Valdosta, Georgia, United States – President Donald Trump has urged voters in Georgia to support Republican Senate candidates in the upcoming runoff elections while repeating baseless allegations that his re-election was “stolen” by Democrats.
“You must vote for David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Go out and vote,” Trump told thousands of people gathered on an airport tarmac in Valdosta in southern Georgia on Saturday.
“With your help, we are going to continue our mission to save America.”
With the presidential election over, America’s gaze is now focused on this battleground state where two runoff elections in January will determine which party will control the US Senate.
A victory for either Loeffler or Perdue will give Republicans a Senate majority and the hope of restraining the ambitions of President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat.
Biden’s party already controls the House of Representatives, and if Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win the Senate runoff in Georgia, the party will control the White House and both houses of Congress, giving it the power to enact the president-elect’s agenda with minimal disruption from the Republicans.
Trump holds powerful influence over Republicans in Georgia.
Instead of looking ahead to the runoff in recent weeks, he has spent most of his time since Election Day casting doubt on the US voting process, filing unsuccessful lawsuits to overturn state results of the presidential contest and claiming, without evidence, that he is the rightful winner.
With so much on the line, Trump’s repeated questioning of the integrity of the nation’s voting system has left Republicans concerned that his comments would lead supporters away from the polls in January.
Trump’s campaign visit on Saturday – his first appearance at a rally since the November 3 presidential election – aimed to quell those concerns.
He told his fans to return to voting booths in January even if they thought the system was “unfair” or “rigged”. The president framed voting as “revenge” on his behalf.
“The answer to Democrat fraud is not to stay at home,” Trump said. “Show up and vote in record numbers.”
While Trump did what he came to do – campaign for the Senate candidates – his speech wound through a wide array of topics as varied as warning against the threat of socialism and voter fraud one moment to expressing his personal enjoyment of cucumbers in another.
Like a final concert of an ageing rock band, Trump checked the boxes of his most common crowd-pleasers: He criticised immigrants and the news media, called Democrats “communists;” warned of gun confiscation, Democratic court-packing schemes and abortion and pondered whether Christmas would still exist with Democrats in control.
“Trump gave some time at the beginning and end to praise Loeffler and Collins and to encourage his voters to turn out for them. But overwhelmingly this was a grievance-filled and fact-free speech that spent the majority of the time rehashing his own race and falsely claiming it was stolen from him,” said Jessica Taylor, an election analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
“It’s not surprising for Trump at all, but Republicans have to hope this is enough to keep his base engaged and turn out on January 5.”
Trump delivered his speech while waging a public fight with Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and other leading Republican officials in the state. Before Saturday’s rally, Trump asked Kemp to call a special session of the legislature in an effort to overturn the results in the state.
Biden won Georgia by 12,670 votes and was the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992. A statewide recount found no evidence of widespread fraud.
Kemp, the governor, gave no public indication he would go along with Trump’s pressure campaign.
“I’ve publicly called for a signature audit three times,” he wrote on Twitter, “to restore confidence in our election process and to ensure that only legal votes are counted in Georgia”.
But Trump continued to criticise the governor in his speech on Saturday, accusing him of allowing voter fraud. That is despite the president’s own Attorney General William Barr announcing last week that his justice department found no proof of fraud that could have affected a different outcome in the presidential election.
“Your governor could stop it very easily if he knew what the hell he was doing,” Trump told his supporters.
‘Giving up’s for losers’
Republican concerns over reduced voter turnout were high this week after another rally on Wednesday near Atlanta, where Trump’s former lawyer Sidney Powell joined lawyer L Lin Wood and encouraged Trump supporters to boycott the upcoming election.
Their calls received a swift rebuke from Republicans who distanced themselves from Wood and Powell.
Trump also pushed back against the call for a boycott on Saturday.
“A lot of people – friends of mine – say: ‘Let’s not vote. We’re not going to vote because we’re angry about the presidential election,’” Trump said.
“But if you do that, the radical left wins, OK? …You can’t do that. You actually have to do just the opposite … If you don’t vote, the socialists and the communists win. They win. Georgia patriots must show up and vote for these incredible people.”
He added: “We can fight for the presidency and fight to elect our two great senators at the same time.”
Trump supporters at Saturday’s rally told Al Jazeera they believed voter fraud was real but they agreed with the president about the importance of voting in the runoffs.
“People are upset about the way things have gone. A lot of people are doomers and pessimists. This is an opportunity to not give up,” said Forrest Cook of Milledgeville, Georgia.
“If I don’t do anything, we’re going to put these Democrats in. I can’t do that. We’ve got to do something.”
Linda Kotki of Athens, Georgia said she believed the election had been stolen from the president but said the alleged fraud would not discourage her from turning out again in January.
“Giving up’s for losers. You can’t give up,” said Kotki, who wore a shirt that read, “Don’t Concede” across the back. “What other choice do we have? You’ve got to put your vote in. That’s all you can do. Don’t give up. Just because the other side’s telling you that, have faith.”
Sheila DeLashmutt of Canton, Georgia, said she too planned to vote for Loeffler and Perdue, and called the notion that conservatives might sit out the upcoming run-offs a “crock”.
“Only an idiot would say that,” she said.
But concerns about vote fraud still linger.
“Are they truly going to count our vote or are they going to steal it again?” DeLashmutt asked.