Loeffler declines to rule out formal protest of Biden's win

FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2020, file photo Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., speaks as President Donald Trump and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., listen at a campaign rally at Valdosta Regional Airport, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Valdosta, Ga. Many Republican voters in Georgia are angry; certain that widespread voter fraud claims of which are baseless cost President Donald Trump the election. Most Republican voters in the state interviewed said they were prepared to put their skepticism aside to vote for Perdue and Loeffler in their races against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) (Evan Vucci, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ATLANTA – Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia on Wednesday declined to rule out a formal protest of Democrat Joe Biden's victory when Congress convenes next month to certify the presidential election results.

It's the latest refusal by Loeffler to acknowledge Biden's victory in the Nov. 3 election, as she and fellow Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia cling to President Donald Trump's false assertions of widespread voter fraud. It comes as early voting heats up in their two high-stakes Senate runoffs that will determine which party controls the Senate at the outset of Biden's presidency.

Loeffler and Perdue's position, at odds with the Electoral College and a bipartisan slate of elections officials nationally who have verified the integrity of the voting process, underscores the hold that Trump has on the Republican Party and on his core supporters. Those voters will be crucial in the Jan. 5 runoffs as Loeffler takes on Democrat Raphael Warnock and Perdue faces Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Loeffler, when asked whether she'd consider disputing the election when a joint session of Congress convenes for the final certification of Biden's election, replied, “I haven't looked at it.” The senator, speaking outside her early voting precinct Wednesday, called that Jan. 6 session “a long way out” and added that “there’s a lot to play out between now and then.”

In fact, Trump’s legal team has lost dozens of state and federal court disputes challenging the counts in Georgia and other battleground states where Biden prevailed. Most notably, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected a suit by the state of Texas challenging several other states’ results.

Following the Electoral College's affirmation on Monday of Biden's victory, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell broke his weeks of silence on the matter to congratulate Biden and call on his fellow Republican senators not to dispute the results. Biden won 306 electoral votes to 232 for Trump, the same margin that Trump bragged was a landslide when he won the White House four years ago.

Warnock on Wednesday seized on Loeffler's latest refusal to accept Biden’s win. Say it with me @KLoeffler," he wrote on Twitter. “@JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris won the election. It’s disrespectful to Georgia voters to say anything else.”

Loeffler could do little more than momentarily delay the final certification of Biden’s victory over Trump. But she — along with Perdue — has been consistent since the election in joining with Trump to cast doubt on the outcome and insist it’s not over.

The senators are scheduled to welcome Vice President Mike Pence to Georgia on Thursday for the third time during the two-month runoff blitz. Pence, too, has yet to acknowledge Biden as president-elect. As vice president, he will preside over the Jan. 6 session to count Electoral College votes.

Biden campaigned Tuesday in Atlanta alongside Warnock and Ossoff. The president-elect chided Perdue and Loeffler for toeing Trump’s line on the presidential race. “They fully embraced nullifying nearly 5 million Georgia votes,” Biden said.

In a statement released by his campaign Wednesday, Perdue argued anew that Trump “still has the right to fight to ensure that the results of the election are fair and accurate,” and restated his fealty to the president. “I have fought alongside President Trump since day one to get our agenda accomplished, and I continue to stand with him now,” he said.

Perdue avoided mention of the January joint session. He can sidestep the matter more easily than Loeffler because he won’t be on the floor regardless of the runoff results. Perdue was elected in 2014 to a full term that expires when the new Congress is sworn in days before the Jan. 6 session. He would have to win reelection, have Georgia officials certify the results and have the Senate accept that certification before beginning a second term. That means the seat will be vacant for a period in January.

Loeffler, on the other hand, took her seat in January 2020 as the appointed successor to former Sen. Johnny Isakson, who had retired. Isakson was last elected in 2016 for a term that runs through January 2023. Even if Warnock defeats Loeffler, she would remain in the Senate until Georgia certified the victory and the Senate accepted Warnock as a new member.

Meanwhile, as of Wednesday morning, more than 715,000 Georgians had cast absentee ballots or voted early in person. That's about 100,000 votes off the general election pace at the same point, according to Ryan Anderson, a nonpartisan data analyst based in Atlanta.

Republicans need to win one of the two seats for McConnell to return as majority leader and set the Senate agenda. Democrats must sweep the contests to position Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tiebreaking vote.

Perdue and Loeffler have embraced the nationalization of the race because of the stakes. They blast Ossoff and Warnock as tools of a left wing that would have unfettered control in Washington if the GOP loses in Georgia. The argument depends partly on a caricature of the challengers, whose positions on health care, energy policy and other issues are more in line with Biden's than with the left flank's.

But the GOP line of attack also depends on the unspoken reality of a Biden victory -- because if Trump were still president, the Senate would not be the final bulwark against Democratic policies, since Trump could veto legislation.

Loeffler and Perdue simply don’t complete the argument out loud.