On the eve of a special election that will shape the course of Joe Biden’s presidency, he and President Trump engaged in one final campaign battle in Georgia on Monday, appealing to voters across the state who will decide which of their parties controls the Senate.
Their dueling rallies come as Georgians neared Tuesday’s final chance to cast ballots in two special elections for Senate seats currently controlled by Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. If either of them wins, the GOP will continue to control the chamber by a slim margin, empowered to stymie Biden’s policy agenda and potentially block confirmation of his appointees.
Both Democrats must win in upsets to produce a 50-50 Senate split that would make Kamala Harris, as vice president, the tiebreaker and give their party control.
Trump, holding the likely final rally of his presidency in rural Dalton, struggled to articulate the stakes for Republicans while holding on to the fantasy that he will remain in office after Jan. 20.
“These Senate seats are truly the last line of defense,” the president said, before quickly qualifying the comment — because Democrats could control a 50-50 Senate only by occupying the White House. “I don’t concede,” he added.
Trump’s deep denial was clear from the moment he stepped to the lectern, declaring “there’s no way we lost Georgia” and accusing Democrats of “trying to steal the White House.”
He repeatedly urged his supporters to vote on Tuesday, a request potentially undercut by what was, on the whole, an unapologetically authoritarian and fact-challenged diatribe attacking the democratic process itself. Trump offered several debunked conspiracy theories of election fraud and complained about the Supreme Court “not stepping up to the plate,” as well as his less than total backing from Republican lawmakers, whom he implicitly threatened ahead of Congress’ electoral college certification on Wednesday.
“People will remember the people who don’t support us,” he said, while publicly pressuring Vice President Mike Pence, who must oversee the final authorization by Congress, to undo the result.
“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us,” Trump said. “If he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.”
The unusual special election had long seemed to favor the Republicans but was considered a toss-up by the last hours; heavy early voting seemed to favor Democrats. Trump’s attacks on the November election results — and on his own party’s leaders in Georgia for validating Biden’s victory there — were threatening to undermine Republicans’ chances of holding the Senate.
In a sharp contrast to Trump, whose latest loyalty test continued to splinter his party, Biden delivered a more forward-looking appeal to a broader coalition, imploring Georgians to turn out for Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock during a late afternoon rally in Atlanta.
“The power is literally in your hands. Unlike any time in my career, one state can chart the course not just for the next four years, but for a generation.”
Biden stressed that his ability to follow through on plans for confronting the pandemic hinges on what Georgians decide, and he promised that the $2,000 relief payment that congressional Democrats unsuccessfully sought would become a reality if Ossoff and Warnock prevail.
Shortly before Biden took the stage before hundreds of cars at a drive-in rally near the 1996 Olympic torch, an official from the office of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger sharply and publicly rebuked Trump for his brazen effort to bully Raffensperger into overturning the will of Georgia voters, who narrowly favored Biden in the November election. The news conference by Gabriel Sterling, the Republican who oversees Georgia’s voting systems, came the day after the leak of an extraordinary one-hour phone call Saturday in which Trump urged Raffenspergerto find enough votes for him to nullify Biden’s win.
One by one, Sterling angrily debunked the president’s conspiracy theories alleging fraud in the Georgia election two months ago, and he condemned Trump’s pitch to reverse the result. “Every one of these claims is false, and yet the president persists,” he said.
The president’s request, recorded by Raffensperger’s office and shared with journalists, moved some Democrats in Congress to call for a criminal investigation. And it had the four Senate campaigns scrambling to assess the impact on the special election. Republicans worried that the president’s repeated false claims that November’s election in Georgia was fixed would convince them it wasn’t worth their effort to cast ballots.
Raffensperger told NBC News that he didn’t know how the recording of his call with Trump was leaked but said, “We’re better for it.”
“Now everyone can listen to the whole one-hour, eight-minute call with the president. But at the end of the day, what he said was not factually correct. And I want to make sure that people understand the facts,” Raffensperger said, adding, “You can’t keep on taking shots from people and people keep putting out stuff that’s not true. And we’re going to respond.”
Perdue tore into Raffensperger for recording the call, saying on Fox News that it was a “disgusting” move.
“I guess I was raised differently,” said the senator, who is in quarantine after exposure to COVID-19 and planned to appear “virtually” at the Trump rally in Dalton. “To have a statewide elected official, regardless of party, tape without disclosing a conversation — private conversation — with the president of the United States, and then leaking it to the press is disgusting.”
But Sterling made no apologies, telling reporters that the president routinely misrepresented conversations after the fact, and that it was appropriate for Raffensperger to create a record of what was actually said.
Trump bashed Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp several times during his 80-minute stemwinder, even vowing to return next year to campaign against them.
Biden and many Democrats proceeded cautiously. Some in Congress argued against continuing to focus on holding Trump accountable just weeks before he is to leave office. After the Democrats’ disappointing showing in November in races for Congress and state offices, some worried that moving to punish the president would alienate swing voters who want to move on from Trump, as Biden has promised, rather than see his party try to exact political revenge.
At the rally, Biden did not mention Trump’s call to Raffensperger. He instead referred more vaguely to the president’s general efforts to subvert the election outcome, and to his demands of complete loyalty from senators like Loeffler and Perdue as he pursues baseless claims of fraud.
“You have two senators who think they have sworn an oath to Trump, not to the United States Constitution,” Biden said. He added, reflecting on his own time in the Senate, “Not once did I think I took an oath to any president, Democrat or Republican. I took an oath to the United States Constitution.”
“Politicians cannot assert, take or seize power,” Biden said. “Power is given, granted by the American people alone. We can never give that up. It is always the will of the people who must prevail.”