'Fate of the nation': Georgia voters to decide control of Senate under shadow of President Trump's grievances

WASHINGTON – Georgia voters head to the polls Tuesday for a pair of runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate, marking the end of the tumultuous 2020 election cycle that saw Republicans make gains in Congress while losing the White House.

The elections are being held as President Donald Trump continues to allege that widespread voter fraud in Georgia caused his loss to Joe Biden on Nov. 3. Republicans are worried those claims – punctuated by Trump's extraordinary phone call Saturday when he tried to pressure GOP state officials to overturn November's election – could discourage GOP voters from turning out Tuesday.

"I just want to find 11,780 votes," Trump said on an audio recording first obtained by The Washington Post. The number refers to the margin Trump needed to beat Biden.

Peach State voters will decide whether Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler return to Washington or if Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock take their place. All four ran Nov. 3, but none got enough votes under state law to win the Senate seats outright, forcing Tuesday's runoffs.

Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, right, and Jon Ossoff headline a drive-in voting rally on Dec. 28, 2020, in Stonecrest, Ga.

Wins by both Ossoff and Warnock would result in a 50-50 split in the Senate, effectively giving Democrats control of the chamber since Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast tiebreaking votes.

A win by one of the Republicans would keep the Senate in the hands of Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Though it would be a narrow Republican majority, Biden and Democrats would face an uphill battle on any legislation they hoped to pass.

Georgia is a reliably red state that has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 20 years.

The question is whether one of Trump's final political acts will push Republicans to victory or hand control of Congress to Democrats. 

“Trump said back in 2016 he could shoot someone in Times Square and most of his supporters would still be with him. There’s a lot of truth in that, but if this election is as close as people think, then even if he turns off a small sliver of Republicans, this might be a step too far and could be the difference,” Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor, told USA TODAY.

An 'unforced error' by the president

During the call with state officials, Trump is heard pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, to "find" enough votes to reverse his 11,779-vote loss two months ago, saying, "There's no way I lost Georgia."

He repeated that wording during a rally Monday night in the state, continuing to call the general election "rigged." Trump also put pressure on Vice President Mike Pence during the rally. 

"I hope Mike Pence comes through for us, I have to tell you," Trump told supporters in Dalton, Georgia. 

Trump called Pence "a great guy," but also said: “Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much."

Gabriel Sterling, a Republican who works for Raffensperger as the state's voting system implementation manager, told Fox News on Monday that the "spurious" claims of voter fraud spread by Trump and his allies appear to be depressing Republican voter turnout in Tuesday's election.

Ivanka Trump, right, joins Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue of Georgia at a campaign event Dec. 21, 2020, in Milton, Ga.

Based on the slightly more than 3 million ballots cast in early voting, Democrats are outperforming Republicans, Sterling said. In the four most Democratic congressional districts (the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 13th), turnout is either approaching or above 80% of the Nov. 3 election while the turnout in the two largest GOP districts (the 11th and 14th) is below 70%, according to state data compiled by the nonpartisan website georgiavotes.com.

"I am afraid that many Republicans have been discouraged by the actions and discussions around the president," Sterling said. "It's absolutely a distraction unfortunately, this unforced error on the part of the president. ... A lot of people are focusing on Nov. 3 when they should be focusing on Jan. 5."

Trump has questioned the legitimacy of Tuesday's runoffs, describing them in a tweet Friday as "illegal and invalid." Over the weekend, Trump promoted a tweet that criticized Loeffler and Perdue for not being part of an effort by a dozen GOP senators who plan to challenge the certification Wednesday of the Nov. 3 election, a mostly ceremonial recognition of Biden's victory.

Saturday, the president retweeted a supporter asking, "Why are my own #GA Senators @Kloeffler & @Perduesenate not supporting this effort?" with a link to an article about the planned challenge by Senate Republicans.

On Monday, Loeffler announced she would join that effort.

More:Trump is heard on audiotape pressuring Georgia secretary of state to 'find' votes to overturn Biden's win

Polls show both Senate races as toss-ups, adding to the worry among Republican leaders in Washington that losing the seats could shut them out of power on Capitol Hill where Democrats control the House.

Democratic control of Congress would give Biden a much greater chance of enacting his agenda on climate change, health care, racial justice and other issues he campaigned on. It would allow the new president to install a Cabinet and fill court vacancies with nominees of his own choosing.

That alarms Republicans who helped raise money or campaigned on behalf of Perdue and Loeffler.

More:Trump travels to Georgia before Senate runoff that will decide control of Senate

"The fate of the Senate – and the nation – will be decided by Georgia voters,"  Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wrote in an opinion piece posted on the Fox News website. "If Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are elected on January 5th, the Democrats’ impending socialist assault on our nation will make President Obama’s first two years in office look moderate by comparison."

Conservatives admit Trump call hurts

Trump has held an iron grip on the GOP since breaking away from the primary pack in 2016 with a brand of celebrity showmanship and right-leaning populism.

His conversation with Raffensperger in the context of Georgia’s runoff races tests how far the president can stretch the GOP coalition outside his base.

Trump's usual critics condemned his request that state election officials "find" enough votes to win Georgia’s electors, but it also drew winces from some of his allies.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., is one of the president’s staunchest supporters and is among the senators who pledged to object to certifying the 2020 Electoral College results Wednesday. During a Fox News interview Monday, she acknowledged Trump's conversation with the Georgia secretary of state “was not a helpful call." 

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, said in an interview with CNN that most of what the president brought up during the phone call “was based on misinformation.”

“I am 100% certified to tell you that it was in  appropriate,” Duncan said. “And it certainly did not help the situation.”

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson, a Georgia native, tweeted Sunday that state Republicans were “apoplectic” at the president, who they feel is sabotaging the runoff races.

He said the Georgia GOP is nervous about weaker turnout in certain strongholds, where figures show voting trails the rest of the state. One such area: Dalton, where Trump held the rally Monday night. In November, he beat Biden by 40% in that area.

“That part of the state has the most GOP vote, and it has lagged behind the rest of the state,” Erickson said on his website Monday. “It is probably not a coincidence that this is also where the loudest ‘the race was stolen’ voices come from. The GOP has suppressed itself up there.”

Biden's victory in November marked the first time a Democrat seized the state in a presidential election since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Many attribute the win to an upsurge of Black voters in the state’s urban centers and growing suburbs, but others say Biden was helped by a depressed Republican vote led by moderates who were disgusted at Trump.

Trump has been 'the air they breathe'

When the president isn't trying to cast doubt on the runoffs, he is focused on his own efforts to overturn November's election, which might handcuff his ability to motivate voters to help Perdue or Loeffler in the final stretch.

“If he is distracted by the phone call, will he actually encourage these people to vote? His legacy depends on it, but some Republicans are convinced he’d rather the GOP lose Georgia,” Erickson said.

Bullock, the political science professor, said Perdue and Loeffler might feel personally uncomfortable with what Trump did but they cannot divorce themselves from the president at this point.

“Donald Trump has been the air they breathe and the blood in their veins,” he said.

Bullock said avoiding the president’s wrath might cost Republicans the Senate, adding that other Georgia Republicans are keeping quiet in hopes of dodging possible primary challengers during the next statewide election. 

Perdue downplayed the controversy, telling Fox News he did not think the revelation of Trump's effort to pressure the secretary of state would impact his reelection bid. Rather than criticize the president, he slammed Raffensperger.

"I’m still shocked that a member of the Republican Party would tape a sitting president and then leak that. It’s disgusting in my view," Perdue said. 

Raffensperger, who said he voted for Trump, escalated the GOP civil war Monday when he said it would be "appropriate" for the Fulton County district attorney to investigate the president’s request to “find” enough votes. 

Attacking Raffensperger, a civil engineer and businessman, could backfire among conservative-minded voters who feel he was simply doing his duty, Bullock said.

“I have no doubt he wishes that Georgia had voted for Trump,” Bullock said. “But as a data person, he did all sort of checks, and each time he did a calculation, Biden came out ahead. He’s not going bury his head in the sand, and he’s not going to violate the law by trying to put his thumb on the scale."

Contributing: David Jackson