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Trump’s rhetoric about election fraud already cost Georgia Republicans. But they’re still tethered to him in 2022.

<i>CNN</i><br/>Salleigh Grubbs is the chairwoman of the Cobb County Republican Party.
Salleigh Grubbs is the chairwoman of the Cobb County Republican Party.

By Sara Murray and Jeff Simon, CNN

The Cobb County Republican Party headquarters is bustling on a weekday evening as the party gears up for a primary election that Chairwoman Salleigh Grubbs isn’t entirely sure she can trust.

“Do I trust the process? It’s a hard question. I trust the election process. Do I think that there are improvements that still need to be made? Yes, I do,” Grubbs said in an interview with CNN.

Grubbs is one of the many GOP officials in Georgia still questioning the results of the 2020 election — and dragging those doubts into 2022 — even though there was no evidence of widespread fraud.

Republicans here are still reeling from a historic political smackdown. Fourteen months ago, Democrats flipped the state blue in a presidential race for the first time in nearly 30 years. It was a loss that sent then-President Donald Trump on a crusade to try to overturn the election results and undermine voter confidence, as he spread lie after lie that the election was stolen. It came with a cost. A year ago, Republicans lost the state’s two US Senate seats in runoff elections.

The double-barreled losses might have come along with a reckoning for Republicans — an acknowledgment that lying about the 2020 election being stolen diminished turnout and discouraged Republicans.

Instead, much of the party remains tightly bound to Trump, and his vendetta against the 2020 election. GOP state lawmakers used unfounded concerns about 2020 to pass a restrictive voting bill last year. This year, they have proposed measures to further chip away at voting access. The Republican-led legislature has also paved the way for local Republicans to exert more power over county election boards.

Trump, meanwhile, is still working to build a party in his image. He recruited former Sen. David Perdue to embrace the 2020 election lies and challenge Gov. Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. And Trump has thrown his support behind Republican Rep. Jody Hice to take on Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the primary. Both Kemp and Raffensperger stood up to Trump’s attempts to overthrow the 2020 election, while Hice and Perdue have crafted campaigns largely around fears about widespread election fraud that didn’t exist.

There are some party leaders who don’t see it as a winning strategy.

“I think it’s a mistake to rehash the 2020 election again,” said former GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who represented Georgia for 20 years in the US House and Senate. “It’s over. It’s done. We lost,” he told CNN in an interview this week.

Defending January 6 ‘Patriots’

Grubbs’ doubts about the 2020 election were among the reasons she sought to lead the county party.

“I think that there’s a big question mark there,” Grubbs said about the 2020 results — even though ballots were counted three times, each time showing Biden won the state. “There were many things that were not done properly, whether it was with a with a mal intent or whether it was through error.”

Deeply held doubts about a fairly decided election fueled an insurrection on January 6, 2021. And while Grubbs condemned the violence that day, she and others at the Cobb GOP planned a vigil this year on the one-year anniversary of the riot for the “Patriots” imprisoned in Washington, DC, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“It wasn’t to glorify what happened on January the sixth,” Grubbs said. “I want every single person who had a bad intention, or who did anything wrong on January the sixth, to be to be held accountable for that. But also, I want the people who were being held to be treated justly.”

Grubbs canceled the vigil after a public backlash.

“The only thing that I could possibly change is the messaging because my heart is still in the right place,” Grubbs said.

These days, Grubbs has poured her energy into preparing for 2022. Her county party has launched what she calls an “election perfection task force” and is aiming to recruit 500 to 600 poll watchers. Grubbs has encouraged those with concerns about 2020 to play a more active role in the midterms by helping to turn out voters or volunteering as poll watchers.

But after the Cobb County Republican Party censured Kemp last year, the former county party chairman, Jason Shepherd, said he isn’t sure Grubbs can unify Republicans if a candidate Trump didn’t endorse wins in the primary.

The censure “sends a message that we want to follow whoever Donald Trump tells us we need to follow. To me, that’s the most disturbing part,” Shepherd said, noting that the Republican Party stands for more than one man. He resigned from the party’s leadership committee in protest after the censure resolution.

“By censuring Brian Kemp, the Cobb GOP has basically made it very hard to be able to go with a straight face and say, ‘Oh, we now support Brian Kemp 110% because he is our nominee,'” Shepherd said.

Grubbs isn’t allowed to pick sides in a primary but remains clearly dubious of the Republicans like Kemp and Raffensperger who oversaw the last presidential election. She acknowledged Republicans will have to find a way to unite if they hope to win in November.

“You know, we can’t stay in 2020. We do have to move forward,” Grubbs said. “But we take what we learned in 2020, and we take that with us to prepare.”

2022 primary challengers focus on 2020

As Perdue took the stage at Georgia’s Faith & Freedom Coalition event this week, he acknowledged the schism in the Republican Party and promised to back Kemp if the sitting governor wins the GOP primary. Then he took up Trump’s favorite talking points.

“I want our elections to be secure,” Perdue said at the event, piling on to his previous — false — claims that Kemp failed to oversee a secure election in 2020, ensuring Democrats won the presidential contest and the two Senate seats. “I’m embarrassed by what just happened here.”

Perdue previously told Axios he would not have certified Georgia’s election results in 2020 because he believed the election required further investigation.

Rather than nurse his wounds over the 2020 election quietly, Trump has remained livid with Republicans who refused to go along with his plans to upend the 2020 election results. He held a rally in Georgia last year to endorse his GOP primary picks and disparage Kemp and Raffensperger, who refused to take part in Trump’s plot to upend the election results.

Hice, who joined Trump at the rally last year, has made 2020 the centerpiece of his campaign events and called on voters to “give Brad the boot” at a recent campaign stop.

“I, for one, do not believe that Brad Raffensperger has protected our election integrity in this state,” Hice said at the campaign event. “He has absolutely trampled upon the sacredness of our votes.”

The congressman has also pushed back against efforts to pass a federal voting rights bill by absurdly trying to co-opt the legacy of a civil rights icon.

“I’m convinced, quite frankly, that if Martin Luther King were alive today, he would be on the side of the Republicans on this issue — voter integrity matters,” Hice said in January appearance on Newsmax.

Chambliss: ‘Let’s move on’

For Chambliss, there’s little to gain and a lot to lose by staying stuck in 2020.

“If I were on the ballot in 2022, I would not relitigate 2020 election issues,” Chambliss said. “The Republican Party still stands for the basic principles of smaller government, more freedoms for individuals and lower taxes. That’s what they ought to be talking about.”

Chambliss followed the 2020 election closely and heard the complaints that something was amiss. But “when you looked at the facts on the ground, then there was just no facts to substantiate it,” he said.

He warned Republicans, in an NPR interview more than a year ago, that Trump’s attacks on the 2020 election could backfire and depress turnout in the runoffs.

“They had a lot of encouragement from the Trump camp to not come out and vote in the runoff,” Chambliss told CNN. “And we can’t have that in November 2022.”

This year, Democrats are facing national headwinds ahead of the midterms, including Biden’s low approval rating, economic anxieties and pandemic fatigue. All of that should amount to a winning argument for Republicans, particularly on economic issues, as far as Chambliss is concerned.

He said he empathizes with voters who have been convinced by the lies about the 2020 election, but “realistically, it’s done. And it’s over,” Chambliss said.

He’s hopeful Republicans can let go of their grievances about the last election and efforts to challenge and undermine election results won’t become the norm.

“Everybody ought to be able to vote, and their vote ought to be counted if they are a valid voter,” Chambliss said. “On election night, we want to figure out who won and who lost and let’s move on.”

GOP exerts more control over election administration

At The Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, executive director and voting rights advocate Helen Butler has her own concerns about 2022, mainly that Republicans are exerting more control over elections and making it tougher for people to vote.

Butler, who previously served on the Morgan County Board of Elections, was among the Black Democrats booted from election boards across the state. The Republican-led state legislature paved the way for six counties to overhaul their election boards, giving local Republicans more power to name nearly all of the board members. Previously, counties divvied up election board appointments by political party.

“If you’re unhappy with the outcome of an election, this is a way that you can have total control of a process,” Butler said. “One particular party gets to control it all. And they think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s fair.”

The shift in local election administration came as Republicans in the state also passed a restrictive voting law in 2021 that imposes new voter identification requirements for absentee ballots, limits the use and number of ballot drop boxes, empowers state officials to take over local elections boards and makes it a crime to give voters waiting in line food and water. A new proposal this legislative session aims to eliminate ballot drop boxes altogether.

Butler said her organization will work to ensure voters are aware of the changes.

“We’re going to tell them if you need to bring water if you need to bring snacks, do it. Come prepared,” Butler said. “We’re going to make sure everyone gets to exercise their right to vote.”

But even she is eyeing the midterm elections with some skepticism.

“They are trying to make life more difficult for the election officials and the voters,” Butler said. “In terms of midterm elections outcome, we will be watching.”

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