“We’re all kind of scared. I think Democrats are a little scared, too, that the under-performing turnout is going to affect your party negatively,” said Rich McCormick, a Republican who was defeated in his bid for a suburban Atlanta House seat in November. “So I don’t think it’s going to be about Trump. I think it’s going to be about how people view politics generally.”
Trump is one-half of a presidential split-screen hitting Georgia on the eve of the runoffs: President-elect Joe Biden is also set to campaign for Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff at a drive-in rally in Atlanta. But it’s the outgoing president — the audio tape released on Sunday and his Monday night rally — who is dominating the conversation.
Republicans and Democrats alike were warning this weekend of fatigue among voters who have been bombarded with advertisements for the better part of a year, noting that turnout from the early-vote period was lower than it was for the November election, though Democrats entered Tuesday in a slightly better position than in the General Election.
“I’m glad the president’s involved. Because when it comes to burnout, he’s one of the people that gets people motivated,” McCormick added. “So thank God for the president in that way.”
For that reason, Republicans have long viewed Trump as their biggest asset in races like these, in which a win or loss will be dictated by how many of Trump’s followers turn out on Election Day. But it comes at a fraught moment for the GOP, when some of Trump’s fringe supporters are calling for voters to boycott the election altogether over the president’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in November’s election.
“The biggest challenge is to make sure people come out and vote,” Loeffler said bluntly while campaigning in the Atlanta area Monday morning before rallying with Trump later in the night.
Loeffler, Perdue and their surrogates are openly acknowledging Democrats’ turnout operation, which has been years in the making courtesy of party leaders like Stacey Abrams, whose work could be critical for flipping control of the Senate to Democrats.
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, told his colleagues on a Senate GOP conference call last week that the party had a “distinctly bumpy path to victory” and that the races would be a “jump ball,” according to two people familiar with the call.
Young said the wild card was Trump’s visit to the state on Monday, and the effect it would have on turnout on Election Day, which Republicans are counting on after largely eschewing the early-vote period. Young added the president has had a positive impact on GOP turnout in the past and was rallying to “preserve his legacy.” But he also didn’t overplay expectations.
“I want everyone to leave this call with hope — but with highly tempered expectations,” Young said, according to the people familiar with the call.
Democrats posted strong early-vote totals, as they did ahead of November’s contests, while Republicans are doubling down on their strategy of swarming the polls on Tuesday.
“The thing that makes you nervous as a Republican is our votes tend to show up on Election Day,” said David McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman and the president of the conservative group Club for Growth, which hosted an event featuring Trump allies like Corey Lewandowski, Kellyanne Conway and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) Sunday.
“You have to just wait until they show up,” McIntosh added.
Republicans campaigning for Loeffler and Perdue across the state over the weekend acknowledged that GOP voters — as a result of Trump’s false claims of fraud — believe the presidential election was stolen, and they took it on directly as the party worries about Trump’s broadsides having the unintended consequence of depressing turnout.
“Are they going to try to steal it? Yes. But I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to win by a big-enough margin. Ain’t nobody stealing the state of Georgia,” Cruz told supporters in Cumming, Ga., on Saturday.
Greg Dolezal, a Georgia state senator, said in an interview after the Cumming rally that several of his constituents have reached out threatening to stay home on Tuesday as a protest against Biden’s victory. “It does worry me,” Dolezel said. “No matter how mad you are about what happened in November, you don’t just take the toys and go home.”
The vast majority of the Georgians attending rallies and get-out-the-vote events in the final stretch of the campaign had already voted. Both sides recognized it’s long past time to persuade people; it’s all about turning out those who haven’t voted yet.
At nearly every GOP event across the state this weekend, speakers would ask how many voters cast ballots early, and the majority of hands would go up. The candidates or their surrogates would offer different varieties of the same theme: Make sure everyone you know votes, too. Loeffler encouraged supporters at a small rally in the town of Cartersville to call five friends. Cruz encouraged a huge gathering of more than a hundred at an amphitheater in Sugar Hill to make a list of 10 people to call.
Perdue, at a rally in Lafayette late last week, before he left the campaign trail to quarantine after coming in close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19, told supporters in a crowded bank parking lot to “call people you don’t like. I don’t care, call anybody. Get them out to vote.”
Perdue, whose seat is now technically vacant after his Senate term ended on Sunday with the conclusion of the 116th Congress, will remain in quarantine through Monday. He told Fox News Monday morning he will participate in the Trump rally “virtually.”
The twin races have quickly become nationalized, especially with control of the Senate hanging in the balance. At a canvass event for Ossoff in Savannah on Sunday, Miguel Taylor was getting ready to knock on doors after crossing state lines from neighboring South Carolina, where he lives.
“I realize that the things I want to get done in America, the only way that I can do that is to support Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock,” Taylor said. “None of that is going to happen if McConnell is still the majority leader. So I am angry and confused as to why every elected Democrat isn’t canvassing Georgia right now.”
By waiting for Election Day to vote, GOP voters could be influenced by Trump’s last-minute seesawing rhetoric and overall messaging surrounding the runoffs, which Republican surrogates have acknowledged could spell trouble for the party.
Bruce Thompson, a state senator, introduced Loeffler at an event Sunday night outside a brewery in Canton, in Cherokee County, which Trump carried with nearly 70 percent in November. He told the crowd the number of voters who had voted in November but not yet in the runoffs was “appalling.” He said there’s “no do-over if we screw this up Tuesday.”
“I do realize anything can happen between now and Tuesday, and on the day of Tuesday, whether someone winds up voting,” Thompson said in an interview after the rally. “I personally believe that it would have made more sense if we could have gotten people to say, ‘hey, listen, if you were unhappy with Nov. 3, this is your opportunity to voice that by voting early.’”
Democrats have encouraged their voters not to get complacent behind the strong early voting turnout, or to buy into the notion that GOP voters might stay home.
“Those early numbers look fabulous. But guess what? The other side does not come out until Election Day,” Deborah Gonzalez, a newly elected district attorney, told a crowd outside Athens City Hall before an Ossoff rally this weekend. “Jan. 5, they are coming out in force. Don’t think that they’re staying home. They’re gonna come out. We need to come out, too.”
Quint Forgey in Washington contributed to this report.