won the state.
"That light at the end of the tunnel is really going to push a lot of Democrats who may would normally say well, 'Why does it matter?' " she said. "They know that it absolutely does, and they could be the one vote that pushes it over."
After a hand recount of the ballots, Trump's campaign asked for a machine recount of those same ballots, which is currently underway.
It's the third time in less than a month that Georgia's presidential ballots have been tallied.
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