Sixty miles west of Atlanta, Haralson County sits a world away from Georgia‘s largest and booming metro area. Here, in the small towns that sit in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, Republican roots run generations deep. In November, the county voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden, 87% to 13% — making it one of the most Republican-leaning areas in the state.
In the heart of the half-mile downtown of Tallapoosa, diners waited outside two food trucks and chatted about the upcoming January 5 Senate runoffs. But the conversation about next month’s election began with November’s results.
“I honestly think Trump did,” said Ralph Horton, when asked who he thinks won the election, despite no legitimate evidence to support that belief.
Horton is not alone — all across Haralson County, his neighbors feed off each other’s inaccurate theories.
“I believe there was a little something shady going on,” Cheryl Cantrell said about the election, reciting unsubstantiated claims.
For these shell-shocked supporters of Trump, it’s impossible to move beyond November with a continued deluge of misinformation from the President and others.
Ahead of his scheduled visit to Georgia on Saturday, Trump has tweeted his grievances for weeks, refusing to concede the election to Biden, blaming everything from ballots to machines to elections officials. From the Oval Office on Thursday, the President thanked the Americans who voted for him — and then shared his repeated lies about the election.
For Mark Clayton, he’s not sure he wants to vote at all in the system that the President has repeatedly, and incorrectly, called “rigged.”
“I really don’t know. I mean, I don’t know if it’s going to change anything or not, it may or may not,” Clayton said. “I don’t know 100% what’s going on or how they count the votes or whatever. It’s confusing with trusting anything anymore.”
But the lack of faith in the election system could turn into a Republican nightmare in the upcoming Senate runoffs — GOP voters who choose to stay at home.
Republicans are relying on an enthusiastic base in places like Haralson County to vote for incumbent Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the runoffs, driven by the popularity of the President.
In Haralson County, the President increased his support by about 3,000 votes from four years ago — a trend in Georgia’s deep red counties. In counties where Trump won by a margin of more than 10%, 276,622 more voters supported him in 2020 as compared to 2016.
But the President has been talking and repeatedly tweeting various conspiracy theories and lies about voting machines and the electoral process, undermining the very system that needs GOP votes in a matter of weeks.
Trump has also criticized Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for their roles in overseeing the election in the state, which Trump narrowly lost by about 12,000 votes.
Turnout overall in the state grew for both Democrats and Republicans. But Biden’s victory was powered by the nine-county Atlanta metro area, receiving 280,000 more votes there than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
Trump’s baseless claim puts the incumbent senators on the ballot in January in a hard place politically, struggling to square the circle in weeks of campaign events and public appearances.
“President Trump’s very frustrated, I’m very frustrated and we’re going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that whatever anomalies were uncovered in November don’t happen in January, but this is illogical for any Republican to think that, ‘Oh I’m just going to sit down and not vote’ and hand, as you say, the keys over to the Democrats,” Perdue said on Fox News Thursday night.
Anxiety is high as Trump heads to Georgia Saturday night for a rally with Loeffler and Perdue in the city of Valdosta. The campaigns for the two senators understand that Trump can fire up the Republican base like no one else can, but fear what will come out of his mouth while he’s in the state.
Former Republican Georgia state Rep. Buzz Brockway says dozens of members of his party are already telling him they will not vote in January.
“He’s going to come to Georgia,” said Brockway of the President’s visit.
“He’s going to ask people to vote for Loeffler and Perdue. And then he’s going to tell them the elections rigged. To call the election rigged undermines people’s faith in the results. Whether you like the results or not and it will cause people, there will be people who will say I’m not going to vote.”
If the President keeps tweeting and talking about the system being unfair, Brockway said that hurts the Republicans battling over control of the US Senate.
“It absolutely hurts because he has a very passionate group of followers who frankly are more committed to him than they are to the Republican Party,” Brockway said.
But back in Haralson County, some of those passionate followers say what may seem like a mixed message will only drive more Republicans to the polls in January.
Andy Gunther, a Republican who ran for Congress and lost this past cycle, says the more outraged Trump is at Saturday’s Valdosta rally, the higher the enthusiasm will be for Loeffler and Perdue.
“It’s going to boost the electorate to come out stronger, I believe,” Gunther said. “It’s defiance. It’s, we’re not going to take this stuff sitting down. We’re going to come back out, we’re going to vote. We’re going to show that we care.”