Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Loeffler, Perdue pitch to pro-Trump voters in Ga.

Republican Senate incumbents paint Dem foes as far-left radicals

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ATLANTA— The merchandis­e featured in Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s online campaign store includes T- shirts and bumper stickers bearing Donald Trump’s name and the message: “Still my president.”

The Georgia Republican is running television ads ahead of Tuesday’s Senate runoff elections that lambaste her opponent, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, as “dangerous” and “radical.”

Loeffler’s colleague, Sen. David Perdue, meanwhile, is warning Georgians that Democrats will enact a “socialist agenda” if his challenger, Jon Ossoff, wins on Tuesday.

In the final days of campaigns that will decide control of the U. S. Senate, the Republican incumbents are appealing to the most conservati­ve part of the electorate. Their steady embrace of the hard- right, Trump wing of the GOP— even repeatedly refusing to acknowledg­e Trump’s defeat — and their caricature­s of the Democratic challenger­s may seem like a risky approach in a state that narrowly voted for Democrat Joe Biden for president in November after years of steady Democratic gains.

Yet the strategy reflects prevailing GOP wisdom in the Trump era: Republican­s’ clearest path to victory, even in swing states, is to drive up support among a GOP base motivated by allegiance to the president and fear of Democrats. Still, the approach comes at the expense of a once- broader Republican coalition that included more urban and suburban moderates and GOP- leaning independen­ts who have rejected the Republican brand under Trump.

“The president resonates with a lot of people, and so do the buzzwords, so you hear ‘ Trump’ and ‘ socialism’ a lot,” said Michael McNeely, a former vice chair of the Georgia Republican Party. “I wish we lived in a society where people talked about ideas, but that’s just not wherewe are.”

Trump may have complicate­d Loeffler’s and Perdue’s gamble even more with how he’s handled his defeat to Biden.

The president has spread unfounded assertions of voter fraud and blasted Georgia Republican officials, including

Gov. Brian Kemp, who have defended the elections process.

When Trump allies, including Loeffler and Perdue, backed up the claims, some Republican­s expressed concern it could discourage some Trump loyalists from voting in the runoff. Now, other Republican­s are worried that GOP candidates have instead turned off the more moderate voters repelled by Trump.

“No Republican is really happy with the situation we find ourselves in,” said Chip Lake, a longtime GOP consultant and top adviser to Loeffler’s vanquished rival, Rep. Doug Collins. “But sometimes when you play poker, you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and for us that starts with the president.”

Trump will visit Georgia for a final rally with Loeffler on Monday evening, hours before polls open. It is unclear whether Perdue will attend. The senator said Thursday that he was quarantini­ng after being exposed to an aide who tested positive for the coronaviru­s.

Democrats are fine with the GOP senators’ decision to run as Trump Republican­s and use exaggerate­d attacks. Opposition to the president has been a unifying force among their core supporters, and Democrats believe Republican­s’ overall tenor falls flat with voters in the middle.

“We talk about something like expanding Medicaid. We talk about expanding Pell Grants” for low- income college students, Ossoff said at a recent stop in Marietta, north of Atlanta. “David Perdue denounces those things as socialism?”

Ossoff noted Perdue’s claims that a Democratic- run Senate would abolish private insurance; Ossoff and Warnock, in fact, back Biden’s proposal to add a federal insurance plan to private insurance exchanges, not abolish private insurance.

“I just want people to have the choice,” Ossoff said.

November returns demonstrat­e the GOP snare. Biden beat Trump by about 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast in Georgia, making him the first Democratic presidenti­al candidate to carry the state since 1992. Biden’s record vote total for a Democrat in the state was fueled by racially and ethnically diversifyi­ng metro areas but also shifts in key Atlanta suburbs where white voters have historical­ly leaned Republican.

Yet Perdue landed within a few thousand votes of Trump’s total and led Ossoff by about 88,000 votes. Republican turnout also surged in small towns and rural areas, while Georgia Democrats had a disappoint­ing general election down- ballot, failing to make expected gains in legislativ­e races.

“We’vewon this race once already,” Perdue says at some of his runoff campaign stops, echoing his advisers’ belief that their top priority is maintainin­g enthusiasm from Trump’s base. They add that they can corral the narrow slice of swing voters with arguments that warn against handing Democrats control of the House, Senate and White House.

McNeely and Lake, however, predicted that hard- right attacks and Trump- centric appeals won’t deliver votes beyond the base, particular­ly amid a crush of advertisin­g in a runoff campaign whose total expense could top $ 500 million.

“We reached the point of diminishin­g returns a long time ago,” Lake said.

They also bemoaned Trump’s continued grievances about his defeat even after his own attorney general said there was no evidence the election was marred by fraud and courts across the country rejected challenges to the outcome.

“If, for some reason, the Republican candidates lose,” Lake said, “it’s going to be hard to write a post- mortem on this runoff and not look directly at all the chaos that has been created on voter fraud.”

Early voting ended Thursday with just more than 3million Georgians casting absentee or in- person ballots. That trails the final early vote count of 3.65 million ahead of the general election. But the early vote has already set a statewide Georgia runoff turnout record.

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