On Nov. 3, one civil war within the Georgia Republican Party ended: Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) edged out Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) to head to a January runoff for one of Georgia’s Senate seats.
Seven days later, they started a new one.
With President Trump apparently headed to defeat in Georgia, local Republicans are furious—and they’re lashing out at the GOP secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, accusing him of presiding over a voter fraud-ridden election that is set to hand Georgia’s 16 electoral votes to President-elect Joe Biden.
The GOP candidates in Georgia’s two Senate runoffs, Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue, issued a blistering statement Monday, saying that Raffensperger “has failed to deliver honest and transparent elections,” and urging him to resign, while citing no concrete examples of voter fraud in Georgia.
It may have been good politics in the short term for the two senators. Trump and his lieutenants have spent the days since his defeat accusing governments of allowing voter fraud and complaining that GOP officials aren’t backing them up. Perdue and Loeffler, both of whom have hugged Trump tightly and will need every ounce of support from the president’s base in their runoffs against two Democrats, were seen as stepping up to defend him.
But some Georgia Republicans grimaced at the display—and are bracing for what it could signal for the runoff campaign to come, which will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate next year. Privately, some are concerned that the message of distrust in the state’s election system will backfire by suppressing turnout among GOP base voters already demoralized by Trump’s loss.
Others believe that any disunity in the GOP ranks is bound to hurt their chances to defeat the Democrats, who head into the runoff energized to take the Senate and secure unified control of government for Biden.
“I’m sitting here saying, is this the time?” asked Jason Shepherd, chair of the GOP in Cobb County. “If there’s concerns about Secretary Raffensperger’s administration over the process, those concerns don’t need to be while we’re in the middle of a runoff battle… Everyone needs to take a collective breath, let the secretary of state do his job, let his team do their jobs, and if we wanna audit afterwards and point fingers, that’s the time.”
Many Republicans believe that their party should have the upper hand in the runoffs—if they avoid self-inflicted wounds. GOP candidates, combined, got more votes in the Nov. 3 election than the Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. In Georgia, Republicans are typically more reliable voters in runoffs. Jack Kingston, a former Georgia congressman who ran for Senate in 2014, said that the Georgia GOP would be unified by two words: “President Biden.”
But observers of Georgia politics on the right are cautioning that Democrats’ chances shouldn’t be discounted, and that it’s time for Republicans to tread carefully.
“I don't think that letter was a good idea, but I’m sure Perdue and Loeffler feel like they need to show they’re fighting for Trump to get his voters to the polls,” said Jason Pye, a Georgia-based official with FreedomWorks, the conservative libertarian advocacy group. “I’m telling you right now, Democrats in Georgia, they feel they have a lot of momentum, they’re reinvigorated. This is creating unnecessary infighting, and it didn’t seem wise.”
But seemingly every prominent elected Republican in Georgia lined up on Wednesday to tighten the screws on Raffensperger. Collins, who is leading the Trump campaign recount effort in Georgia, signed a letter to the secretary of state with the chair of the Georgia GOP, alleging that they “daily continue to receive hundreds of reports of voting discrepancies and errors statewide” and cautioning that “millions of Georgians doubt the process for counting ballots in this state.”
Meanwhile, eight sitting members and members-elect from Georgia’s delegation to Congress wrote their own letter to Raffensperger, citing “deep concern” with voting processes in the state and urging a “thorough review.”
This rhetoric appears to be impacting how much the electorate trusts the system. Collins’ frequent Facebook updates on his efforts to press the Georgia government on voter fraud are met with hundreds of replies from Georgia conservatives expressing disappointment and a resigned belief that the voting process is hopelessly corrupt. “I have sincerely lost faith in an honest election,” said one user.
There are also plenty of conspiracy theories in the replies to Collins’ messages, including one alleging that Raffensperger—who was endorsed by Trump—is a “Democratic plant.” And key statewide elected officials, meanwhile, are tarred as RINOs, including Gov. Brian Kemp—also endorsed by Trump—and Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan, who said this week there were no “credible examples” of voter fraud in the state. Trump had also endorsed Raffensperger back in 2018 shortly before he was elected secretary of state in a runoff.
The gratuitous ganging-up on Raffensperger, and the smoldering criticism of Kemp and Duncan, has seemingly emerged as the outlet for whatever energy remains from the bitter feud between Collins and Loeffler during the general election. Loeffler, who was appointed by Kemp last year to this Senate seat as a business-minded Republican, was challenged by Collins, a conservative favorite in the House, in an election that split GOP loyalties from Georgia to Washington. The race between the two to become the GOP’s leading candidate pushed both far to the right—and pushed them both to go after each other in some of the most vicious attacks seen anywhere in the 2020 election.
With control of the Senate on the line in Georgia, however, Loeffler’s most devoted detractors are putting aside their grievances in hope of holding onto the upper chamber. Debbie Dooley, founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, told The Daily Beast prior to the Nov. 3 election that she wouldn’t vote for Loeffler—unless the Senate was in the balance.
“To me, voting for Kelly is a lot better than the risk of having Chuck Schumer as Senate majority leader,” Dooley said on Tuesday. “You’re going to see a lot of people go out and vote out of fear of the Democrats controlling the legislative branch and the White House.”
But Dooley said that there’s lingering resentment that Kemp picked Loeffler in the first place to the seat that was vacated by former Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) last year. And she predicted the Georgia government’s handling of the 2020 election would make him vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2022, as he seeks a second term.
“They’re extremely angry at Brian Kemp now for a number of reasons,” said Dooley. “They don’t think he’s sufficiently standing behind President Trump.”
Kemp—who has come under Trump’s crosshairs in the past over his COVID-19 response—tweeted on Monday a statement that uses Trumpworld’s preferred language to fight the election results “Georgia's election result will include legally cast ballots—and ONLY legally cast ballots. Period.” Trump shared it with the message: “This is good news, it means I won!”
But that is unlikely to be the case. Though the margin between Trump and Biden has remained narrow in Georgia, the Democrat leads by 14,101 votes—or 0.28 percent—as of Wednesday morning, according to unofficial state results.
On Friday, Raffensperger had predicted a recount for the presidential race given the tight margins. By Sunday night, the Trump campaign had announced that Collins would head the campaign’s recount fight in the state, despite Republican officials making clear that there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the state’s election.
Raffensperger, for his part, has defiantly and coolly brushed away the GOP pile-on, saying in response to the Loeffler and Perdue statement that “as a Republican, I am concerned about Republicans keeping the U.S. Senate. I recommend that Senators Loeffler and Perdue start focusing on that.”
In northwest Georgia’s Floyd County, where Trump rallied two days before election day, local GOP chairman Luke Martin played down infighting concerns, but called the secretary of state “an easy target.”
“You have Donald Trump Jr. and all those people coming out and saying like Republicans need to get behind this recount effort and we'll remember this for the 2024 hopefuls, so it's probably politically astute for the senators to go after Raffensperger,” Martin said. “He's like an easy target on this one I guess, so I don't think it'll hurt their chances. It'll probably just play to the base, honestly.”
Still, others in the state couldn’t help but be taken aback by the Republican infighting. In Putnam County, local GOP chair Judy Fain said she didn’t think the senators’ call on their fellow Republican to resign “was the right thing to do, personally.”
“I really don’t think that calling for his [resignation] at this point is really going to be beneficial,” she said, adding that even though she was disappointed, she still hopes the two senators win.
Shepherd, the chair of the GOP in Cobb County—a traditionally conservative bastion that has flipped to Democrats—did not voice any of the more private concerns from Republicans that the recent attacks on the voting process might hurt the party’s chances in the runoff. He said that the party has work to do to better inform voters about how to take advantage of voting by mail and voting early—tactics that Democrats leaned on to juice their historic levels of voter turnout for the November election.
“I think the best answer is overwhelming Republican turnout to make sure this is not a close election. That’s what I’ll be telling our members,” said Shepherd. “A lot of them like to vote on election day. We have to make sure we have the strategy to handle the early vote and absentee vote… we have to focus on absentee votes better than we did.”
There is also the question of whether the man who drove historic GOP turnout—Trump—will get involved. A reason why many Republican officials have not congratulated Biden or acknowledged the results, reported Politico on Tuesday, is to ensure the president’s support for Loeffler and Perdue ahead of the runoff. But a brooding president, reported CNN, is considering not getting involved at all.
Kingston, a Trump campaign surrogate, predicted the president would participate—from putting his name to campaign mailers, ads, and even fundraising. “People are gonna be motivated by him saying, ‘I need you to do me one last thing and go to the polls and vote for Loeffler and Perdue,’” said Kingston.
But he left open the possibility of whether Trump would make the ask in person himself. “I think he can be very helpful, but I still think it’s gonna boil down to us getting people to the polls early.”