U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned in Georgia on Saturday for two Republican senators at a rally that some in his party feared could end up hurting, not helping, their chances by focusing on his efforts to reverse his own election defeat.
In his first rally appearance since he lost to Democrat Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 presidential contest, the Republican Trump reminded the chanting crowd that he came to southern Georgia to persuade them to vote Republican in runoffs on Jan. 5.
But he quickly turned to his repeated claims, made without evidence, of widespread fraud in the presidential election.
“They cheated and rigged our presidential election but we’ll still win it. And they are going to try to rig this election too,” Trump told the crowd in Valdosta, who chanted “We love you!” and “Four More Years!”
He repeated his attacks on Republicans who have refused to back him, including Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp. Earlier on Saturday, Trump phoned Kemp and pressured the governor on Twitter to take further steps to help him overturn the election results.
The outgoing president’s claims of widespread voter fraud have been rejected by state and federal officials across the country, and his campaign’s numerous legal challenges have almost all failed.
Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win in Georgia since 1992. Statewide recounts, including a painstaking review by hand of some 5 million ballots, turned up no significant irregularities.
The January runoffs pit two Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, against well-funded Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, seeking to capture a state that has not elected a Democratic senator in 20 years.
The races will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Democrats, who already have the majority in the House of Representatives, need to win both seats to control the Senate. If Republicans win one seat, they will retain their majority and be able to block much of Biden’s legislative agenda.
Biden said he would visit Georgia to campaign for the Democratic candidates but did not give a timetable for his trip.
Governor Kemp did not attend the rally due to the death in a car crash of Harrison Deal, a close family friend of the governor and staffer for Loeffler. He had an active exchange with Trump on Twitter earlier in the day, however.
“I will easily & quickly win Georgia if Governor @BrianKempGA or the Secretary of State permit a simple signature verification ... Why are these two ‘Republicans’ saying no?” Trump wrote on Twitter.
After Kemp responded that he had “publicly called for a signature audit three times,” Trump said that wasn’t good enough, and added in a second tweet that Kemp should immediately call a special session of the state legislature.
“Your people are refusing to do what you ask. What are they hiding?” Trump said.
In a move unprecedented in modern U.S. history, the Trump team has tried, without success, to get Republican-controlled legislatures in battleground states won by Biden to set aside the results and declare Trump the winner.
Biden won the election with 306 Electoral College votes - more than the 270 required - to Trump’s 232. The Electoral College will meet on Dec. 14 to formalize the outcome.
Trump told the Saturday rally his challenge was headed to the U.S. Supreme Court “very shortly,” without elaborating. Legal experts do not see a path to the nation’s highest court, however.
Richard Hasen of the UC Irvine School of Law said it was unclear what case Trump was referring to, but added: “I don’t think any of these efforts stand any chance of success.”
Trump’s penchant for making his political rallies all about him - and now, about his claims the U.S. electoral system is rigged - had raised concerns among some Republicans that his appearance in Georgia could end up turning voters off or making them feel there is no point in voting.
Before the rally, Matt Towery, a former Georgia Republican legislator who is now a political analyst and pollster, said Trump could help if he praised the candidates, but warned:
“If he talks about them for 10 minutes and spends the rest of the time telling everyone how terrible Brian Kemp is, then it will only exacerbate things.”
When Loeffler and Perdue briefly took the stage and were handed the microphone by Trump, many in the crowd drowned out their words with chants of “Fight for Trump!”
Two pro-Trump lawyers, L. Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, have argued that Georgians should not vote in the runoff until issues from the 2020 election are resolved in the state, even after lawsuits they have filed to overturn the results have failed.
Trump said on Saturday that voters could and should refuse to accept what he called the “rigged” presidential election results while also casting ballots for Perdue and Loeffler in the runoffs.
“If you don’t vote, the socialists and the communists win,” he said. “We can fight for the presidency and fight to elect our two great senators, and we can do it at the same time.”