SUGAR HILL, Georgia—Republicans’ hopes to win Georgia’s two runoff elections—and keep control of the U.S. Senate—now depend on the voters who just sent a full-on conspiracy-peddling QAnon supporter to Congress.
Early voting figures show that Democratic turnout has surged in Georgia—even improving on the party’s strong performance in November—while GOP turnout has lagged in the most heavily conservative parts of the state. That drop-off is most acute among the constituents of newly sworn-in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) in Georgia’s 14th District, where some deep-red counties have seen more than a 30 percent decline in the early vote compared to the November election.
It’s on the turf of Greene—an arch-conspiracist who has previously claimed an “Islamic invasion” of the U.S. government, has argued Jewish philanthropist George Soros was a Nazi collaborator, and now refuses to wear a mask in the U.S. Capitol—where President Donald Trump will make his final stand in support of Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on Monday night. Republicans hope that the president’s appearance in Dalton, on the eve of the election, will revitalize GOP turnout in one of the Trumpiest corners of the country, and erase the advantage that Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock have banked from two weeks of early voting.
That Perdue and Loeffler’s success now rides on Trump energizing this core constituency is a fitting finale to this runoff campaign. For the GOP, the last two months have been most defined by an election that has already happened—Trump’s—and a steady stream of conspiracies from him that have taken root in the party and corroded trust in the Jan. 5 election to come.
To be on the runoff campaign trail in Georgia is to inhabit a political universe where it is impossible that Joe Biden carried the state, where it is possible that corrupt elections officials openly throw away Trump votes and recount Biden ballots, and where the next savior to rescue Trump’s presidency is always waiting in the wings—whether it’s Vice President Mike Pence, or state legislatures, or the Supreme Court. (Trump was fighting that battle himself just days ago, calling Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, on Saturday to demand he overturn Biden’s win in Georgia and “recalculate” that he won, according to audio of the call obtained by The Washington Post.)
For the GOP candidates, that universe is inescapable, even as their more polished surrogates from the party’s ranks frame the race in the more conventional terms of partisan power balances in Washington.
Introducing Loeffler at a campaign stop on Saturday in the Atlanta suburb of Peachtree City, state Sen. Marty Harbin pleaded with the crowd to urge Pence to use his power as president of the Senate to overturn Biden’s win. “Send him a written letter and say, ‘Would you please, please, please, not recognize Georgia’s elections,” said Harbin. “He's gonna be under that gun and you need to know that.”
Taking the mic moments later, Loeffler said “we’re going to keep fighting for President Trump… we’re not going to stop.”
“We need y'all to keep in the fight the next three days—that's why President Trump is coming on Monday night, he said it last month when he was here, he said, ‘You've got to get out and vote for David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, you have to exercise your right to vote,’” continued Loeffler, invoking Trump’s December rally in Valdosta, where he railed against Georgia’s elections but urged Republicans to vote in the runoff all the same.
Loeffler’s attempt to cast the runoff election as a broader fight to vindicate Trump has been a consistent strategy for Republicans since Nov. 3. But of the duo, Loeffler has leaned on it in particular, actively courting media outlets on the far-right fringe to make the case that she is a warrior for the president. She has also campaigned alongside Greene at stops in her district.
Last week, Loeffler did an interview with Jim Hoft, editor of the Gateway Pundit blog, a fixture in pro-Trump media that has frequently published falsehoods and misinformation. The senator told Hoft that “nothing is off the table” in objecting to the Senate’s certification of Biden as the winner of the Electoral College on Wednesday, the day after the runoff. Both Perdue and Loeffler have not yet signed onto an effort from 11 GOP senators to block the election certification on the basis of unspecified “fraud” and irregularities.
But there are bursts of conventional campaigning amid the conspiracy-minded rhetoric. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), a favorite of the GOP base, didn’t mention “stop the steal” at all during his remarks at a Sunday rally in suburban Gwinnett County. He instead urged GOP voters to put a “firewall of common sense” in the Senate. And Kellyanne Conway, former adviser to Trump, took the stage to do something no other speaker at the Sunday rally did: speak in any depth about the records of the two Republicans running.
But for the GOP base voters who consume that media—and follow the QAnon conspiracy movement, whose signs and slogans can be found on cars parked at Republican campaign events around Georgia—the runoff has taken on an existential quality. It has not just become a struggle to “hold the line” and keep Democrats from achieving unified control of Washington, but provided another high-profile forum for the most engaged Trump supporters to air their grievances.
Asked how he felt about the election after the Sunday rally on behalf of Perdue and Loeffler, Tony Roland began talking about the November election, not the one on Tuesday. Waving a yellow Gadsden flag, Roland said that he planned to head to Washington, D.C., on Monday to participate in pro-Trump protests as Congress meets to certify the presidential electron results.
When asked about the runoffs, Roland expressed doubt that the Democrats could win fair and square. “They’re crazy radical,” he said. “Georgia’s not radical.”
Joe, a custom home builder from Atlanta who declined to give his last name, said it was “absolutely” the case that conservatives are more concerned about the November election than the one coming up in a few days.
But he said that the current one “doesn’t look good” for Perdue and Loeffler.
“I stocked up on ammo yesterday,” he said with a laugh. Gesturing to the two hundred or so MAGA hat-clad, Trump flag-waving rally guests, Joe added, “These people right here are going to stand up for America.”
Republican politicians are sensing the risk, too, working frenziedly to ensure that the voter fraud conspiracies don’t cost them the Senate majority. The plan is to twofold: first, validate the base’s angst; then, urge them to vote in such numbers that Democratic “cheating” would be impossible.
After Scott and Conway spoke in Gwinnett on Sunday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is leading the effort in the Senate to overturn the 2020 election, warned that “the Democrat turnout operation is producing massive turnout” in Georgia. When someone in the crowd then cried “illegal!”, Cruz responded, “Of course.”
“If you’re mad about what happened on election day,” he said to applause, “show up on Tuesday and win a resounding victory.”
The lag in early voting, to some Republicans, is an unmistakable sign that the senators are in trouble—and that Trump’s conspiracies have had a real impact in a contest that both sides concede will come down to the margins. “It’s real,” one Georgia Republican told The Daily Beast, speaking anonymously to discuss the race candidly.
“It’s getting to the point that, unless we see a massive turnout on Tuesday, it may be too much to overcome,” the Republican continued. “I’m not sure even a Trump rally will close the gap.”
But some Republicans insist it’s not a big deal at all. Cruz, speaking to reporters after his remarks, said “I haven’t heard an actual conservative saying that it’d be a good thing to hand the Senate over to the radical left.”
“Originally, I heard from a lot of constituents who were like, ‘I don't know if my vote counts, I don’t know if I’m gonna go vote,’” State Sen. Greg Dolezal, who warmed up a crowd for Loeffler in the Atlanta exurbs on Saturday, told The Daily Beast. “I've seen that begin to kind of recalibrate.”
He added that while he is “cautiously optimistic,” election day turnout for Republicans “has gotta be huge.”