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Georgia Senate Runoffs Lure Possible 2024 GOP Hopefuls, Including Trump

President Trump, seen at a Nov. 1 rally in Rome, Ga., will return to the state to campaign for Republicans in Senate runoffs as he seriously considers another bid for the White House. Other possible 2024 GOP candidates have campaigned in Georgia recently.
Evan Vucci
President Trump, seen at a Nov. 1 rally in Rome, Ga., will return to the state to campaign for Republicans in Senate runoffs as he seriously considers another bid for the White House. Other possible 2024 GOP candidates have campaigned in Georgia recently.

Georgia is a state where the 2020 elections haven't ended yet, but the 2024 presidential race may already be underway.

Republicans with an eye on the White House in four years are hitting the trail on behalf of the two Republican senators trying to save their seats in runoff elections, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

Among those showing up in recent weeks to lend a hand have been Vice President Pence, Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Others have helped out from afar, through fundraising and other means, such as former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who ran second to President Trump in the 2016 primaries, said he'll be there soon enough.

Since control of the U.S. Senate is on the line in Georgia, it's the biggest political stage for candidates who want visibility and to make some new influential friends in a newly minted swing state, all of which may come in handy for an eventual run at the GOP presidential nomination.

But they could all be overshadowed when Trump travels there to campaign Saturday for Perdue and Loeffler at his first rally since losing the election, including the state of Georgia, to Joe Biden.

It could also represent the first rally of a possible 2024 comeback bid, which some of the president's allies think would box out other Republicans looking to take the mantle in a post-Trump GOP.

None of the aforementioned is an official candidate for 2024 — not yet, anyway. But none is discouraging such talk, and each is on the list of those expected to explore a run seriously.

Why Trump's presence gets complicated

As soon as it was clear that Georgia's Senate races would be decided by runoffs, Republicans in the state urged Trump to hold a rally to help out the endangered incumbents. The logic, according to political scientist Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida, was that even though he'd lost the state, Trump would still drive turnout and ensure successful runoffs for the Republicans.

But that simple plan has gotten complicated.

Angry over his loss to Biden in Georgia, Trump is falsely alleging that the state was stolen from him and that Democrats are guilty of fraud.

Pence had to walk a bit of a tightrope during his visit because of that. He warned of the dangers he sees in a Democratic Senate majority, but he couldn't explicitly acknowledge that the Trump-Pence ticket had lost.

"I can tell you as our election contests continue, here in Georgia and in courts across the country, I'll make you [a] promise. We're going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted," Pence said.

Trump is angry with GOP officials who have defended the integrity of Georgia's elections. That has set off an internal battle within the state as Republicans choose sides, at the exact moment they need to be unified in the runoff elections.

Against this backdrop, Trump heads to a rally Saturday in Valdosta, Ga., near the Florida state line.

"He's going down there primarily to help these two Republicans who are in very, very tight, nail-biter runoffs," MacManus said.

But Trump's Twitter feed, and even his appearance this week in a 46-minute video address from the White House, have been consumed by his grievances over losing the election.

"The question is will that alienate some people who would just be tired of all of that and say, 'It's just not worth it to me,' and not vote, which is the worst thing that could happen to the two Republicans running," MacManus said, adding it's possible that Trump, by highlighting his own agenda, could do as much harm as he does good.

A frozen field

It's not clear that Trump is set on running again, but there is plenty of reason for him to keep the option open even if he is not, including the ability to raise millions of dollars in donations for a possible run.

It's a difficult situation for other Republicans who want to succeed Trump but may not want to challenge him should he seek the 2024 GOP nomination.

Rick Tyler, a former top official in Cruz's 2016 campaign who is among the cadre of high-profile Republicans who call themselves "never Trumpers," said it's impossible to know what kind of political clout Trump will be able to sustain as a former president.

But he said it does create some real problems right now for others trying to get some early traction. Tyler said it'll be tough for any other GOP hopeful to be taken seriously, to receive real media attention or to get early commitments from talented campaign advisers and fundraisers with a Trump campaign looming.

So, what advice would he give a prospective 2024 candidate about the opportunity created by the Georgia races?

"You have to go," he said. "It's unforgivable not to go. But here's the problem: As long as Donald Trump tries to maintain control of the Republican Party and begins to flirt with a 2024 race on his own, the rest of the field will remain as frozen as a COVID vaccine."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.