MILNER, Ga. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence warned conservative Christian voters in Georgia on Monday that a pair of high-stakes Senate runoffs might offer “the last line of defense” against a Democratic takeover in Washington.
The vice president's visit to a Georgia megachurch launched a day of last-minute headliners, as President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden campaign in the state ahead of Tuesday's runoff elections that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. It comes two weeks ahead of Biden's inauguration and as Trump tries to galvanize Republicans around his efforts to subvert his election defeat and keep himself in power for a second term.
“In one more day, we need people of faith in this state to stand with leaders who will support life and liberty and the freedom of every American,” Pence declared at Rock Springs Church in Milner. “We’re going to keep Georgia, and we’re going to save America.”
Republican David Perdue, who is seeking a second term as senator, addressed the church crowd by telephone while quarantining over coronavirus exposure, warning that “the very future of our republic is on the line” and declaring the duty to vote “a calling from God.”
Republicans need just one victory between Perdue and Sen. Kelly Loeffler to maintain Senate control and force Biden to contend with divided government. Democrats need a sweep for a 50-50 split, giving the tiebreaking vote to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will succeed Pence as the Senate’s presiding officer. That would give Democrats a Senate majority to go along with their control of the House and executive branch.
The stakes have drawn hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign spending to a once solidly Republican state that now finds itself as the nation's premier battleground. Trump is scheduled for a nighttime rally in north Georgia, his second trip of the runoff campaign. Biden, also making his second runoff foray, will campaign in Atlanta in the late afternoon with Perdue's opponent, Jon Ossoff, and Loeffler's challenger, the Rev. Raphael Warnock.
Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by about 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast in November, though Trump continues pushing false assertions of widespread fraud that even his attorney general and Georgia’s Republican secretary of state -- along with a litany of state and federal judges -- have said did not happen.
The president's trip Monday comes a day after disclosure of a remarkable telephone call he made to the Georgia secretary of state over the weekend. Trump pressured Republican Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Georgia's election results ahead of Wednesday's joint session of Congress that will certify Biden's Electoral College victory. The call highlighted how Trump has used the Georgia campaign to make clear his continued hold on Republican politics.
Angry after the Raffensperger call, Trump floated the idea of pulling out of the rally but was persuaded to go ahead with it so he will have a chance to reiterate his claims of election fraud. Republicans are wary as to whether Trump will focus only on himself and fail to promote the two GOP candidates.
Pence, who will preside over Wednesday's congressional joint session, sidestepped Trump's denials Monday until a man yelled out that he must “do the right thing on Jan. 6.” Pence promised that “we'll have our day in Congress,” though he offered no details about what that might mean. Scores of Republicans in Congress have pledged to protest the Electoral College count, but Pence has no legal authority to override Biden's win.
With the rest of his remarks, Pence held to his usual line of tacitly acknowledging Biden's coming presidency by emphasizing Trump's accomplishments and declaring them under threat under a Democratic Senate majority. If Trump were going to remain in the Oval Office, he would have veto authority over Democrats' legislation even if they ran both chambers of Congress.
Pence nonetheless drew chants of “Four more years!” and “Stop the steal!” from the church gathering.
Facing those passions from the Republican base, Perdue, whose first Senate term expired Sunday, and Loeffler, an appointed senator trying to win her first election, have run as unabashed Trump Republicans and spent the two-month runoff blitz warning of a “radical” and “dangerous” lurch to the left.
Ossoff and Warnock have blasted Republicans as obstructionists, pointing to how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stymied President Barack Obama, and insisted that a Democratic majority is necessary to confront the coronavirus pandemic.
To be sure, a closely divided Senate — with the rules still requiring 60 votes to advance major bills — lessens the prospects of sweeping legislation regardless. But a Democratic Senate would at least assure Biden an easier path for top appointees, including judges, and legitimate consideration of his legislative agenda. A Senate led by McConnell would almost certainly deny even an up-or-down vote on Biden’s most ambitious plans.
“The people of Georgia have an opportunity to change the course of the nation’s history at this moment,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New Yorker who chairs the House Democratic Caucus.
More than 3 million Georgians already have voted. Monday's push is focused on getting voters to the polls Tuesday. Democrats ran up a wide margin among 3.6 million early votes in the fall, but Republicans countered with an Election Day surge, especially in small towns and rural areas.
Even with Biden’s statewide win, Perdue led Ossoff by 88,000 votes in November, giving the GOP confidence in the runoff. The runoffs were required because none of the candidates reached a majority vote, as required by Georgia law. Despite Perdue’s initial advantage, early voting figures suggest Democrats have had a stronger turnout heading into Tuesday, and leading Republicans have expressed concerns about the pressure that puts on their turnout operation.
Monday’s itinerary shows how the two sides plan to hit their targeted voters.
Biden will be in the core of metro Atlanta, where Democrats have capitalized on rapid population growth and suburban shifts away from Republicans. Trump will be in Dalton, the population center of one of the state’s most Republican congressional districts where the president’s appeal among small town and rural Georgians helps offset Democrats’ more city-based coalition.
Pence, meanwhile, was in Lamar County on the outskirts of the sprawling metro Atlanta footprint -- an exurban enclave that could be the tipping point between the two parties’ respective strongholds.
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report from Washington.