GOP's Georgia challenge: Persuading Trump backers to vote

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Former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., speaks to volunteers before a Greater Georgia voter registration canvassing effort, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in Marietta, Ga. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

MARIETTA, Ga. – On a crisp fall morning, eager volunteers fanned out in the leafy suburban Atlanta neighborhood to knock on doors, trying to persuade reluctant and skeptical conservatives to register to vote in next month's midterm elections.

It’s painstaking work anywhere, but especially pivotal in battleground Georgia, as Donald Trump's lies of a rigged 2020 election have created a new constituency of election deniers -- some wary their votes won't be counted in November.

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Dispatching the group on the hunt for votes was an unlikely emissary — former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who initially stood by the defeated president’s effort to undo Joe Biden's victory, but was now working, in blue jeans and a country plaid shirt, to bring election skeptics back to the polls.

“We saw it firsthand in our election,” Loeffler said about the drop-off during an interview outside the Cobb County Republican Party headquarters where the volunteers gathered on a recent Saturday.

Loeffler recounted to The Associated Press how she lost her seat to Democrat Raphael Warnock in January 2021 after more than 330,000 Republicans who voted in the 2020 presidential election failed to cast ballots in the January 2021 runoff. As Warnock now faces Republican Herschel Walker in a race that could determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, Loeffler is trying to prevent a repeat.

“This effort is about amplifying Georgia’s voices and taking our state back and saying that we will not be silenced,” Loeffler said, pumping up the volunteers before sending them out. “We know that when people feel like their vote counts, they’re more likely to vote.”

It’s a singular mission with uncertain prospects in November, the first national election in the aftermath of Trump’s repeated attacks on the U.S. voting system and the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters trying to stop the certification of Biden’s election.

And it comes as Republicans in Georgia and nationwide are trying to hold together a fragile coalition of voters — those who embrace Trump’s claim of fraud and those who reject it.

“That reflects a real tension in the Republican Party messaging,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, a Washington-based think tank, who specializes in democracy issues.

“It may be self-defeating to say the election is rigged if you have to actually get people out to vote.”

Voters appear eager to cast ballots this fall. A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center of Public Affairs Research finds 71% of registered voters think the very future of the U.S. is at stake when they vote this year. Yet the poll also found a large segment of Republicans, 58%, still believe Biden’s election wasn’t legitimate.

Brian Robinson, a GOP strategist, said Georgians have moved on from Trump’s claims, judging by the primary election victories this year for Brad Raffensperger, the embattled secretary of state Trump unsuccessfully asked to “find 11,780” votes, and incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who drew Trump’s ire for standing by the state’s results.

“By almost any measure, Georgia voters have moved past the 2020 election and at this juncture have largely rejected claims that fraud marred the election outcome,” Robinson said.

But Democrats say Republicans are trying to have it both ways, courting what one strategist called MAGAs and moderates, referring to Trump’s Make America Great Again supporters. While Loeffler touts Georgia's new election law as preventing fraud, Democrats argue the GOP-led bill was unnecessary, a reaction to Trump’s lies about 2020.

Loeffler is in many ways an imperfect messenger, one who initially denied the 2020 election results. She stood on stage at Trump rallies as he spread his claims of a stolen presidential election. She called on Raffensperger to resign over his handling of the vote. Loeffler promised Trump rally voters she would object to the electoral count in Congress, drawing cheers from the crowd, only to abandon the effort hours after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

A wealthy former businesswoman who remains close to Trump, Loeffler has invested more than $2 million in Greater Georgia and its companion Citizens for Greater Georgia get-out-the vote effort for Republicans. She is modeling her work partly after Democrat Stacey Abrams, the gubernatorial candidate, whose voting rights efforts have catapulted her into a national figure in her rematch against Kemp.

“I said from Day One when I started this effort, we cannot allow the left to have a monopoly on voter registration in our state,” Loeffler said about the group she launched after her defeat.

The diverse group of Greater Georgia volunteers broke into a hand-clap chant of “We will knock you!” — a nod to the Queen song –— at a cul-de-sac in Marietta before separating into smaller groups to canvass the well-appointed middle class homes.

Trump voter Lisa Buxton said she joined Loeffler’s effort because she was tired of “throwing things at my television” in the year after the former president’s defeat.

Buxton said she was sad after Trump’s loss and formed her own women’s church group Christians Taking Action and Prayer around voting and election strategies.

“Our motto is we know what has happened. We know what’s in the past. We’re going forward,” she said.

Asked if Biden was the legitimate president, she gave a long pause.

“He’s sitting in the chair,” she said. “The electoral college said he’s there. So he’s there. That’s where I am. I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole ’cause I could jump up and down and scream a whole lot.”

The challenge of reaching skeptical voters the final weekend before the deadline was clear. Georgia already has high voter registration, and volunteers were met that day mostly with residents not answering their door or having moved on — literally and politically.

Homeowner Scott Davenport said the neighborhood used to be all Republicans, but the days are long gone when he used to stake a giant Newt Gingrich sign in his lawn supporting the former House GOP speaker.

Davenport, a father of two adult daughters who works in commercial real estate, said in the Trump era he started voting for Democrats. He said the Republican Party’s rhetoric around racial issues and its denial of the 2020 election results was not what he had signed up for.

“I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me,” he said, raking leaves as the canvassers, who did not have him on their priority list, skipped his house. "For me, they’ve just gone too far.”

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