Campaign

Trump stokes GOP tensions in Georgia

Former President Trump's looming presence over next year's midterm elections in Georgia has made the state a hotbed for the intraparty battles that await Republicans in 2022.

The former president has spent months building out a roster of pro-Trump candidates to take on his critics, including Republicans who broke with him over his baseless claim that widespread voter fraud and systemic irregularities robbed him of victory in 2020.

And on Saturday, he'll travel to the state to rally his core supporters around that ticket.

Joining him at the rally in Perry, Ga., will be former football star Herschel Walker, who's challenging Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) next year at the urging of Trump, as well as Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), a backer of Trump's false election claims who's hoping to oust Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in a primary next year.

State Sen. Burt Jones (R) is also set to appear alongside Trump on Saturday. He's running to replace Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who backed away from a reelection bid after breaking with Trump over his assertion that the 2020 election in Georgia was rigged.

"Being on stage with Trump is probably the biggest boost these guys could ask for," one Georgia Republican consultant said. "Most Republicans here still firmly support him and at the grassroots level, it's a supermajority, for better or worse."

For Trump, the rally in Georgia is the latest in a series of stops intended to bolster his favored candidates - and his own political brand - ahead of the 2022 midterms, when Republicans are hoping to win back their lost congressional majorities.

But Georgia also carries particular weight for Trump. The former president has remained almost singularly obsessed with the state since he became the first Republican presidential candidate in nearly three decades to lose it last year.

He's continued to assert without evidence that widespread fraud and systemic irregularities robbed him of victory there, and has made clear that he will campaign against anyone who challenges that claim, including Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp (R), a one-time ally who ran afoul of Trump when he certified the 2020 election results against the former president's wishes.

Trump hasn't anointed a Republican to challenge Kemp in the primary yet, but those in his orbit are scoping out prospective candidates, including former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who has already ruled out another Senate campaign but who Trump allies believe could be lured into the race for governor.

Still, Trump's continued claims about a rigged election have put Republicans in something of a bind.

On one hand, the former president's endorsement will go a long way in next year's GOP primaries. On the other, some Republicans worry that they'll be forced to relitigate the 2020 presidential race or else risk complacency among the state's Republican base in next year's general election.

"We can't win on a campaign that looks like we're trying to rehash 2020," Clay said. "But we can't do it by alienating the Trumpers either."

"The Trump forces are very real and they exercise their muscles," he added. "Take Donald Trump's name out of it if you want, but you're still going to have to get that group to win a statewide election. You just will."

Walker, Hice and Jones have each backed up Trump's claims of widespread election fraud in Georgia and other states at one point or another. Earlier this year, before backing Jones, Trump denounced another Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Butch Miller, citing his "refusal to work with other Republican Senators on voter fraud and irregularities in the State."

While he remains deeply popular among Georgia conservatives, Trump's rigged election claims have become a source of tension for some state Republicans.

In announcing earlier this year that he would not seek reelection, Duncan, the outgoing lieutenant governor, committed himself to "healing and rebuilding a Republican Party that is damaged but not destroyed."

Likewise, Raffensperger, who is seeking reelection, has continued to reject Trump's election claims, repeatedly noting that multiple election audits and investigations have reaffirmed President Biden's victory in Georgia. In an interview with CNN this week, Raffensperger reiterated that stance, accusing Trump and his allies of trying to undermine the electoral process.

"At some level, he must know that he did lose the election, because his advisers, his lawyers told him he lost the election," Raffensperger said. "People are using elections and this narrative to really disrupt and destroy confidence in the elections process."

Raffensperger suggested that Trump's continued assertion that the 2020 election had been stolen from him is politically motivated, noting that the former president has been leaning on the claims to rake in money for his political machine.

"He's been leaning into and propagating the big lie," Raffensperger said. "He's been fundraising off this issue. I know he'll be here this coming weekend, so you'd have to ask him what his motivations were."

Trump's rally on Saturday will be a particularly big moment for Walker, the former NFL star who entered the Georgia Senate race last month at the urging of the former president.

Since launching his Senate bid, Walker's campaign activity has consisted mostly of fundraisers and occasional interviews with friendly media outlets. He hasn't yet held a campaign rally of his own.

Despite that, he's already seen as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination to take on Warnock. A poll from the Atlanta-based Trafalgar Group released earlier this month found Walker garnering the support of 75.7 percent of likely Georgia GOP primary voters, while his nearest Republican rival, state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, notched only 6.3 percent.

Yet Trump's role in the Republican primaries in Georgia, particularly those for governor and secretary of state, have some worried that he could undermine otherwise strong candidates in favor of those whom he sees as loyal to him.

One Republican strategist expressed concern that Trump could endorse a lackluster candidate in the Georgia governor's race if his recruitment efforts fall short, pointing to former state Rep. Vernon Jones, a Democrat-turned-Republican who has backed Trump's election fraud claims.

Jones has repeatedly put pressure on Kemp to back a forensic audit of the 2020 election in Georgia similar to the one carried out by Arizona's Republican-controlled state Senate. On Friday, an audit report detailing the election review in Maricopa County, Arizona's largest, reaffirmed Biden's victory in the state, despite Trump's assertions that the audit would show that he won.

"Whether Trump likes him or not, Brian Kemp is a strong general election candidate," the strategist said. "I hope that truly bitter folks will either mellow out over time and have a come-to-Jesus moment and figure out that he's going to be the better option here."

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