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One Day Out: Will Trump Torpedo Republican Chances in the Georgia Runoffs?

Just days after Joe Biden was recognized as the president-elect, President Trump fumed with rage over his loss alleging widespread voter fraud that has still not materialized months later. One anonymous senior GOP official mused to the Washington Post, "What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change." 

Tomorrow, Republicans will see whether there are real electoral consequences to Trump's continued rage and myopic focus on overturning the legal results of the election. We will finally learn if the civil war within the Republican Party, especially in Georgia, will have harmed the chances of incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in the runoff. 

A tape that surfaced on Sunday of Trump threatening and trying to persuade Republican Secretary of State Brad Ruffensberger to "find" enough votes to overturn the state's electoral votes perfectly demonstrated those valid fears that Trump's actions and rhetoric could help Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win — thus handing Democrats the Senate majority. 

"It's not helpful. Republicans need to be unified, and they're not," said one longtime Georgia Republican strategist. "If [Loeffler & Perdue] lose, it's on Trump." 

"The whole controversy has been hurtful to Republicans," said another GOP consultant. "If we lose, the postmortem has to be that it's because of Trump." 

Republicans have said for weeks that they hoped their candidates could "pivot" away from Trump and his baseless claims of fraud, but the president himself has made that impossible. Instead, he's only ratcheted up his vitriol and belief in insane conspiracy theories as the January 6 electoral vote in Congress inches closer, happening just the day after the runoffs. In addition to harassing Raffensberger, Trump has tweeted that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp should resign. Trump called him and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan "a disgrace to the great people of Georgia." 

Private polling from both parties, in addition to scant public polling, puts both races as a coin toss within the margin of error. It's impossible to know how much the president's latest temper tantrum will impact the Election Day turnout Republicans badly need. Still, GOP sources in the state certainly don't think it will help. Early voting topped 3 million votes — already making this the highest turnout Georgia runoff ever. Democrats are encouraged by that strong turnout, which shows the numbers outpacing even Election Day totals in key demographics, particularly among Black voters and younger voters. NBC News reports that there were also 112,838 new voters who didn't vote on November 3, and of those, 30% are under 30 and 40% are Black. 

The total early vote was 23 percent lower than the same period in the general election, and one GOP source predicts that if the day of vote sees that same drop, it's not good for them. In November, 4 million Georgians voted early, while 982,783 voted on Election Day. Republicans would feel good if turnout on Tuesday was between 800,000 and 850,000. And, to caution, as November showed we can't read too much into early voting -- as Democrats are well aware of. 

Even before the leak of Trump's call with Raffensberger, Republicans were incredibly worried about the president's election eve rally in northwest Georgia — a heavily red area of the state that has had lower turnout and where they need Trump to help boost the Election Day vote. But as it often is with this president, it's a double-edged sword because it's all but certain that he'll spend most of his time — as he did last month at another rally — rehashing the election and falsely saying he won and that there was widespread fraud. If anything, in the weeks since, Trump's anger over his loss and blame toward GOP statewide official has only made him more incensed, and tonight's get out the vote effort in Dalton could be an epic airing of grievances. 

The best argument that Republicans have in the runoff is warning voters that this is the last firewall to prevent total Democratic control in Washington. Of course, that logic acknowledges that Joe Biden will be sworn in as president on January 20, giving Democrats the tipping point in a 50-50 Senate. 

Perdue, Loeffler, and outside GOP groups have pressed that issue in ads, warning if Democrats are in control, they'll defund the police and expand the courts — something that's highly unlikely to happen in such a closely divided chamber. They've hit Ossoff's work that his documentary company did with foreign companies, including ones in Hong Kong with ties to the Chinese Communist Party. But some of the most hard-hitting have been against Warnock, who skated through the regular election without any negative ads. Abuse allegations at a church camp Warnock oversaw have surfaced, but the pastor is not directly implicated. The most damaging may be body cam footage of his ex-wife after she alleged he ran over her foot earlier this year. Police didn't find any injury, but in the video, she says "I've tried to keep the way that he acts under wraps for a long time and today he crossed the line... he's a great actor. He is phenomenal at putting on a really good show." The NRSC has run the footage in an ad, putting a domestic violence hotline number at the end. Warnock has denied the allegations. 

Democrats have emphasized that Republicans will block Biden at every turn if they don't control the Senate and have hit their GOP opponents on health care protections and stock trades each made in the run-up to the pandemic, contrasting the multi-millionaires' wealth with struggling Georgians. 

While Republican candidates and their allies have spent the most in the post-election period leading up to the runoff, it's Democratic candidates whose ads have reached the most eyeballs since they have the guaranteed lowest unit rate. According to Ad Impact data, over $440 million has been spent in both runoffs just since November 3. Democrats spent around $107 million on ads in the regular election compared to $119 million from Republicans; in the special, it was $91 million from Democrats to $123 million from Republicans. 

 

And don't expect to know on Tuesday night or perhaps even Wednesday morning who wins either race, if they're as close as both parties expect them to be. As the Associated Press details in this explainer, counties can begin to process absentee ballots but can't start counting them until the polls close. But because rural counties that lean conservative often count faster than the Democratic-heavy metro Atlanta and surrounding suburban counties, expect Republicans to jump to an early lead much like Trump did in November.  

Image Credit: AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton