Pence comes to Georgia as calm before potential Trump storm

Virus Outbreak Pence

ATLANTA (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence is trying to help Republicans project a unified front in two high-stakes Senate runoffs as he campaigns in Georgia a day ahead of President Donald Trump’s potentially volatile visit to the state that will determine which party controls the Senate in January.

The vice president is campaigning Friday with Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, with the GOP roiled by Trump’s continued denial of his own defeat and his baseless attacks that Republican officials in Georgia, including the governor and secretary of state, enabled widespread voter fraud on behalf of President-elect Joe Biden.

Pence navigated Trump’s refusal to concede as he rallied Republicans two weeks ago alongside Perdue and Loeffler. At two north Georgia rallies, he promised to fight for “every legal vote” but spent more time emphasizing the stakes of Senate control. But this time, Pence arrives as Georgia completes another recount of presidential ballots and with some of the president’s supporters - including lawyers once considered allies of the president’s re-election campaign - urging a boycott of Perdue’s and Loeffler’s Jan. 5 runoffs.

The vice president's visit also comes on the same day that former President Barack Obama will appear in a virtual rally with the Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, in a show of the kind of party unity that Republicans have difficulty fashioning with the president calling Gov. Brian Kemp “hapless” and dubbing Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger “an enemy of the people.”

Perdue and Loeffler have attempted to steer clear of the intraparty divide, calling for Raffensperger’s resignation but generally focusing more on the consequences of Senate control rather than questioning the outcome of the first round. But Republicans in Washington and Georgia nonetheless voiced concerns that Trump on Saturday will continue those lines of attack rather than focus his efforts on GOP enthusiasm in the second round.

“They are hyper aware of Trump’s latest comments and latest tweets and the negative impact it could be having,” said Republican donor Dan Eberhart of the senators’ advisers. “And those folks go to bed every night hoping there’s no Trump tweet while they sleep.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany dismissed any such concerns, though she certainly embraced the idea that Trump can make or break the runoffs for Republicans.

“The president’s presence in Georgia will push Sens. Loeffler and Perdue over the finish line,” she said Friday, noting that Republicans enjoyed their own turnout boost this fall to narrow House Democrats' majority and defend Senate Republicans who'd been seen as vulnerable.

Republicans need one more seat to command a Senate majority that could counter a Biden presidency. Democrats need a sweep to force a 50-50 Senate and set up Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to tilt the chamber to Democrats as the tiebreaking vote.

Trump has tweeted in support of Perdue and Loeffler, but has spent more energy blasting Kemp and Raffensperger and suggesting, falsely, that the two officials have the legal authority to reverse Biden’s victory in Georgia. State law gives them no such option. Initial returns showed Biden with a lead of more than 14,000 votes out of about 5 million cast. An initial hand recount put Biden’s margin at about 12,500. As Pence arrived in the state, Georgia officials were in the final stages of a third count requested by Trump’s campaign.

Perdue and Loeffler greeted Pence together late Friday morning at Dobbins Air Reserve Base north of Atlanta before a scheduled event at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where the vice president and the senators discussed the coronavirus pandemic and the development of vaccines. The trio will appear Friday afternoon at a rally in Savannah.

Demonstrating of Friday’s unity efforts, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, Loeffler’s erstwhile GOP opponent in the Senate race, flew to Georgia with Pence and participated in a roundtable at CDC headquarters along with the two senators. Before the CDC roundtable, Collins, Loeffler and Perdue huddled in front of a bank of television cameras and photographers.

Kemp, a Trump supporter and at one time staunch ally, was not part of Pence’s public itinerary. But separately, the governor noted that Friday marked one year since he named Loeffler as his choice to fill the Senate vacancy created by Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s retirement.

“I’m proud of what Kelly has accomplished but there’s more work to be done,” Kemp said via his official Facebook page. “Let’s unite as Georgia conservatives and send Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue back to Washington.”

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Associated Press reporter Deb Riechmann contributed from Washington.