(Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s baseless attacks on the U.S. election may be endangering Republican chances of keeping control of the Senate, as Republican candidates in twin January runoffs in Georgia try to drive voters to the polls while amplifying Trump’s claim that the system is rigged.
The state on Tuesday at Trump’s request began tallying its 5 million ballots for a third time, which officials expect will again confirm Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s statewide victory. That has Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler threading the needle on the campaign trail, calling themselves a last bastion against Democratic priorities without explicitly admitting Trump lost the Nov. 3 election.
The Jan. 5 runoffs are critical for each party; while Biden narrowly carried the state, Georgia has not elected a Democratic senator in two decades. Losses by both Perdue and Loeffler would deadlock the Senate, giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote.
A win by either Republican would keep the Senate in Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hands, likely blocking much of Biden’s legislative agenda.
The tension was on display at a rally last week in an Atlanta suburb, when Loeffler told attendees, “We are the firewall - not just for the U.S. Senate, but for the future of our country.”
Minutes later, the audience began chanting, “Stop the steal,” echoing Trump’s unfounded claim that he will eventually prevail once fraudulent ballots are thrown out.
The specter of President Biden boosted by Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress is the most powerful motivator for Republican voters that Perdue and Loeffler have at their disposal - but it depends on accepting Trump’s defeat.
“That is the message they want to send to the base,” said Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University. “But those are also the same people who potentially are going to be really upset with Senator Perdue and Senator Loeffler if they acknowledge that President Trump has lost.”
Perdue, 70, faces Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 33-year-old investigative journalist, whom he edged out on Nov. 3 by a 49.7% to 47.9% margin, below the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
The 49-year-old Loeffler’s Democratic challenger, Rev. Raphael Warnock, 51, led the Republican incumbent 32.9%-25.9% in a complicated 20-candidate race in which Republican Representative Doug Collins won 20% support.
In twin statements, Perdue and Loeffler said they supported Trump’s recount demands.
“I have spoken to President Trump several times in the last week about this, and as I have said from the beginning: Every legal vote cast should be counted,” Perdue said. “Any illegal vote shouldn’t.”
ATTACKS ON FELLOW REPUBLICAN
Perdue and Loeffler previously called on Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign despite no evidence of major irregularities, an extraordinary attack on a fellow Republican that underscored the intense pressure to fall in line behind Trump’s claims.
Over the weekend, Lin Wood, a Trump campaign attorney, suggested Trump supporters withhold their votes for Perdue and Loeffler unless they do more to address the alleged “steal.” A super PAC backing Trump, the Committee for American Sovereignty, launched a website encouraging supporters to write in Trump’s name for Senate to push Perdue and Loeffler to act.
Some Republican officials say Trump’s repeated attacks on the election as “rigged” could depress turnout among his core supporters.
“Many Republicans are at a point right now where they don’t trust the outcome of the system,” Gabriel Sterling, a Republican official who oversees voting systems, said on Monday at a news conference. “Are we concerned that this is going to wind up suppressing the vote to a degree? Absolutely.”
Trump’s unsupported allegations that election fraud caused his defeat have gained no traction in court, where he has suffered a string of legal setbacks. But his rhetoric is having an effect. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week found half of Republicans believe Trump “rightfully won” the U.S. election, even as officials across the country have found no evidence of fraud.
“On the Republican side, they seem to be saying, ‘These elections are rigged and unfair, but we need you to vote,’” said Andrew Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidate who has moved his entire family to Georgia to help coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts. “That’s a bit of a confusing message.”
Raffensperger has struck back at Trump, Loeffler and Perdue, saying the election was fairly conducted.
The party’s civil war in Georgia could turn off moderate voters who might otherwise be inclined to support the Republican incumbents. Perdue, for instance, finished ahead of Trump, suggesting some Republican-leaning voters who found Trump distasteful nevertheless supported his down-ballot candidacy, noted Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
“Maybe they won’t vote that way again if the senators tie themselves too closely to Trump,” he said.
Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman
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