The Washington Post

Baseless fraud claims cost GOP in Ga.

Trump’s focus on own grievances undermined hopes of holding Senate

- BY CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR., JOSH DAWSEY AND REIS THEBAULT

atlanta — A few days after the presidenti­al election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell called President Trump to talk strategy in the pivotal Senate races in Georgia. But Trump quickly shifted the conversati­on. He wanted to talk about his claim that the presidenti­al race had been stolen from him.

In calls with the Republican candidates, Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, Trump regularly turned the discussion to his own fortunes, a person familiar with the calls said.

And when Trump finally agreed to head to Georgia to campaign, hosting two rallies here, the president was far more focused on his own grievances against Georgia’s GOP leadership than on helping the party win two key races.

“We’d have people call him every day in the week or so before he came,” said one Republican strategist involved in the race. “They’d all call to say good things about the candidates. But he always wanted to talk about his own race and the fraud.”

It was the overriding theme throughout the nine-week runoff campaign that ended in disaster

for the Republican Party — handing the Senate majority to the Democrats and serving as a prelude to a deadly week in which Trump’s bogus fraud claims incited a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol.

Trump’s fixation on a web of wild online conspiracy theories alleging, without basis, that the presidenti­al race was stolen — a dizzying array of falsehoods that have metastasiz­ed since November amid efforts by Trump and his allies to spread them — repeatedly undermined his party’s hopes of winning the crucial Georgia races, party strategist­s said. The president’s decision to focus on himself rather than on the unusual twin Senate races further exacerbate­d tensions with Senate GOP leaders, foreshadow­ing the move by Mcconnell (R-KY.) and other Republican­s to break with Trump in the hours after the riot and vote to affirm his defeat.

Especially frustratin­g for GOP leaders throughout the runoff campaign, strategist­s say, was the extent to which Trump backed them into a rhetorical corner: How could they argue that Republican control of the Senate would be the last line of defense against the Biden administra­tion if Trump didn’t want to admit that Joe Biden had won?

“The best-testing messages all had to do with checks and balances on a Democratic president,” said Josh Holmes, a McConnell adviser. “Those were the best messages in the election. They weren’t accessible to us, because the president wouldn’t concede the election. As he turned up the volume, if you ran checks and balances [messages], you were basically conceding it for him, which eliminated Republican votes.”

This account of how a fractured Republican Party lost the extraordin­ary runoff campaign for two Senate seats, which unfolded in one of the country’s most closely fought presidenti­al battlegrou­nds and culminated last week with wins by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, is based on interviews with more than a dozen people involved with the races. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive internal dynamics.

The Trump campaign and the White House did not respond to detailed questions.

Jason Miller, a Trump spokesman, pointed to Senate Republican­s not passing the $2,000 stimulus checks, backed by Trump in the closing days of the campaign, as the reason for the GOP’S defeat. “Senate Republican­s have nobody to blame but themselves,” Miller said.

At the start of the runoffs, Republican­s viewed Trump as their most powerful weapon, capable of mustering enough GOP voters to counter a tidal wave of money, mobilizati­on efforts and demographi­c shifts in cities and suburbs that favored Democrats.

But the president, obsessed with Biden’s narrow victory over him in this conservati­ve state, attacked Georgia Republican­s who didn’t parrot his own baseless election claims.

He singled out Secretary of State Brad Raffensper­ger and Gov. Brian Kemp, both Republican­s, who carried out their duties to certify the presidenti­al election results. Trump baselessly blasted the state’s voting machines as rigged, and some of his supporters suggested that Republican­s not participat­e in the runoffs — rhetoric that state Republican­s feared muddled their efforts to persuade GOP voters to turn out for Perdue and Loeffler.

The Senate candidates, meanwhile, echoed Trump’s claims. Both called for Raffensper­ger’s resignatio­n.

Trump was getting more frantic in his efforts to turn back his own election results. In December, he urged the state’s lead elections investigat­or in a lengthy phone call to “find the fraud,” saying the official would be a “national hero,” The Washington Post reported Saturday.

“He always wanted to talk about his own race and the fraud,” said a Republican strategist connected to the Senate campaigns, who said Trump didn’t care about the races in Georgia, or their consequenc­es. “It was all about him. Always about him.”

Another GOP strategist involved in the races said the Trump drama kept getting in the way.

“Every time I thought we’d have a good couple days, something would happen with the president,” the strategist said.

“We had momentum, and the president was like, ‘You can’t trust vote by mail.’ He was encouragin­g Lin Wood, who was running around telling people not to vote. Then he would attack Brian Kemp. Every three or four days, there was something that we had to deal with. We never had a clean path to victory.”

Allies of Mcconnell and other GOP strategist­s said there was a bevy of problems for Republican­s in Georgia beyond Trump. They believed both of their candidates were flawed — particular­ly Loeffler, a business executive who had been appointed by Kemp last year to fill a vacant seat and took extensive coaching to deliver even-somewhat convincing remarks, they said. And the administra­tion’s mishandlin­g of the coronaviru­s pandemic and the ensuing economic turmoil didn’t endear Republican­s to unaligned Georgia voters, particular­ly moderates in the Atlanta suburbs.

On the other side, Democrats approached the runoffs as underdogs. Few Democrats hold statewide office in Georgia, both the Republican­s had an incumbent advantage, and a flood of campaign cash allowed Republican­s to fill the airwaves with attack ads. Democratic turnout in Georgia historical­ly falters during runoffs. Plus, while voters across the nation had widely rejected Trump, Republican­s lower on the ballot had made gains.

Four days after the presidenti­al election, leaders of the Unite Here union were on a conference call with Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia gubernator­ial candidate who had started several efforts to register minority voters. The union members agreed to send a legion of paid and volunteer organizers to Georgia, the beginning of an alliance that brought together more than a dozen other advocacy groups and convened a massive network of canvassers to knock on millions of doors across the state. Unite Here alone sent more than 1,000 of its workers, most of whom were laid off from the hospitalit­y industry during the pandemic.

The goal was to prop up Democratic turnout, racking up as many meaningful, in-person conversati­ons with voters as possible.

In the 72 hours after the general election, the New Georgia Project got 10,000 requests to volunteer in Georgia, said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the largest voter turnout group operating in the state during the runoffs. She submitted a budget for $10 million to canvass and register voters, but $25 million poured in.

A month later, Ossoff and Warnock both announced they had raised more than $100 million apiece in the runoffs, raking in more in 60 days than other Senate candidates had raised in six years. In the month after the general election, Ossoff ’s staff ballooned from 25 people to more than 200, many of them trying to contact and activate inconsiste­nt voters who had sat out previous elections, said spokeswoma­n Miryam Lipper.

But many of the problems on the other side centered on Trump and his hydrant of claims. A Republican voter interrupte­d one of Perdue’s early stump speeches, demanding that he explain what he was doing about election fraud. Republican surrogates, including Vice President Pence, struggled to campaign with Trump voters who were most interested in fighting for the president, GOP strategist­s said. Pence had extensive conversati­ons with advisers about what to do with a crowd that just chanted “stop the steal,” a person close to him said.

Pence, who made more than a half-dozen trips to Georgia during the runoffs, was left at times to wait as Trump supporters chanted “four more years.” He sought to walk a careful line, embracing the doubts about the presidenti­al results while urging Trump backers to turn out again.

“We all got our doubts about the last election, and I want to assure you, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about voting irregulari­ties,” Pence said at an event in Milner, Ga., a day before the runoff elections. “And I promise you come this Wednesday, we’ll have our day in Congress, we’ll hear the objections, we’ll hear the evidence, but tomorrow is Georgia’s day.”

Pence also assured attendees that the Georgia GOP had “thousands of people” securing voter locations and drop boxes.

GOP advisers involved in the races said both candidates regularly talked to Trump, hoping it would cajole him into staying on message and keep him away from attacking them or the party. “There were a lot of people who were very careful about what they said on the president’s loss for months, because they didn’t want to blow up Georgia,” one said.

Officials involved in the Georgia races said Trump repeatedly made clear that he expected Perdue and Loeffler to back him at every turn in his campaign to overturn the election.

Particular­ly damaging, according to several strategist­s, was Trump’s call to Raffensper­ger on the weekend before the runoff elections, in which he tried to pressure the secretary of state to change the November election results. A recording of the call was published by The Post that Sunday, two days before the elections.

The Post quoted experts describing the call as an abuse of power and a potential criminal act, and the report prompted criticism from some Republican­s. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-tenn.), a staunch Trump ally who had campaigned for Perdue and Loeffler, told Fox News that Trump’s outreach to Raffensper­ger was “not a helpful call.”

As the runoff elections neared, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Mcdaniel and others sought to talk Trump into coming to Dalton, Ga., to a rally in support of Loeffler and Perdue.

“If they lose, I’ ll get blamed, and if they win, I won’t get any credit,” he told one adviser Jan. 4, the day he traveled to Georgia. He had discussed canceling the trip the day before, officials said.

Perdue skipped the rally, because he was quarantini­ng after coming in contact with a staffer who tested positive for the coronaviru­s. Backstage, Loeffler and her aides found it hard to get Trump to talk about anything but the claims of fraud related to his own election, two months in the past, according to a Republican strategist.

During the rally, Trump called Loeffler onstage, where she announced to a cheering crowd that she would join the ranks of senators who vowed to oppose the electoral college results when Congress was scheduled to convene Wednesday to affirm the election’s outcome.

By the time the joint session commenced, Loeffler had lost her race to Warnock, and Perdue appeared on track to be declared the loser to Ossoff. Turnout had been huge on both sides — but the Democrats improved their margins from Biden’s win in November, especially in heavily Black areas, while analysts noted that turnout in many conservati­ve areas was a bit lower.

After the races were lost, several advisers said Trump did not care and instead was focused on his rally on the Ellipse, where thousands of his supporters were gathering for the event that spurred the attempted insurrecti­on.

One person, Ashli Babbitt, was shot by U.S. Capitol Police and later died. Three other people died amid rioting of unspecifie­d medical emergencie­s.

Officer Brian D. Sicknick of the Capitol Police, who fought with rioters, died Thursday.

By Wednesday night, Loeffler had changed her mind about her objection to the election results.

“When I arrived in Washington this morning, I fully intended to object to the certificat­ion of electoral votes,” Loeffler said, addressing the chamber. “However, the events that have transpired today forced me to reconsider, and I cannot now, in good conscience, object to this certificat­ion of these electors.

“The violence, the lawlessnes­s, and siege of the halls of Congress are abhorrent and stand as a direct attack on the very institutio­n my objection was intended to protect: the sanctity of the American democratic process.”

“The best-testing messages all had to do with checks and balances on a Democratic president. . . . They weren’t accessible to us, because the president wouldn’t concede the election.” Josh Holmes, adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell

 ?? JOSHUA LOTT/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Justyn Johnson, left, dances with Natesia Blackmon on Sunday at a volunteer appreciati­on day cookout in Warner Robins, Ga., to thank those who helped in getting Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff elected to the U.S. Senate in Tuesday’s runoff elections.
JOSHUA LOTT/THE WASHINGTON POST Justyn Johnson, left, dances with Natesia Blackmon on Sunday at a volunteer appreciati­on day cookout in Warner Robins, Ga., to thank those who helped in getting Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff elected to the U.S. Senate in Tuesday’s runoff elections.
 ?? JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler join President Trump at a Dec. 5 rally in Valdosta, Ga., in the first of his two visits to the state during the runoff campaigns.
JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler join President Trump at a Dec. 5 rally in Valdosta, Ga., in the first of his two visits to the state during the runoff campaigns.

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