MILTON, Ga. — At a whistle-stop campaign rally on Monday for Georgia’s Republican senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, there was talk of creeping radicalism and socialism. There was talk of American values like faith and family. There was talk of economic recovery, small business assistance, freedom from government regulations.
But on a day when President Trump derided Georgia officials and declared on Twitter that “We will easily win Presidential State race,” no speaker at the rally — not even his daughter Ivanka, the headliner and marquee attraction — talked of election fraud. No one disputed the certified results of Georgia, which President-elect Joe Biden won by 12,000 votes, or the vote of the Electoral College. No one charged that the election had been stolen, and no one suggested that Trump would still be in office past Jan. 20 of next year.
Instead, the focus at Monday’s event, held at an upscale mixed-use development in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, was on getting out the vote to keep the Senate “firewall” — Loeffler’s term — in place as a check against the (unnamed) incoming administration. The Georgia runoff elections will determine which party controls of the U.S. Senate and Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will both need to win to earn a tie in the chamber. If that happens, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris could break a tie in favor of her party, which explains why Republicans have been so nervous about that state turning blue in the presidential race in 2020.
“Are you ready to show America Georgia is a red state?” Loeffler called out. “Say it with me: Hold the line. Hold the line.”
Many of the several hundred attendees chanted along, even though doing so was a tacit admission that Trump had lost and that Vice President Mike Pence would not, come Jan. 20, be in a position to cast tie breaking votes. As for the crowd itself, less than half of them were wearing masks to help diminish the spread of COVID-19, and they nonetheless crowded shoulder to shoulder into an alcove behind the Old Blind Dog Irish Pub, cellphones held high.
The rally was the first in what was planned as a two-event stop for Ivanka Trump — crisscrossing, coincidentally enough, the route of Harris, who was also in the state to drum up support for the Democratic opposition. But Trump’s second event, in rural Walton County, had to be postponed as Loeffler and Perdue needed to return to Washington to vote on the stimulus package.
“I talked to my father on the way here,” Ivanka Trump noted in her opening remarks, and the very reference to Trump brought forth a wave of cheers. “He asked me to tell you he loves Georgia and will never stop fighting for you.”
Ivanka’s appearance was an attempt to thread a moving needle. “Bringing in Ivanka is an effort to bring the hardcore Trump voters back as well getting the Never Trump Republicans out to vote,” Georgia political strategist Fred Hicks told Yahoo News. “This is as close as an acknowledgement that Trump’s loss was because of his personality as we are likely to see.”
Trump cast a shadow over the entire proceedings, figuratively and — in the case of a gargantuan flag towed behind a pickup truck while the speakers were onstage — literally. But the senators, in particular, had to walk a narrow line, acknowledging their connection to the president while not endorsing his more extreme takes on the status of the Georgia election.
They did so by invoking the names of Democratic figures like Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Georgia organizer Stacey Abrams, the mention of each name drawing boos. The speakers also raised the specter of what would happen if both Loeffler and Perdue lost.
“If we don’t vote, we won’t just lose,” Loeffler said. “We’ll lose the country.”
Loeffler deftly sidestepped a “Stop the Steal!” chant that broke out as she finished her short speech, replying that “We will keep fighting,” but adding no specifics. Shortly afterward, Perdue, in an appeal to an older class of conservatives, quoted former President Ronald Reagan’s famous adage, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
Also left unmentioned at the rally was Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who has been a frequent Trump target for adhering to state election law rather than acceding to demands for a wholesale upending of the results.
Bringing in Ivanka Trump allows the Loeffler and Perdue campaigns to put a bit of daylight between themselves and the president’s extreme, and to date unproven, claims of fraud — claims that could cause Trump’s base to turn their back on the election entirely.
“The problem in Georgia is that the president and his folks, Rudy [Giuliani] and people like that, have put so much doubt in Republicans’ minds about the electoral process, it could be enough that those numbers could be problematic in a close race,” Republican strategist Amy Koch told Yahoo News. “If you have a lot of Trump people not voting, or saying ‘Loeffler and Perdue, what have you done for us?,’ it could be a real problem.”
Attendees at the rally in Milton expressed the same mix of trepidation and determination about the election results, questioning the particulars of the presidential vote while expressing their determination to cast their ballots in the runoff.
“I can’t imagine anybody having the balls to try anything with this election,” said Doug Wright of Milton. “It’s all going to be under such a microscope. The whole country, literally, will be watching.”
All four Senate campaigns are targeting the 100,000 or so voters who cast ballots for Biden but not for Ossoff, as well as the eight Democratic challengers in the special election that included Loeffler. While it’s not unusual to see a president outperform his own party’s congressional candidates, the campaigns need to determine why those voters chose Biden but not his down-ballot fellow Democrats. Some skipped the Senate line entirely; others were voting, in effect, against Trump but for Republicans further down the ballot.
The challenge for Republicans, then, is to motivate those same voters back out to the polls for the Jan. 5 runoff when there’s no controversial figure atop the ticket.
“Ivanka is a better way of doing that than [Vice President] Pence,” Hicks said. “She’s a Trump, but over four years, she’s managed to carve out a low but effective profile. She’s not seen as polarizing, unlike her brothers.”
“With your voice and your vote, Georgia will save America,” Ivanka Trump concluded. “Georgia will be the first in a wave of resounding Republican victories.”
With that, the rally was over. The candidates returned to the stage and exchanged fist bumps with Ivanka Trump as Toby Keith’s post-9/11 anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue” blared out of speakers.
Energized attendees picked up yard signs as they headed off into a bright Georgia afternoon. The question for Republicans is whether they’ll remain energized enough to go to the polls over the next two weeks.
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