President Trump is heading to Georgia on Saturday, seeking to boost the two GOP senators heading into critical runoffs while simultaneously complicating their path to victory.
Republicans view Trump’s presence as key to rallying the base, but many are concerned his attacks on the voting system and Republicans in Georgia could have a negative impact on the Jan. 5 races that will decide the Senate majority for the next two years.
Trump will hold a rally Saturday evening with Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
Democrats need to win both races to secure a 50-50 tie in the Senate, where Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would serve as the tie-breaking vote.
Perdue last month fell just short of the 50 percent mark to avoid a runoff against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, with Loeffler preparing to go head-to-head with Democrat the Rev. Raphael Warnock after fending off a primary challenge from Rep. Doug Collins (R) on Nov 3.
Trump, however, is viewed as the wild card in both races.
Some Republicans and GOP strategists are skeptical that the president will end up giving a boost to the two incumbents, given the likelihood of his remarks devolving into unrelated asides and complaints about his loss to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia and the overall election.
“If I was Perdue or Loeffler, I would be worried,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser and Georgia native. “Two sentences from Trump could reset the race.”
A SurveyUSA poll commissioned by 11Alive and released this week showed Perdue and Ossoff effectively deadlocked, while Warnock led Loeffler 52 percent to 45 percent.
The survey also indicated that Trump’s criticism of the electoral process could hurt Republicans in the races; it found that 13 percent of those who said they do not plan to vote said that decision was because they believe the November election was rigged.
Trump isn't the only one getting involved in the heated battle for control of the Senate.
His visit Saturday will come after Vice President Pence held his second rally in recent weeks Friday afternoon.
That same day, former President Obama held a virtual rally for Ossoff and Warnock, and Biden told reporters he plans to visit the state.
Doug Heye, former communications director at the Republican National Committee, said the circumstances of the runoffs would normally favor the GOP because Trump is so popular with the Republican base. But he described Trump’s attacks on the voting process as counterproductive and divisive, adding that Trump’s refusal to concede to Biden robs the Republican candidates of their best argument: a GOP-controlled Senate would be a check on the incoming Democratic administration.
“Right now, this is a perfect storm of terrible for Republicans and it’s all being driven from the White House,” Heye said.
Most Senate Republicans have tiptoed carefully around Trump’s claims of voter fraud over the past several weeks, with some tacitly acknowledging Biden as the apparent winner while avoiding rebukes of Trump’s debunked claims of widespread voter fraud.
Neither Perdue nor Loeffler have publicly acknowledged Biden as the victor in the presidential race. However, The Washington Post published a video on Thursday showing Perdue acknowledging Biden’s victory during a virtual meeting with members of the Republican Jewish Coalition as he emphasized the need for Republicans to keep control of the Senate.
“We know what this change of command at the top will mean with our foreign relations,” Perdue said in the video. “If we can keep the majority in the Senate, we can at least be a buffer on some of the things that the Biden camp has been talking about in terms of our foreign policy.”
Meanwhile, Republicans in Georgia have increasingly broken with Trump or rebuked his behavior.
Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling, a Republican, earlier this week sharply criticized Trump for failing to condemn violent threats against election officials amid his sustained attacks on the state’s election process. The White House has since said it condemns “any threats against anyone.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) has also pushed back on Trump’s unfounded claims and affirmed his loss to Biden, which officials in the Peach State certified more than a week ago.
Trump has repeatedly targeted Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) for not bending to his demands to force a review of absentee ballot signatures.
Republican strategists in Georgia believe some GOP voters will need to be reassured that the process will be fair and transparent in January's runoff races. Supporters at Pence’s events in the state have shouted “stop the steal,” a sign there is still distrust that could depress turnout.
Trump could assuage some of those concerns on Saturday night in Valdosta, said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Georgia-based Faith and Freedom Coalition.
“The president is very popular in the state of Georgia, and this is a turnout election, it’s not a persuasion election,” Reed said.
“As long as he looks into the camera and tells all of his supporters in Georgia that they need to get out on Jan. 5, or get out and vote early and support Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, that’s all he needs to say,” Reed added.
Democrats believe they have an advantage in the races because of Trump’s rhetoric and the failure by Congress to pass another relief measure to help American workers impacted by the coronavirus-induced recession, which has forced businesses to close and resulted in millions of job losses.
“It says, well, Americans are suffering, we’re all hurting, yet the Senate as it’s constituted, has not been able to come to a decision on how to help Americans in this time of crisis,” said Democratic strategist Basil Smikle.
There appears to be growing momentum for a smaller package before Trump leaves office, but it’s unclear at this point whether or when a deal will be reached and passed.
Trump’s Saturday night rally could create similar optics issues to his presidential events, as thousands of people are likely to gather while coronavirus cases are raging across the country, leading to mounting deaths. The president has been largely silent about the worsening pandemic, and his supporters often do not wear masks at his rallies.
Alex Conant, who served as communications director for Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign in 2016, said it was impossible to determine how Trump’s presence would ultimately impact the races in Georgia.
“The reason Trump is going to Georgia is because he still carries a tremendous amount of influence in the Republican base,” Conant said. “If he goes down there and spends the entire event attacking Republicans, that is not going to motivate his base to turnout and it could become counterproductive.”