ATLANTA - A few days after the presidential election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called President Donald Trump to talk strategy in the pivotal Senate races in Georgia. But Trump quickly shifted the conversation. He wanted to talk about his claim that the presidential race had been stolen from him.
In calls with the Republican candidates, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, Trump regularly turned the discussion to his own fortunes, a person familiar with the calls said.
And when Trump finally agreed to head to Georgia to campaign, hosting two rallies here, the president was far more focused on his own grievances against Georgia’s GOP leadership than on helping the party win two key races.
“We’d have people call him every day in the week or so before he came,” said one Republican strategist involved in the race. “They’d all call to say good things about the candidates. But he always wanted to talk about his own race and the fraud.”
It was the overriding theme throughout the nine-week runoff campaign that ended in disaster for the Republican Party - handing the Senate majority to the Democrats and serving as a prelude to a deadly week in which Trump’s bogus fraud claims incited a mob to storm the U.S. Capitol.
Trump’s fixation on a web of wild online conspiracy theories alleging, without basis, that the presidential race was stolen - a dizzying array of falsehoods that have metastasized since November amid efforts by Trump and his allies to spread them - repeatedly undermined his party’s hopes of winning the crucial Georgia races, party strategists said. The president’s decision to focus on himself rather than on the unusual twin Senate races further exacerbated tensions with Senate GOP leaders, foreshadowing the move by McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans to break with Trump in the hours after the riot and vote to affirm his defeat.
Especially frustrating for GOP leaders throughout the runoff campaign, strategists say, was the extent to which Trump backed them into a rhetorical corner: How could they argue that Republican control of the Senate would be the last line of defense against the Biden administration if Trump didn’t want to admit that Joe Biden had won?
“The best testing messages all had to do with checks and balances on a Democratic president,” said Josh Holmes, a McConnell adviser. “Those were the best messages in the election. They weren’t accessible to us, because the president wouldn’t concede the election. As he turned up the volume, if you ran checks and balances (messages), you were basically conceding it for him, which eliminated Republican votes.”
This account of how a fractured Republican Party lost the extraordinary runoff campaign for two Senate seats, which unfolded in one of the country’s most closely fought presidential battlegrounds and culminated last week with wins by Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, is based on interviews with more than a dozen people involved with the races. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive internal dynamics.
The campaign and White House did not respond to detailed questions.
Jason Miller, a Trump spokesman, pointed to Senate Republicans not passing the $2,000 stimulus checks, backed by Trump in the closing days of the campaign, as the reason for the GOP’s defeat. “Senate Republicans have nobody to blame but themselves,” Miller said.
At the start of the runoffs, Republicans viewed Trump as their most powerful weapon, capable of mustering enough GOP voters to counter a tidal wave of money, mobilization efforts and demographic shifts in cities and suburbs that favored Democrats.
But the president, obsessed with Biden’s narrow victory over him in this conservative state, attacked Georgia Republicans who didn’t parrot his own baseless election claims.
He singled out Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp, both Republicans, who carried out their duties to certify the presidential election results. Trump baselessly blasted the state’s voting machines as rigged, and some of his supporters suggested that Republicans not participate in the runoffs - rhetoric that state Republicans feared muddled their efforts to persuade GOP voters to turn out for Perdue and Loeffler.
The Senate candidates, meanwhile, echoed Trump’s claims. Both called for Raffensperger’s resignation.
Trump was getting more frantic in his efforts to turn back his own election results. In December, he urged the state’s lead elections investigator in a lengthy phone call to “find the fraud,” saying the official would be a “national hero,” The Washington Post reported Saturday.
“He always wanted to talk about his own race and the fraud,” said a Republican strategist connected to the Senate campaigns, who said Trump didn’t care about the races in Georgia, or their consequences. “It was all about him. Always about him.”
Another GOP strategist involved in the races said the Trump drama kept getting in the way.
“Every time I thought we’d have a good couple days, something would happen with the president,” the strategist said.
“We had momentum, and the president was like, ‘You can’t trust vote by mail.’ He was encouraging Lin Wood, who was running around telling people not to vote. Then he would attack Brian Kemp. Every three or four days, there was something that we had to deal with. We never had a clean path to victory.”
Allies of McConnell and other GOP strategists said there were a bevy of problems for Republicans in Georgia beyond Trump. They believed both of their candidates were flawed - particularly Loeffler, a business executive who had been appointed by Kemp to fill a vacant seat and took extensive coaching to deliver even somewhat convincing remarks, they said. And the administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic turmoil didn’t endear Republicans to unaligned Georgia voters, particularly moderates in the Atlanta suburbs.
On the other side, Democrats approached the runoffs as underdogs. Few Democrats hold statewide office in Georgia, both the Republicans had an incumbent advantage and a flood of campaign cash allowed Republicans to fill the airwaves with attack ads. Democratic turnout in Georgia historically falters during runoffs. Plus, while voters across the nation had widely rejected Trump, Republicans lower on the ballot had made gains.
Four days after the presidential election, leaders of the Unite Here union were on a conference call with Stacey Abrams, a former gubernatorial candidate who had started several efforts to register minority voters. The union members agreed to send a legion of paid and volunteer organizers to Georgia, the beginning of an alliance that brought together more than a dozen other advocacy groups and convened a massive network of canvassers to knock on millions of doors across the state. Unite Here alone sent more than 1,000 of its workers, most of whom were laid off from the hospitality industry during the pandemic.
The goal was to prop up Democratic turnout, racking up as many meaningful, in-person conversations with voters as possible.
In the 72 hours after the general election, the New Georgia Project got 10,000 requests to volunteer in Georgia, said Nsé Ufot, chief executive of the largest voter turnout group operating in Georgia during the runoffs. She submitted a budget for $10 million to canvass and register voters, but $25 million poured in.
A month later, Ossoff and Warnock both announced they had raised more than $100 million apiece in the runoffs, raking in more in 60 days than other Senate candidates had raised in six years. In the month after the general election, Ossoff’s staff ballooned from 25 people to more than 200, many of them trying to contact and activate inconsistent voters who had sat out previous elections, said spokeswoman Miryam Lipper.
But many of the problems on the other side centered on Trump and his hydrant of claims. A Republican voter interrupted one of Perdue’s early stump speeches, demanding that the senator explain what he was doing about election fraud. Republican surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, struggled to campaign with Trump voters who were most interested in fighting for the president, GOP strategists said. Pence had extensive conversations with advisers about what to do with a crowd that just chanted “stop the steal,” a person close to him said.
Pence, who made more than a half-dozen trips to Georgia during the runoffs, was left at times to wait as Trump supporters chanted “four more years.” He sought to walk a careful line, embracing the doubts about the presidential results while urging Trump backers to turn out again.
“We all got our doubts about the last election, and I want to assure you, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about voting irregularities,” Pence said at an event in Milner, Ga., a day before the runoff elections. “And I promise you that come this Wednesday, we’ll have our day in Congress, we’ll hear the objections, we’ll hear the evidence, but tomorrow is Georgia’s day.”
Pence also assured attendees that the Georgia GOP had “thousands of people” securing voter locations and drop boxes.
GOP advisers involved in the races said both candidates regularly talked to Trump, hoping it would cajole him into staying on message and keep him away from attacking them or the party. “There were a lot of people who were very careful about what they said on the president’s loss for months, because they didn’t want to blow up Georgia,” one said.
Officials involved in the Georgia races said Trump repeatedly made clear that he expected Perdue and Loeffler to back him at every turn in his campaign to overturn the election.
Particularly damaging, according to several strategists, was Trump’s call to Raffensperger on the weekend before the runoff elections, in which he tried to pressure the secretary of state to change the November election results. A recording of the call was published by The Post that Sunday, two days before the elections.
The Post quoted experts describing the call as an abuse of power and a potential criminal act, and the report prompted criticism from some Republicans. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., a staunch Trump ally who had campaigned for Perdue and Loeffler, told Fox News that Trump’s outreach to Raffensperger was “not a helpful call.”
As the election’s end neared, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and others sought to talk Trump into coming to Dalton, Ga., to a rally in support of Loeffler and Perdue.
“If they lose, I’ll get blamed, and if they win, I won’t get any credit,” he told one adviser Jan. 4, the day he traveled to Georgia. He had discussed canceling the trip the day before, officials said.
Perdue skipped the rally, because he was quarantining after coming in contact with a staffer who tested positive for the coronavirus. Backstage, Loeffler and her aides found it hard to get Trump to talk about anything but the claims of fraud related to his own election, two months in the past, according to a Republican strategist.
During the rally, Trump called Loeffler onstage, where she announced to a cheering crowd that she would join the ranks of senators who vowed to oppose the electoral college results when Congress was scheduled to convene Wednesday to affirm the election’s outcome.
By the time the joint session commenced, Loeffler had lost her race to Warnock, and Perdue appeared on track to be declared the loser to Ossoff. Turnout had been huge on both sides - but the Democrats improved their margins from Biden’s win in November, especially in heavily Black areas, while analysts noted that turnout in many conservative areas was a bit lower.
After the races were lost, several advisers said Trump did not care and instead was focused on his rally on the Ellipse, where thousands of his supporters were gathering for the event that spurred the attempted insurrection.
One person, Ashli Babbitt, was shot by U.S. Capitol Police and later died. Three other people died amid rioting of unspecified medical emergencies.
Officer Brian Sicknick of the Capitol Police, who fought with rioters, died Thursday.
By Wednesday night, Loeffler had changed her mind about her objection to the election results.
“When I arrived in Washington this morning, I fully intended to object to the certification of electoral votes,” Loeffler said, addressing the chamber. “However, the events that have transpired today forced me to reconsider, and I cannot now, in good conscience, object to this certification of these electors.
“The violence, the lawlessness, and siege of the halls of Congress are abhorrent and stand as a direct attack on the very institution my objection was intended to protect: the sanctity of the American democratic process.”