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Friday, December 18, 2020

Top Republicans offer conflicting messages about Trump’s loss while campaigning in Georgia

Top Republicans offer conflicting messages about Trump’s loss while campaigning in Georgia

Hundreds of supporters gather on the tarmac of a community airport to hear Vice President Pence and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) during a rally in Augusta, Ga., on Dec. 10.
Hundreds of supporters gather on the tarmac of a community airport to hear Vice President Pence and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) during a rally in Augusta, Ga., on Dec. 10. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

"COLUMBUS, Ga. — When Vice President Pence took the stage here Thursday for a lunchtime rally with Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, he said that President Trump was still fighting to win reelection, even though the electoral college formalized Joe Biden's victory Monday.

But in television ads airing across the state, allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are making a different argument: that Trump has lost the election, and Democrats could control Washington if they win these two seats on Jan. 5.

These very different messages highlight the conflict within the Republican Party about the best way to win an election that will determine control of the Senate. While Trump and his supporters continue to push baseless claims of voter fraud, McConnell’s allies have warned that Democrats would run rampant if they gain control of both houses of Congress and the presidency.

The Fix’s Amber Phillips analyzes how some of the rhetoric from Trump allies could depress Republican turnout ahead of the Georgia Senate runoff elections. (Blair Guild, JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

That conflict was on display Thursday, as Pence repeatedly refused to acknowledge that Biden had won the 2020 election. “I promise you, we will keep fighting,” Pence said.

“We can fight for our president, and we can fight for more Republicans in the United States Senate at the same time. We can do both. We’ve been doing both.”

But even as Pence pledged to fight on, Perdue struck a slightly different tone.

A few weeks ago, during Trump’s visit to Valdosta, Perdue told the president that he and Loeffler would “fight to make sure you get a fair square deal in the state of Georgia.”

On Thursday, he spoke of protecting Trump’s accomplishments. “We have to hold the line to make sure that what we’ve accomplished under Donald Trump and Mike Pence, that we hold on to what we’ve accomplished — the regulatory work, the tax work, the energy work,” he said.

Even the crowd seemed to sense a shift. Attendees didn’t break out in “Stop the steal” or “Fight for Trump” cheers, as they did at Pence’s last rally. Instead, they chanted, “Hold the line,” a slogan Republicans have been using to stress the stakes of the Jan. 5 runoffs.

Perdue’s remarks Thursday are the closest that he or Loeffler has come to publicly acknowledging Trump’s defeat. The candidates have publicly supported Trump’s efforts to file more ­baseless lawsuits to overturn results in the states that handed Biden victory — hoping to keep the president happy so that he will encourage his most fervent supporters to turn out to vote.

Perdue recently released an ad with Trump, in which the president praises himand urges people to vote no matter what.

McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, acknowledged Biden’s win Tuesday, after the electoral college’s formal count. He congratulated Biden and called for bipartisan work in the years ahead — drawing an angry late-night tweet from Trump, who wrote that McConnell gave up “too soon” and that Republicans “must finally learn to fight. People are angry!”

McConnell’s allies at the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), a super PAC that has several offshoots engaged in the two runoff elections, have decided to drive home a direct message that Georgia marks a last stand for a Republican foothold of power in Washington. Perdue and Loeffler have parroted the arguments across Georgia, invoking the names of popular Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), as often as the names of their runoff opponents. 

“Everything is at stake with control of Washington in the balance,” the narrator says in one such ad, beginning with images of Black protesters dancing by a fire.

The Peachtree PAC, founded by SLF for these two races, has booked an estimated $43 million for that advertisement with Georgia’s TV stations. This constellation of super PACs, run by a former McConnell chief of staff, have reserved roughly $150 million worth of TV and radio advertising over the two-month sprint from after the Nov. 3 election until Jan. 5, according to estimates provided by two GOP sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.

That’s almost five times as much as their counterparts in Schumer’s super PAC orbit have booked for spending, according to Republican and Democratic estimates.

The stakes could not be higher. Right now, Republicans control 50 Senate seats; Democrats have 48. If Democrats win both Georgia races, Schumer will become majority leader on Jan. 20 when Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris is sworn in and provide the tie-breaking vote for Democrats in the Senate.

That prospect, giving the incoming Biden administration more room to maneuver, energized liberal online donors across the nation who poured tens of millions of dollars into the campaigns of Jon Ossoff, Loeffler’s opponent, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, Perdue’s opponent.

This has allowed the Democratic candidates to run far more advertisements than the two Republican campaigns. This week, according to GOP estimates, Ossoff and Warnock are running a combined $25 million worth of advertisements across the state, while the Perdue and Loeffler campaigns combined for about $14 million in ads.

In one Democratic ad running this week, Biden urges Democrats to turn out so that his administration can pass a stronger coronavirus relief package.

But Republican super PACs’ significant spending has evened the financial playing field among the campaigns.

McConnell’s allies have privately believed that their best strategy in Georgia, a traditionally GOP-leaning state, is to ­nationalize the race as a last stand against Democratic control of the White House and Congress. Their ads have likened Ossoff and Warnock to left figures such as Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.

But Trump’s false statements about the election have at times undermined that GOP message in Georgia. Trump has fueled a false conspiracy theory that the state’s voting machines are rigged, and some of his supporters here have held rallies calling for conservatives to boycott the Senate races as a way to protest the Biden victory — a message that could hand the Senate to Democrats.

Other close Trump allies, including Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), flew to Georgia for fundraising events Thursday. The president’s son has amplified his father’s baseless claims of voter fraud but urged voters to turn out. Cruz has pledged to litigate any voter-fraud case that gets taken up by the Supreme Court — which has rejected multiple appeals from Trump legal backers.

In Columbus on Thursday, Trump backers openly grappled with this conflict.

State Rep. Vernon Jones, a Democrat who has endorsed Trump, attended the rally after becoming a popular surrogate for the president, including speaking gigs at the Republican National Convention and in Valdosta earlier this month.

He told the crowd that he was “frustrated” by claims of election fraud. He intimated that the president’s hopes of winning the election in Georgia might be ending. “The fat lady may be walking up to the microphone, but she hasn’t started singing yet,” he said.

In an interview after his speech, Jones said he was trying to thread the needle between blasting the election system and encouraging people to vote for Republican candidates.

“People do feel that it wasn’t fair and transparent. But we cannot let that dissuade us to where we not go out and vote, because too much is at stake,” he said. “Even with the process being as tainted as it is, we have to go out and vote.”

Top Republicans offer conflicting messages about Trump’s loss while campaigning in Georgia

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