Rift Between Georgia Republicans Grows As Runoff Elections Approach President Trump's pressure campaign against officials in Georgia has caused a major rift within the Republican party. It could have major implications if the Senate runoffs don't go the GOP's way.

Rift Between Georgia Republicans Grows As Runoff Elections Approach

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One thing you might need to win an election is a unified message, but Republican unity is hard to come by in the state of Georgia right now. President Trump has called Governor Brian Kemp a fool and a clown for refusing to overturn President-elect Joe Biden's victory there. Kemp says intervening in the election would be illegal. And pressure over that dispute is creating a rift within the state's Republican Party just three weeks before runoff elections that will determine control of the Senate. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Emma Hurt reports.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Earlier this month, Governor Brian Kemp gave a press conference at the state capitol about Georgia's plan to distribute the coronavirus vaccine.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BRIAN KEMP: Well, good afternoon, everyone. First of all, let me thank you for joining us today. Also...

HURT: But the elephant in the room is politics. And on the Facebook Live comments, it's center stage. This man has turned his back on his Republican Party, writes one Georgian. I can't believe I voted for you, Kemp. Sellout, says another. And don't bother to run again. You're finished. Needless to say, Georgia Republicans are divided right now. Some lawmakers are calling to override the governor and back the president by demanding a special session of the legislature.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE JOHN FREDERICKS SHOW")

JOHN FREDERICKS: We're here in Athens today. Burt Jones with us and Brandon Beach, part of the gang of four putting out a petition demanding a special session. They're trying to go around the governor. They need 29...

HURT: Republican state Senators Jones and Beach were on "The John Fredericks Show," a national pro-Trump radio program, last week. They allege large-scale voter fraud, which Republican election officials have said didn't happen. Here's Beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE JOHN FREDERICKS SHOW")

BRANDON BEACH: And I can tell you if we do not fix this - and that's why I'm so adamant about this. I'm so fearful that we're going to wake up January 6 and we're not going to like what happened because it's not going to be a fair election.

HURT: Beach and Jones are responding to pressure from their pro-Trump constituents, like those tearing Kemp apart on the Internet and calling in on this show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE JOHN FREDERICKS SHOW")

FREDERICKS: Let's get to the phone lines where we have Caroline from Sandy Springs. Caroline...

HURT: These senators, some say, are ready to break the law to back President Trump, but Caroline wants them to know it's still not enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE JOHN FREDERICKS SHOW")

CAROLINE: We are mad. I'm being very nice right now. We need you to step up and do your part. We need you to stand up for us now.

HURT: The pressure is so fierce on Republican state lawmakers, it was difficult to find someone willing to speak on the record for this story. They're worried about being targeted. But one did.

CHUCK MARTIN: My name is Chuck Martin. I represent the 49th District up in North Fulton County.

HURT: Martin is a longtime Republican. He's spent 18 years in the General Assembly and wishes President Trump won the election. But he, like the governor, doesn't believe the Constitution allows the legislature to intervene. That hasn't stopped tens of thousands of emails from flowing in.

MARTIN: I'm getting an email that says, stand true to your oath of office; do this. But standing true to my oath of office doesn't allow me to do that.

HURT: It's been the most frustrating moment in his public service career, he says, because some people have been completely convinced by misinformation, like one retired Army colonel who is pushing for the election to be overturned. Martin responded with language from the state Constitution saying, please explain how I can legally do what you're asking me to do.

MARTIN: And instead, from him, I get no how. Instead, you know, he calls me a coward, a traitor, you know, somebody that won't stand up to my oath of office. And that's frustrating to me. I mean, I take this job seriously.

HURT: President Trump is creating a rift in the Republican Party at a very inopportune time, says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

CHARLES BULLOCK: And as we saw in November of this year, the Republican Party does not have a large and commanding lead within Georgia. It is fairly close. It could be the kind of division that opens the door for Democrats to do very well in 2022.

HURT: Jeanne Bradley is a Republican voter from Hephzibah in eastern Georgia. She was at a Mike Pence rally this month, and she's just confused because of the mixed messages about the election and about her Republican leaders.

JEANNE BRADLEY: So we need to know more. You know, you're getting bits and pieces from all of the news media. You don't know what to believe anymore. And it's just not the news media. It's people, you know, in general.

HURT: Republicans will still have her vote, but there are other people, she says, who may throw up their hands in this chaos, vote Democratic or skip the election. And if Republicans lose the runoffs, the big divisions that have emerged since November will likely only intensify in the GOP.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.

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