The Georgia Dilemma

As Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue campaign as a check on Biden, many of their voters remain convinced Trump won.

CANTON, GA—It’s runoff season in Georgia, and the GOP crowd that’s gathered here at the Canton campus of Chattahoochee Technical College in the north of the state for a “Defend the Majority Rally” is feeling pretty good. It isn’t just Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler they’ll hear from: The headliner is Mike Pence, who—while no substitute for the big guy, rallywise—has plenty of star power of his own in these parts. On the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the venue, a young girl a row in front of me informs her grandmother that, if she gets to meet Pence, she’ll pass out.

Once we arrive at the outdoor venue, the crowd mills about and people chat with their friends, enjoying the November sunshine. The arrival of the motorcade is an occasion of great excitement. The good times last until about a third of the way through the program. Sen. Perdue is speaking, and here’s what he says:

“We have spent four years with President Trump and Vice President Pence rebuilding our military. And these guys want to cut the military for the third time in 30 years. Clinton did it, Obama and Biden did it, and they’ll do it again with President Biden—if it turns out that way. We’re not going to let that happen in Georgia.”

Suddenly the crowd is on edge. A discontented buzz starts up. Then, as Perdue tries to move on, they start to chant: “STOP THE STEAL! STOP THE STEAL!”

“What we have to do,” Perdue replies, “What we have to do right now is hold the line.”

It’s only a fleeting moment: Perdue gets back on track, and by the time Pence takes the stage a few minutes later the crowd is cheery again. But the momentary tension highlights a potential danger in what ought to be a cakewalk to reelection for Perdue and Loeffler both.

Six weeks out from Georgia’s January 5 Senate runoffs, it’s pretty clear what campaign playbook the Republican incumbents want to be running. The rest of the map is set: 50 seats Republican, 48 Democrat. In two months, Kamala Harris will become the chamber’s tie-breaking vote. So if Republicans want to maintain a serious institutional check on the Biden presidency, from legislation to judicial confirmations, they’d really better go ahead and send Perdue and Loeffler back to the Senate.

The trouble, of course, is that the voters Loeffler and Perdue need to show up for them don’t yet see President-elect Biden as a sure thing—or at least not a thing to just roll over and accept. President Trump continues to insist that he won the election, and that the truth of this fact will become clear when his campaign’s legal efforts bear fruit. As long as he does, Perdue and Loeffler can’t make their best case for reelection—to be a check on Biden—without offending a big chunk of Trump supporters.

In an Economist/YouGov poll last week, 88 percent of Republicans insisted that Biden won illegitimately, blaming a mammoth operation of voter fraud. Earlier this month, 70 percent told a Politico/Morning Consult poll they did not believe the election was free and fair. In Georgia specifically, one conservative group polling registered voters (the results of which were provided to The Dispatch) found that 95 percent of Trump voters either somewhat or strongly believed there was voter fraud involved in the 2020 election.

This isn’t just a messaging headache—in Georgia, it’s launched a genuine intraparty civil war. In Democrat-run states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, it’s easy enough to scapegoat the other guys as the brainiacs behind a devilish electoral coup. But Republicans control every branch of the state government in Georgia. If they’re allowing Biden to steal the election even here, the president’s supporters mutter, they must be in on the take, too. Both Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has shepherded the state through its complex ballot-counting and -checking process and has been insistent that all looks shipshape, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who has largely remained on the sidelines, have become regular punching bags for pro-Trump activists and pundits.  

Perdue and Loeffler tried to get out in front of this early. Less than a week after Election Day, as Biden overtook Trump in the Georgia count, the two senators issued a joint statement accusing Raffensperger of “mismanagement and lack of transparency” in his oversight. (Neither the Trump campaign nor any other party has produced evidence of widespread voter fraud in Georgia; both the original count and a hand recount showed Biden in the lead by more than 12,000 votes.)  

“The secretary of state has failed to deliver honest and transparent elections,” the statement read. “He has failed the people of Georgia, and he should step down immediately.”

State and national Republicans seem confident the pair can thread the needle.

“There is a segment of the Trump base that is energized at the thought of, you know, the presidential election was stolen from Trump, so let’s don’t let them steal this from us,” one Republican strategist told The Dispatch last week. “I think if we have any two candidates anywhere on the map who are capable of keeping the base engaged and attracting at the same time these suburban voters that went Republican down-ballot across the country … It’s Perdue and Loeffler.”

But that wasn’t the mood outside the Georgia State Capitol last week, where a gaggle of Trump superfans gathered several days at noon to denounce the recounts as a sham and shout their continued belief the election was being stolen out from under them.   

These “Stop the Steal” rallies were organized by Ali Alexander, a longtime penumbral figure of the MAGA internet and sometime fellow traveler of hapless scam auteur Jacob Wohl. At various points throughout the week, the rallies featured appearances by former Tea Party fixture Jenny Beth Martin; Nicholas Fuentes, the face of the hard-right online youth movement known as the Groypers; and the king of the online conspiracy theorists, InfoWars’ Alex Jones.

And while their speeches covered a variety of topics and grievances, one theme was clear: These folks didn’t think Loeffler and Perdue’s gesture of disapproval toward Raffensberger was going to cut it.

“Make sure that you’re urging both the David Perdue and the Kelly Loeffler campaign … to get to the bottom of this!” Martin urged on Saturday. “They want us to come vote for them—we want to know that if we go vote for them, our votes will not be canceled by an illegal vote. Stop the steal first, and then we’ll work on the runoff!”

“If the machines are rigged, and our votes don’t matter anyway, we’re gonna stay home!” Alexander added.

Over the weekend, other prominent Trumpworld voices sounded similar notes. Sidney Powell, the celebrity lawyer who until this weekend was assisting Rudy Giuliani in spearheading the president’s legal challenges, unexpectedly accused Loeffler’s general election win over fellow Republican Doug Collins of being fraudulent as well—a plain shot across the bow. Meanwhile, prominent Georgia attorney Lin Wood tweeted that Loeffler and Perdue were “doing little or nothing to support efforts by GA citizens to address unlawful election,” and threatened that “if not fixed, I will NOT vote in GA runoff.”

“Threaten to withhold your votes and money,” he added. “Demand that they represent you.”

For the personalities involved, the “Stop the Steal” rallies were pretty transparently a branding exercise—an attempt to position themselves as Trump’s only set of true defenders who stood fast when everyone else was forsaking him. This was particularly obvious in Fuentes’s speeches, in which he repeatedly went out of his way to take shots at the same handful of politicos (Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio, Dan Crenshaw, Madison Cawthorn) and rivals for online right-wing clout (Ben Shapiro, Charlie Kirk).

“In some states, we have joined together with other factions to stop the steal of this election,” Fuentes said. “But never forget the most important thing. The thing that sets us apart from everyone else, even among conservatives, is that we are the only ones who want to put America first!”

But while the organizers may be posturing, the anger and fear from Republican voters that they’re channeling and directing is very real. It’s difficult to describe the vibe coming off the Stop the Steal crowd, the simultaneous sensations of invincible majority and fragile, embattled minority. To many, the very idea that Biden had really won the popular vote was laughable; their feeling that Trump had won in a landslide was strengthened by every van or truck passing the crowd that honked its approval.

And yet you wouldn’t believe how thick the paranoia was. At one point, a blonde, middle-aged woman started yelling to anyone who would listen to watch out—someone from Antifa was trying to infiltrate the crowd. The object of her attention, a tall camera-wielding man in a black tracksuit and painter’s mask, retreated across the street, pursued by chants of “F--- Antifa!” I followed him across to ask whether he was, indeed, a black bloc agitator; he turned out to be a photographer from British tabloid the Daily Mail.

When I returned to the throng, I spotted a protester I’d chatted companionably with minutes before. But when I approached him now, he recoiled and brandished his sign at me like a weapon. “I know you’re with Antifa,” he shouted. “I saw you talking with Antifa.”

Plenty of people I spoke to (I attended Thursday and Saturday) struck me as regular, kindhearted people who had come to believe some truly shocking and desperate things about their country. “This is an effort by, in my opinion, the elite and the deep state … to take us, get us down there in their control,” said Brenda, a grandmotherly woman who declined to give her last name out of concern for her husband’s business. “I don’t understand why people can’t be happy with their own life and their money. Why do they have to control? Why do they feel that need? I don’t know, it’s power. But the American people, at this point, it’s such a breaking point in our country. The American people won’t stand for it. They won’t.”

So what happens if Biden is president come January?

“Well then, we stay in the same position we are now. We can’t accept this election until you prove that this has been a legal election, one without excessive fraud. I mean, fraud goes on in elections, but this has been extreme. This is like a takeover. And so we’ll have to decide as Americans, at least 73 million of us are going to have to decide what to go forward with.

“Honestly, I think because we’re not Antifa and [Black Lives Matter], we’re not interested in violence, but let’s face it: When we look at American history and American revolution, there have been times in this country where we have had to have a revolution. And you know, wasn’t it Thomas Jefferson that said, ‘freedom is never free’? We’ve got to stay the course because, I mean, I’m 70. I’m not going to be here that much longer, but what about my grandkids? What about them? And I will fight for my grandkids. I will. And my whole family stands with that position, and that’s what we’re prepared to do.”

In some sense, a “Stop the Steal” rally run by InfoWars types self-selects for people with out-there ideas. But the voters I spoke to at the Perdue/Loeffler/Pence event (until campaign staffers spotted me chatting with attendees and banished me back to the press corral) were still plenty skeptical about the election results.

“What I’m hoping to hear is their plan and what all they have involved in moving forward trying to make sure that this election is not stolen out from under us,” said Shay, a contractor in the Canton area. Shay said he’s not confident that the eventual results will be fair: “When you have figures in government, regardless of what position they’re in, that are not taking decisive measures to make sure that’s actually happening, it just makes you feel like they’re more part of the corrupt cog that is not giving the people a fair and balanced election.”

“I would love to hear what the status of the election integrity stuff is—I think that’s interesting,” said Carrie Whitacre, who recently moved from Washington state to Georgia. “But I know right now the focus on Georgia is on getting these senators re-elected so that we don’t lose our Senate majority.”

On the “Stop the Steal” stuff, Whitacre hesitated: “I’ve been trying to follow it, and it’s hard to know what the right information is. There’s a lot of accusations, and they seem credible to me, but there are also a lot of people saying that that’s misinformation. So it’s hard for the average citizen to know what’s going on.”

Six weeks is a long time. It’s very possible that by the time the runoffs actually roll around, Republicans will have made their peace with a Biden win enough to accept Loeffler and Perdue’s narrative of the race. Certainly Trump himself has a personal interest in making sure the Republicans get there, whether or not he cares about the success of the party after his exit: “Do you want the Senate to do investigations about you even after you’re president,” one GOP strategist told The Dispatch, “or do you want something to block it?”

And some within the president’s orbit are already pushing back on the Lin Woods and Ali Alexanders of the world.

“You definitely want Republicans to trust the election enough to go vote,” Whitacre said. For Loeffler and Perdue, that may be the last hurdle to clear.  

Declan Garvey contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.

Photo by Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.