ATLANTA -- President Donald Trump's decision to visit Georgia next week was celebrated as a "Thanksgiving miracle" by the Republican U.S. Senate runoff candidates. But his trip will test how they balance his unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud with their all-out efforts to drive up turnout.
Even as U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue push supporters to return to the polls, Trump has continued to falsely insist that the elections are "rigged," stoking worries from Republicans that the conflicting messages will discourage voter participation. A new federal lawsuit filed by Trump supporters claiming Georgia's election system was corrupted only underscores their challenge.
The two Republicans decided early his involvement would outweigh whatever fallout it could bring. Loeffler and Perdue have ramped up their aggressive courtship of Trump since the Nov. 3 election, rallied with Vice President Mike Pence last week and cheered the news that he would hold a rally on Dec. 5 at a yet-to-be disclosed location.
They've echoed Trump's criticism of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican they've urged to resign and who the president labeled on Thursday an "enemy of the people."
They've refused to explicitly say that Joe Biden is the president-elect. And they've promised to promote Trump's agenda if elected in the Jan. 5 contests that will determine control of the Senate.
There's no secret why. Perdue has laid out the Republican campaign strategy in the race against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock at just about every stop: The senators are singularly focused on mobilizing the party's core supporters, rather than appealing to the undecided. And no one can energize the GOP base in Georgia like Trump.
As the dueling tickets are scrambling to reinvigorate their voters without a presidential race on the ballot, Trump could make the case that a vote for the GOP runoff candidates is tantamount to a vote for him. Besides, after racing toward him for the last year -- or last four years in Perdue's case -- it's impossible for the candidates to disentangle themselves from him now.
But he also comes loaded with political baggage after narrowly losing Georgia -- the first Republican presidential hopeful to fall flat in the state since 1992.
He's tweeted almost daily about his struggles in Georgia, leveling unfounded allegations of widespread fraud and irregularities. He's incited deep rifts in the Georgia GOP by blasting Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp -- two fellow Republicans he endorsed in 2018 -- and invited suggestions he could back primary challengers in 2022 if they stay on his bad side.
And significantly, his promotion of the false narrative that the election was "stolen" from him has put the Republican incumbents in a bind. They haven't yet acknowledged Biden's victory, robbing themselves of a key argument in the runoffs: that a Republican-controlled Senate can act as a check on a Democratic White House.
Only recently has Perdue ventured to tacitly concede that fact, telling a crowd in Griffin this week that "the tiebreaker will be the V.P. That means they'll have the majority."
More frequently, the two incumbents have urged Republicans to "hold the line" with massive turnout even as they've echoed Trump's claims of voter fraud.
How the candidates balance these two competing threads -- urging supporters to vote to defend a president who has claimed the system is rigged anyways -- won't be easy. And the lawsuit filed this week by a former member of the president's legal team could complicate the challenge.
Though the complaint centered on conspiracy theories debunked by state officials, and was laughed off by legal experts, its allegations of thousands of missing votes and structural problems in Republican-dominated counties were also amplified by far-right media outlets popular with the GOP base.
Meanwhile, some Trump supporters have encouraged the party faithful to write in Trump's name -- which isn't possible in the head-to-head runoffs -- or sit out the vote altogether. The latter is a possibility that has sparked such concern among Republicans that Donald Trump Jr. sought to intervene this week.
"IGNORE those people," the president's son tweeted of efforts by his father's supporters to discourage GOP turnout. "We need ALL of our people coming out to vote for Kelly & David."