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With Georgia Rally, Trump Tests Role As Asset Or Liability For Senate GOP Control

President Trump at a campaign rally last month in Rome, Ga.
Evan Vucci
President Trump at a campaign rally last month in Rome, Ga.

When President Trump hosts a campaign rally later today in Georgia — a state he's repeatedly attacked with false claims of election fraud — he'll test whether he will be an asset or a liability for Republican hopes to keep control of the Senate.

It marks the president's first return to the campaign trail since he lost his bid for re-election, triggering Trump's rampage against states that voted for President-elect Joe Biden.

This includes Georgia, where Trump and his associates have assailed the state's election system and top Republican officials, including Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

"It leaves Republicans fighting with each other, instead of fighting their opponents," said Brendan Buck, who was a top advisor to the former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. And "in an election that's going to be close enough, those distractions can be enough to make the difference."

Two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia will be decided in runoff races on Jan. 5, with the outcome dictating which party will run the upper chamber come next year. GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are vying against Democrats to win what they say will be the final line of Republican defense.

By contrast, Trump's Georgia visit will put on display the rip currents he has inserted into his party's high-stakes race, from discrediting the state's leaders to raising doubts about its voting system. And he could very well re-air his grievances with the election results, Georgia and its top Republicans.

"I would imagine he will talk about that," said West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. "But I think his core message needs to be the enthusiasm for our two senators."

In the run up, Georgia has already drawn a wave of 2024 hopefuls, and Vice President Mike Pence visited the state a second time to rally for Senate Republicans on Friday.

But the conflicts remain. This past week, a top Georgia election official madean emotional plea for Trump and his allies to stop their attacks against the state's leaders, that he says have led to death threats against those overseeing a recount.

"Someone's going to get hurt, someone's going to get shot, someone's going to get killed," said Gabriel Sterling, with the secretary of state's office. "It's not right."

"I hope he encourages voters"

Staying on topic remains a tall order for Trump. If he does deviate to his grievances with Georgia, it would rehash a wave of mixed messaging that could plague Republicans' win of the Senate.

Capito says Trump can bring value to the race when it comes to voter enthusiasm to protect against what she and other Republicans call far-left threats.

"I think that the president could rev up the troops in terms of enthusiasm and talk about how absolutely important this is to retain the majority in the United States Senate," Capito said, "And it means the difference between very radical policies and and being a check on those radical policies."

Several Senate Republicans say they remain hopeful Trump can get the job done.

Among them, Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said he's optimistic of his party's chances there thanks to strong ground game, and expectations turnout will swing in their favor. And he says he's glad Trump is visiting the state.

"I hope he encourages voters to get out and vote," Blunt said. "So much of what has been accomplished in the last four years in the courts, and in taxes, and the overall economic environment we saw before COVID will be able to move forward if Republicans continue to control the Senate."

Blunt added, "and I hope that's his message."

South Dakota GOP Sen. Mike Rounds argues what happens in the Georgia race will play a large role in Trump's legacy. And if he remains focused, it will boost Republican arguments that they can continue the work that he started, Rounds said.

"If we are able to retain the United States Senate, his legacy will be protected. We'll have a strong economy. We'll have lower unemployment rates," Rounds said, "and hopefully we'll continue to be able to at least moderate what some very liberal politicians would like to do in Washington, D.C., to the rest of the country."

It's still a tricky argument to make in Georgia since Trump has yet to concede his loss. So far, the 100-member Senate will be comprised of 50 Republicans as a result of the November elections, leaving the party one seat short of chamber control that could have been decided with a Republican vice president.

Now, with Democrats and two independents who caucus with them claiming 48 seats come January, they'll hope for a sweep in Georgia to reach 50 members. With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at the helm, she would break ties in Democrats' favor.

Mixed messaging

Under normal circumstances, sans Trump, Republicans would be expected to win the two Senate seats in Georgia, argues Buck, the former Paul Ryan advisor.

And while the state elected Biden, the two Democrats in the running — Jon Ossoff facing off against Perdue and Rev. Raphael Warnock against Loeffler — swing farther to the left, he said.

But with Trump discouraging voter participation and putting doubt into his voters minds about the integrity of the election, it's a matter of time before they stop participating, he said. And that is what could cost Perdue and Loeffler.

"You can't tell people that the system is rigged and expect them all to participate in it. So they're really in a pretty unfortunate spot," Buck said. "It's not the strategy that I think any of them would want to have. But when Trump is around, it's the strategy that you're left with."

Among the concerns, pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood has urged voters to boycott the election and fraud claims by longtime lawyer Rudy Giuliani. That creates a distraction and a drag on Republican voter turnout in a race that is virtually an enthusiasm election.

Both Perdue, who is running for his second term, and Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat by the governor and seeking her first election, have had to strongly align as Trump allies. Now, it's too late to try to reset that image, and have to focus on driving out the base, Buck said.

"That is why it's so critical for them to go along with all of Trump's nonsense, because the risk of him turning on them and saying that they're surrendering — or they're not fighters — could potentially be fatal for them," Buck said.

If Republicans weren't having to navigate the intra-party fighting, they could spend their time focusing on how Democrats are out of step with the state, and the risk to the Senate majority, Buck said. If they were able to focus on this later message, they win, he said.

Instead, they are having to fend off distractions, and the long list of antics by Trump and his allies attacking the state and its political leaders, Buck said.

Still, Republican campaign officials reject that premise. They maintain that Trump will deliver a united party message to Georgia voters.

"The President's rally on Saturday will remind voters that the only way to stop the far-left's socialist agenda is to turn out for Senators Perdue and Loeffler," said Nathan Brand, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "The President's message for Georgians is clear: if you're angry with what happened, the only way to changes things is to vote for Senators Perdue and Loeffler in the Georgia runoffs."

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

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.