The Georgia special Senate elections are nigh, but the central subject in the state is President Trump’s jaw-dropping Saturday conversation with Brad Raffensperger. I spoke with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about how Trump’s flailing attempts to overturn the state’s presidential-election results might hurt Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
Ben: President Trump continues to insist that he won Georgia in November, and throughout the campaign for the runoff elections there, he has seemed much more interested in lambasting fellow Republicans in the state — mostly the governor, Brian Kemp, and the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger — for not going along with his delusion than he is in supporting the GOP’s senate candidates. But his phone call with Raffensperger on Saturday, in which he actually pressed the secretary to “find” tens of thousands of votes to overturn the result, took things to a new level. With Trump taking up almost the entire spotlight that was supposed to be thrown on Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, how much of a problem is this for Republicans going into Tuesday?
Gabriel: New year, new shtick: I’m not going to dispute your premise here. It’s a pretty big problem for them! There are a million dynamics flying in different directions in these races, which complicate any attempts at straightforward forecasting, but the bottom line is that everyone expects things to be very close. When you have a very close race, you have to watch what happens on the margins. And there’s no doubt that these kinds of news developments from the president — who is promising to quintuple down during his closing-hours rally tonight — could cause some Republican-leaning voters to second-guess the use or wisdom of voting for Loeffler or Perdue. In races that could be decided by a few thousand votes, that’s really significant.
The thing is: Already today, Loeffler and Perdue have been trying to move on from news of this call, in ways that demonstrate how desperate they are to keep the pressure on their Democratic challengers. That’s because Dems appear to have a hefty lead through early voting, and Republicans are counting on massive day-of voting on Tuesday. They don’t think they can afford for their voters to focus on this kind of story right now … but the story is blanketing Georgia.
Ben: Among the Ossoff and Warnock people, is there a sense that their lives have been made much easier by this last-minute megadistraction (and all the Trump-created madness that came before it)?
Gabriel: I don’t know about “easier,” but it’s certainly been helpful for them in the sense that a pair of Dem wins in these races has always probably relied on big turnout from core left-leaning voters coupled with weak Republican turnout, or at least quite a bit less than the blockbuster numbers we saw in November. This could make the second part of that equation more likely. But the Democrats’ central argument has often been about securing economic and health relief from the pandemic after Trump’s mismanagement, not directly about the president’s conduct. So it’s not like they’re all of a sudden reshaping their closing pitches — they’re just letting this play out.
Ben: When we last chatted about this race, I was skeptical that Trump sowing doubt about Georgia’s election integrity would actually dissuade Republicans from casting ballots. I’m still trying to figure out why they wouldn’t. Is it because they might be doubting whether their votes will even count? Or is it more that they’d be protesting state Republicans — punishing them for not backing up their hero, Trump?
Gabriel: Those are both possibilities, but those aren’t really the voters I think Republicans are concerned about right now. For the most part, the Trump diehards are likely to go vote because he tells them to. At least, that’s what Georgian GOPers believe. The voters they’re worried about are the (often suburban) types who, say, voted for Biden but split their ticket and backed Perdue and Loeffler in November. Those voters are *highly* unlikely to switch to Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, but if they’re disgusted by Trump’s conduct, they may simply decide not to vote. I just mentioned it, but I want to be clear about something: This is really the *only* story in Georgia right now. I mean, it’s leading every local broadcast, and it’s basically the only question the candidates are getting from reporters. And there’s not really time for anything else to take over and actually sink in.
(Yes, I am aware of, like, everything that happened in the past year. Life is unpredictable! Politics are wild! Etc. I’m just reflecting on the local news environment.)
Ben: So it makes this balancing act Perdue and Loeffler have been attempting, where they can’t completely alienate those suburban voters but also can’t do anything to piss off the Trump diehards, even more challenging.
Gabriel: Almost makes you wonder if Perdue is relieved to be isolating after a COVID scare.
Ben: At the beginning of this race, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that while Dems had a shot, Republicans were certainly the favorites. (Not everyone bought into this view of things.) Attitudes seem to have shifted lately, partly because of the early-voting advantage you mentioned and what it says about the shape of the electorate. But we also know from years of experience that trying to divine much of anything from this kind of data is very often a fool’s errand. Yes, Republicans need a huge turnout tomorrow to make up their current deficit, but they could very well achieve that. How does all the election-forecasting chatter align with what you’re hearing on the ground?
Gabriel: The past few days have been the first ones in which Democrats on the ground have told me they actually think they’re going to win, or at least are outright optimistic. Now, it’s true that no one who leans left has *actually* been optimistic about any competitive race since November 9, 2016, just for emotional and political self-care purposes, but there has been a real shift in sentiment thanks to these early-voting numbers. The figures in Atlanta are off the charts, while they’re lagging significantly in traditionally GOP-held areas. That said, there’s a reason Trump and Pence are hitting those spots in the closing hours: to boost day-of voting, which has always been the Republican plan.
Ben: I’m trying to imagine the level of recrimination and internecine fury if Republicans lose both of these races. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Gabriel: If Perdue and Loeffler both lose, the GOP 2024 presidential primary might start this month (“Save our country!!!,” etc.).
Ben: Oh good, what we needed was a longer primary season.