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Trump Drives A Wedge Among Georgia Republicans, Risking A Larger GOP Split

President Trump speaks at a campaign rally for Republican candidates Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue on Dec. 5 in Valdosta, Ga. Their runoff elections on Jan. 5 will determine U.S. Senate control.
Evan Vucci
President Trump speaks at a campaign rally for Republican candidates Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue on Dec. 5 in Valdosta, Ga. Their runoff elections on Jan. 5 will determine U.S. Senate control.

Jeanne Bradley, a Republican voter from Hephzibah, Ga., is confused by the mixed messages she's hearing about the election and about her state's GOP leaders.

"We need to know more. You're getting bits and pieces from all of the news media, and you don't know what to believe anymore," she said. "And it's not just the news media. It's people in general."

It's also President Trump.

He narrowly lost the state to President-elect Joe Biden, but he's rejected that outcome and continues a pressure campaign on Georgia's Republican leaders to overturn the result.

Trump has called Gov. Brian Kemp,a longtime ally with whom he has had some previous tensions, a "clown" and a "fool," and he has referred to Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as "Republicans in name only."

That's because those officials have stood by Georgia's election as legally conducted, in the face of unfounded claims of widespread fraud from the president. Legal challenges to the election from the Trump campaign and supporters have failed in federal, superior and state courts in Georgia. Multiple recounts have upheld the result.

But for some Republican voters, the confusion persists.

"We don't know," Bradley said. "We don't know if it's just a ploy to get us not to vote Republican, too."

Republicans still have Bradley's vote. But there are other people, she said, who may throw up their hands in this chaos, vote Democratic, or skip the election.

The GOP can't afford to lose any votes right now. Georgia's runoff elections on Jan. 5 will decide control of the U.S. Senate, as GOP incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler face Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively. And if the GOP loses those seats, handing Democrats total control of Washington, there's a risk that the divisions that Georgia has seen since November might intensify throughout the party.

Governor feels the heat

Kemp said that his response to voterswho have told him he's not "fighting for us" has been: "I am, but I can only fight so much because I've got to follow the laws and the Constitution."

The presidentretweeted a post suggesting Kemp and Raffensperger should go to jail and has encouraged another Georgia Republican, Rep. Doug Collins, to run against Kemp in 2022.

Some Republican Georgia voters have adopted the campaign against their governor.

Lydia Green Davidson attended a Cobb County Republican rally in mid-December and said she plans to collect signatures to get Kemp impeached for not complying with Trump's demand to call a special session of the state legislature to overturn the election results from November or change the rules for the runoffs.

"I'm disgusted," said the retired teacher and 2018 Kemp voter. "He won't be reelected. He'll be lucky if he stays in office, because he's going to be impeached."

This division in the Republican Party is happening at a very inopportune time, says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

"As we saw in November of this year, the Republican Party does not have a large commanding lead within Georgia. It is fairly close," he said. "It could be the kind of division that opens the door for Democrats to do very well in 2022."

"I take this job seriously"

There are some state lawmakers in Georgia who have supported the president's call for a special session to overturn the election, including Republican state Sen. Brandon Beach, who is among a handful of lawmakers recruiting signatures for a petition to call the special session independently of the governor.

"And I can tell you if we do not fix this, and that's why I'm so adamant about this, I'm so fearful that... we're going to wake up Jan. 6, and we're not going to like what happened because it's not going to be a fair election," Beachsaid about the campaign on the John Fredericks Show, a national pro-Trump radio program.

The case Beach and his colleagues are making for a special session relies on debunked theories about the election, including allegations that absentee ballot signatures were not matched properly and that absentee ballot drop boxes were insecure. Georgia's Republican election officials have repeatedly said there's been no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Rampant misinformation about the election and the pressure from the president has put Georgia Republicans in a difficult situation, even though the petition for a special session has not succeeded.

State Rep. Chuck Martin, a longtime Republican and 18-year veteran of the General Assembly, called it the most frustrating time of his public service career.

Like Kemp, he's been a Trump supporter who doesn't believe the state constitution allows the legislature to intervene in legally held elections. But that hasn't stopped tens of thousands of emails from flowing in.

"I'm getting an email that says, 'Stand true to your oath of office: do this,' " he said. "But standing true to my oath of office doesn't allow me to do that."

"And they're absolutely sure they're right and I'm wrong because of snippets they've read on the internet," Martin said.

One message came from a retired Army colonel pushing for the election to be overturned. Martin responded with language from the state constitution, asking for an explanation as to how he could legally do what the emailer was asking.

"And instead from him, I get no [explanation of] how," Martin said. "Instead, he calls me a coward, a traitor ... somebody that won't stand up to my oath of office. That's frustrating to me. I take this job seriously."

Some of the election misinformation has been targeted at Kemp and his family.

"Quite honestly, it has gotten ridiculous," the governor said. "From death threats to [claims of] bribes from China, [to] the social media posts that my children are getting."

"I mean, this needs to stop. People need to deal with facts, and we'll give them to them," he said.

"I know people think that as a United States senator, you're all powerful, and you can move the world," said former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican who represented Georgia. "They also think when you're governor, you're all powerful, and you can move the world within the confines of the state of Georgia. But that's not right. You still have to abide by the laws that are on the books."

Trump's "magic" put to the test

The runoff election results, which are expected to be close, will likely serve as a bellwether for the soon-to-be-former president's influence.

Political scientist Bullock said Trump will remain important for Republicans. "Until someone disproves it, then there's going to be a lot of suspicion that he is very influential and that you have to be on his right side if you're a Republican," he said.

Bullock also said that will remain true until and unless his chosen candidate fails in a high-profile race. "That would send [Republicans] a message well beyond the confines of Georgia, that Trump's influence, his magic, whatever, no longer exists," he said.

Chambliss said the president will remain an important influence because of his proven ability to generate unprecedented Republican turnout.

"Donald Trump is still technically the head of the Republican Party from a national perspective, and his thoughts and ideas need to be included in everything we do going forward," he said.

Chambliss is optimistic about Republicans' chances in January, despite the schism.

"We've always had factions within the party that we had to address, and we had to consider [them], we had to listen to their ideas. And that's what we have right now," he said.

"And I don't think it's going to handicap us going forward, provided we all continue to pull together and get out and vote in instances like Jan. 5."

Copyright 2021 WABE 90.1. To see more, visit WABE 90.1.

Emma Hurt
[Copyright 2024 NPR]