Wednesday, 6 January 2021

EXCLUSIVE: 'The Devil went down to Georgia!' How Donald Trump split the historically red state's GOP as former loyalists refuse to bow to his demands to give him victory while ever-faithful Republicans fight to the bitter end

 The Devil went down to Georgia                                                                                              He was lookin' for a soul to steal                                                                                              He was in a bind 'cause he was way behind                                                                        And he was willin' to make a deal                                                                                                - The Charlie Daniels Band: The Devil Went Down to Georgia (1979)

As Georgians go to the polls on Tuesday to decide who runs the United States Senate for the next two years — and the reality of whether Joe Biden's presidency has a chance of being effective — the party that has held sway in the state for decades is in turmoil.

President Donald Trump's insistence that he won the state that he actually lost in November's General Election by nearly 12,000 votes — and his Sunday night phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — has split Republicans down the middle.

And despite its national importance, whether the GOP manages to hold on to the two Senate seats or lose them to the Democrats has now become something of a sideshow.

Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp, previously Trump loyalists, have taken the high road and refused to bow to the president's demands to manipulate the electorate to give him victory.

But others in the party are fighting one last battle — either to please Trump or to advance their own future electoral chances in a party whose rank and file remains fiercely behind the man who, almost certainly will still hold sway even after he has left the Oval Office.

President Donald Trump's insistence that he won Georgia in November's General Election by nearly 12,000 votes has split Republicans down the middle

Raphael Warnock
Jon Ossoff

Republican incumbent Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are running against Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively

Hundreds of thousands of Georgians are expected to vote on Tuesday before the polls close at 7:00 p.m. – after a record-shattering 3 million already voted in the runoff elections early by mail or in-person

Hundreds of thousands of Georgians are expected to vote on Tuesday before the polls close at 7:00 p.m. – after a record-shattering 3 million already voted in the runoff elections early by mail or in-person

'There's definitely a civil war, if you will, brewing in the Republican Party, but not just in Georgia,' Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist who was top aide to former Georgia senator Johnny Isakson, told NPR

'It's [over] what does a post Trump presidency look like? And can we bring it back together?'

And in Georgia, with its fast-changing demographics that has turned the state purple after four decades of being reliably Republican, these are the men and women who will have to decide the path to turning it back to red in the next few years

Gov. Brian Kemp

Kemp's election in 2018 was the first sign that The Peach State could go Democrat. He beat Stacey Abrams by just 55,000 votes. Four years earlier his predecessor Nathan Deal had won by more than 200,000. 

At the time he was Secretary of State, and so was the officer in charge of the vote, but he refused to resign, leading to claims from Abrams's camp that the election was rigged when 300,000 people were flagged as ineligible. 

But this time round, Kemp, 57, has stood firmly against accusations of irregularity, prompting Trump to denounce him.

Kemp's election in 2018 was the first sign that The Peach State could go Democrat. He beat Stacey Abrams by just 55,000 votes

Kemp's election in 2018 was the first sign that The Peach State could go Democrat. He beat Stacey Abrams by just 55,000 votes

'Like a schmuck, I endorsed him and he got elected, but I will tell you, he is a disaster,' Trump said of Kemp during Sunday's hour-long call to Raffensperger. 'I can't imagine he's ever getting elected again, I'll tell you that much.'

Previously Trump attacked Kemp for 'doing nothing' to help him overturn the vote in Georgia. In response, Kemp said moves to appoint a Republican slate of electors would be 'unconstitutional.'

Kemp faces re-election in 2022 and is bound to face a Republican challenge, most likely from former Congressman Doug Collins. A poll released this week showed that Collins would win a primary by 52%-32% with 16% undecided.

Trump digs into Gov Kemp over voter fraud at Georgia rally
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Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger

Raffensperger, 65, thrust himself into the nation's consciousness with the release of the tape of his conversation with Trump, in which he said little except one memorable line. 'Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong.' 

Raffensperger, 65, thrust himself into the nation's consciousness with the release of the tape of his conversation with Trump

Raffensperger, 65, thrust himself into the nation's consciousness with the release of the tape of his conversation with Trump

With few Republicans willing to take such a stand against Trump even if the president's claims are clearly false, Raffensperger could be seen as a standard-bearer for the Never-Trump wing of the party.

But the father-of-three hasn't always been a hero to those fighting for electoral rights. He initially pushed for ballots to be mailed to all registered voters due to the Covid pandemic but failed to follow through, saying the cost would be too high.

'Lionizing Brad Raffensperger's a bit wrong-headed,' Abrams told Stephen Colbert. 'This man is not defending the right of voters. He's defending an election that he ran.'

Now his political fortunes depend on whether Trump fades from the spotlight in his post-presidential era or, as seems likely, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

Either way, Raffensperger doesn't really need the headaches. The father-of-three made a $26 million fortune as CEO of Tendon Systems before entering political life when he joined the city council in Johns Creek, a suburb of Atlanta in 2012. Since then, his ascent has been rapid, but his fall could be even more steep.

Raffensperger responds after release of Trump call
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Sen. Kelly Loeffler

Loeffler is the richest member of Congress by a country mile. Her $500 million fortune is double that of Florida's Rick Scott, the next richest senator.

Kemp controversially appointed her a year ago after Isakson stood down because of ill health. Trump had pushed for Collins to get the seat but the governor had the final say.

Since her appointment Loeffler, 50, has committed herself to supporting the president, touting her '100% Trump voting record' during her campaign to win the seat in an election.

Kelly Loeffler is the richest member of Congress by a country mile. Her $500 million fortune is double that of Florida's Rick Scott, the next richest senator

Kelly Loeffler is the richest member of Congress by a country mile. Her $500 million fortune is double that of Florida's Rick Scott, the next richest senator

She has claimed — without offering any proof — that there were 'failures' in the electoral process in Georgia and signed on to a lawsuit that claimed that hundreds of voters had already voted in Senate elections in other states and therefore should be banned from Tuesday's run-off election.

She has also said she will join 12 other senators in objecting to the certification of the election result when it is presented to the full Senate and House on Wednesday.

Now her fate is in the hands of Georgia's voters. She was handily defeated by Democrat Raphael Warnock in the original election in November 33%-26%, but that vote was muddied by 18 other candidates— including her nemesis Collins, who won 20% of the vote.

If she loses Tuesday's run-off, it is hard to see a political future for Loeffler. If she wins she will have to face re-election in just two years' time.

Kelly Loeffler will object to confirming electoral college results
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Former Sen. David Perdue

Unlike Loeffler, Perdue left the Senate — at least temporarily — on Sunday when his term was up and a new Senate installed. Loeffler stays on until a replacement is seated because she was appointed.

So Perdue is not in the difficult position of having to decide whether to accept the result of the election or vote with the dissenters when Congress meets on Wednesday — even though he has said he would have sided with the Trump loyalists led by Sens Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.

Perdue, 71, was originally elected to the Senate in 2014 and has been a loyal Trump supporter. The former Dollar General CEO originally opposed the president's positions on tariffs but was won round.

Perdue joined Monday night's rally remotely to address the crowd at one point. He is still quarantining at his home after contracting coroanvirus

Perdue joined Monday night's rally remotely to address the crowd at one point. He is still quarantining at his home after contracting coroanvirus

Perdue was at the White House in 2018 when Trump allegedly called El Salvador, Haiti and a number of African nations 's***hole countries.' He initially said he didn't recall Trump making the statement, then later said he definitely did not. But White House officials told the Washington Post that that was because Perdue thought Trump had used the word 's***house' not 's***hole.'

Both he and Loeffler have been involved in scandals involving alleged insider trading with claims that they traded stock after being briefed on the potential seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. Perdue sold stock for $825,000 and bought others for $1.8 million including in companies that make personal protective equipment — in a series of 112 deals.

On Tuesday he faces Democrat Jon Ossoff in the run-off election. He won by a razor-thin majority — less than two percentage points — in November, but fell an agonizing 13,947 votes short of getting 50% of the vote and winning outright.

A win gives Perdue another six years in the Senate. A loss condemns him to political purgatory.

Former Rep. Doug Collins

No-one stands to win more from the turmoil surrounding the Georgia Republican Party than Doug Collins, who resigned from Congress last year so he could take on Loeffler for the Senate seat.

He lost, but is a favorite of Trump, who urged Kemp to appoint him rather than Loeffler to the seat when it became vacant.

Now Collins, 54, is expected to take on Kemp in 2022 in a fight for the governorship, and as Trump continues to call out the governor he is currently favored to win.

Collins is unapologetically right-wing and outspoken. Just hours after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September he tweeted: 'RIP to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered during the decades that Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended pro-abortion laws. With @realDonaldTrump nominating a replacement that values human life, generations of unborn children have a chance to live.'

No-one stands to win more from the turmoil surrounding the Georgia Republican Party than Doug Collins, who resigned from Congress last year so he could take on Loeffler for the Senate seat

No-one stands to win more from the turmoil surrounding the Georgia Republican Party than Doug Collins, who resigned from Congress last year so he could take on Loeffler for the Senate seat

In his race against Loeffler he recruited Trump ally Roger Stone to campaign with him as the two candidates tried to outdo each other in their fealty to the president. He attacked Loeffler, claiming she donated money to 'abortion-on-demand Democrats.'

But as the special elections drew closer, he has thrown his weight behind the Republican candidates. 'You have Jon Ossoff, who's a trust-fund socialist. You have Raphael Warnock, who is a pastor who believes that abortion is OK. There's just things that are really contradictory to conservative lifestyle in Georgia.

'Not voting is letting the Democrats win this argument… We've got to make sure our voters turn out.'

Gabriel Sterling

Sterling, the Chief Operating Officer in Raffensperger's office could have remained an obscure cog in the state's governmental machine, but instead has been outspoken in attacking Trump's claims of irregularities in the election.

It was as his role as voting implementation manager that he first came to public attention in a press conference in December when he accused the president of stoking death threats against his boss. 'It's all gone too far,' he said.

Gabriel Sterling, the Chief Operating Officer in Raffensperger's office, has been outspoken in attacking Trump's claims of irregularities in the election

Gabriel Sterling, the Chief Operating Officer in Raffensperger's office, has been outspoken in attacking Trump's claims of irregularities in the election

Since then, he has fired an election director in Georgia's Floyd County for not counting 2,600 votes and then on Monday set out in a detailed point-by-point takedown of all the ways Trump's accusations were wrong.

For Sterling, 50, it has been a sudden leap into the spotlight — complete with its own death threats to him.

Sterling, a lifelong Republican, was previously on the city council in Sandy Springs. He campaigned for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives and ran a failed bid for chair of Fulton County Board of Commissioners.

He is now said to be eyeing a run for mayor of Sandy Springs.

Former council colleague Chip Collins told Reporter Newspapers: 'You can believe every word that comes out of Gabe Sterling's mouth. He's everything that you want in a public servant. He's in it for the right reasons. And he loves digging into the granular details.'

Now it is to be seen if his sudden fame can rocket him to higher office or whether his criticism of Trump holds him back.

Georgia election official debunks conspiracy theories one by one
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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene

To many, Greene has become the new face of Georgia Republicans as the first open supporter of the fringe QAnon group to win a seat in Washington.

Marjorie Taylor Greene has become the new face of Georgia Republicans as the first open supporter of the fringe QAnon group to win a seat in Washington

Marjorie Taylor Greene has become the new face of Georgia Republicans as the first open supporter of the fringe QAnon group to win a seat in Washington

Her victory in the rock-ribbed red 14th District in the extreme north-west of the state was assured when she won the primary in August after incumbent Tom Graves announced he was standing down. She was unopposed in the General Election

She fought the primary with the slogan 'Save America, Stop Socialism' and posted a Facebook video of her holding an AR-15 warning 'antifa terrorists' to 'stay the hell out of North-west Georgia.'

Her theatrics continued on Sunday when she got into a screaming match with Democratic staffers for refusing to wear a mask, something she has called 'Democrat tyrannical control' — but then posed for a picture wearing one emblazoned with the statement 'Trump Won.'

She got into a Twitter fight with leftist Democrat Ilhan Omar after the Minnesota congresswoman had attacked Loeffler. 'Back Down. You married your brother, so you're disqualified from running your mouth,' Greene tweeted.

Greene, 46, supports criminalizing abortion and says she intends to continue to pull the Republican Party to the right — and could become the new standard-bearer for the most extreme elements of the party.

Or the former gym owner could just as easily flare up and burn out. Only time will tell.

GOP State Chairman David Shafer

Trump loyalist Shafer was thought to be a shoo-in for Georgia's Lieutenant Governor in 2018 after easily winning the primary, but his campaign was derailed when an old fling who had turned lobbyist accused him of making sexually harassing comments. 

He vehemently denied the claim and an ethics investigation cleared him, but the damage was done and he lost the election by 50.1%-49.9%

The following year he was elected party chairman in the state and under his leadership it filed a lawsuit to prevent the certification of election results — which like virtually all similar lawsuits throughout the country was thrown out.

Shafer, 55, has staunchly taken Trump's side during the battle over certification. He called the tape 'mind-boggling' but slammed Raffensperger for leaking it, rather than criticizing the president for what he said. 

David Shafer, 55, has staunchly taken Trump’s side during the battle over certification

David Shafer, 55, has staunchly taken Trump’s side during the battle over certification

After the Washington Post posted snippets online, Shafer claimed the prime reason Trump had called was to discuss settling litigation and it was therefore 'confidential under federal and state law.'

However, once the entire hour-long call was posted, it was clear that no pending litigation was mentioned. Shafer has not issued any further statement.

Shafer was a state senator from 2002 to 2019 and even before 2018 had his eye on becoming lieutenant governor. He was favored for the job 10 years earlier when then-office holder Casey Cagle said he would run for governor. 

But then Cagle was found to have a debilitating back problem and decided the number two job would be better for his health and Shafer was forced to pull out.

Now his future prospects rest on how popular Trump remains after he leaves Washington.

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