CANTON, Ga. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence campaigned in Georgia on Friday as the state’s two Republican senators try to hold off Democratic challengers in January 5th runoffs that will determine who controls the Senate at the outset of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.
The trip highlights a critical juncture both for the Republican Party and for Pence, as the vice president tries to balance his own political future with his loyalties to a president who has yet to concede defeat.
Pence appeared with Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on the outskirts of metro Atlanta’s sprawling footprint, on the same day that Georgia’s Republican secretary of state was expected to certify that Biden is the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state since 1992.
While Pence has joined President Donald Trump in not yet conceding to Biden, the vice president held fast to more careful language than the president’s repeated and baseless claims of widespread voter fraud.
“As our election contest continues, here in Georgia and in courts across the country, I’ll make you a promise,” Pence said Friday. “We’re going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted. We’re going to keep fighting until every illegal vote is thrown out.
But that position has grown increasingly fraught for Pence and other Republicans as more states certify election returns, and courts — including federal judges appointed by Trump — reject the president’s specious claims of a fraudulent election. Pence, almost certainly a future presidential candidate himself, cannot yet afford to distance himself from Trump, but also must be careful not to attach himself to mistruths that undermine confidence in U.S. elections.
While Pence was on a bus tour in Georgia, a partial recount loomed in Wisconsin. Also Friday, the president called Michigan’s Republican legislative leaders to a White House meeting, an extraordinary move that raises questions over whether the president is pressuring GOP state officials to select slates of electors to the Electoral College who might subvert the voters’ will at the ballot box.
Pence focused Friday on securing the Republican Senate majority by helping Perdue and Loeffler defeat Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively. Republicans have already won 50 Senate seats for the new Congress, and need one more for control. A Democratic sweep of the Georgia runoffs would yield a 50-50 Senate, setting up Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote to tilt the chamber to Democrats.
With some irony, Republicans’ chief argument in the runoff contest has been to warn against giving Democrats complete control of Washington, a position that tacitly acknowledges that Trump has lost and that Biden will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20.
Without directly mentioning it, Pence seemed to implicitly acknowledge Trump’s loss, saying that a “Republican Senate majority could be the last line of defense for all that we’ve done to defend this nation.”
Perdue, speaking before Pence, explicitly acknowledged Biden’s win, warning the crowd that if Georgia doesn’t elect him and Loeffler, Democrats will “have the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. They’ll do anything they want.”
Perdue led Ossoff in the general election but narrowly missed the majority that Georgia law requires to win statewide elections. Warnock and Loeffler were the top finishers in an all-party special election to fill the final two years of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Loeffler to the post after Isakson announced his retirement last year.
Pence first spoke in Canton before a second rally in Gainesville, northwest of Atlanta. The exurban venues underscore Republican math in Georgia: both cities are in heavily Republicans counties that are experiencing considerable population growth on the heels of similar booms in suburban counties closer to the metro core.
Those close-in suburban counties have in recent elections flipped to Democrats, who have also seen their vote totals climb even in the exurbs. Republicans must maximize their remaining advantages in the exurban ring around metro Atlanta in the same way that Democrats must wring every vote possible out of the city of Atlanta and its closest suburbs.