In the minds of many Georgia swing voters, the Trump-dominated Republican party is a threat to the nation
‘Republicans have largely given up on governing.’ Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA
It appears, at the moment I’m writing this, that Democratic candidates have won both of the US Senate races in Georgia, with the Rev Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeating the Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. If these results are confirmed, the incoming US Senate will be split 50-50 between the two parties but Democrats will hold de facto control, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote. This further will mean that the Republican party under Donald Trump lost control of the House of Representatives in 2018, the White House in 2020 and the Senate in 2021 – a trifecta of defeat that may finally convince the party of the need to liberate itself from Trump’s malign domination.
Credit for the victories must go to the candidates themselves, get-out-the-vote organizers in Georgia’s minority communities (Stacey Abrams above all), and Democratic donors and volunteers from all over the country. But the Republicans did as much to lose these elections as the Democrats did to win them.
Although Trump lost by less than 12,000 votes in Georgia – as the nation recently was reminded with the release of the phone call in which Trump brazenly attempted to badger state election officials into overturning the results – the down-ballot Republican candidates performed well in those November elections. Perdue actually ran ahead of Trump and led Ossoff by about 88,000 votes, garnering 49.7% of the vote to Ossoff’s 47.9%. In nearly every other state this would have meant Perdue’s re-election, but a Georgia law from the 1960s requires a runoff election when no general election candidate receives an outright majority.
Loeffler ran in a special election in November – the Republican governor, Brian Kemp, had appointed her to the Senate in 2019 following the previous incumbent’s resignation for health reasons – and trailed Warnock in the vote tally. In aggregate, however, Republican candidates outperformed Democrats by a full percentage point. And both Loeffler and Perdue benefited from ticket-splitting in Atlanta’s wealthy suburbs, where predominantly white and traditionally Republican voters rejected Trump (or at least withheld their votes for the presidency) but continued to support Republican candidates for other offices.
These factors, combined with a record of Republicans outperforming Democrats in past runoffs, meant that the odds favored Loeffler and Perdue. And if the rematches had taken place in mid-November, both would probably have won handily.
But in the nine weeks that followed election day, Trump broke with the tradition of conceding defeat (graciously or otherwise) and facilitating a peaceful transition of power – the tradition that makes possible our national experiment in republican self-government. Instead, he claimed without evidence that the election had been stolen from him and dragooned much of the Republican party into his grotesque crusade to overthrow democracy.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Republicans could have made a strong case for re-electing Loeffler and Perdue in order to maintain control over the Senate as a check on the incoming administration. But evidently in the minds of many Georgia swing voters, the Trump-dominated Republican party has itself become the threat to the nation that needs checking.
The election returns from Georgia are showing a consistent pattern of Democrats having shown up at the polls at rates approaching their general election turnout, while significant numbers of Republicans stayed home. Democrats did a superb job of voter mobilization, including the door-to-door efforts that they chose not to undertake for pandemic-related reasons in the lead-up to the November elections. But they also made the straightforward argument that the Georgia elections mattered because Biden’s success in appointing officials and passing progressive programs would depend upon Democrats retaking control of the Senate.
Republicans, however, were forced by Trump’s pretenses to address their voters in Georgia in a tortured syntax that might be called the future fraudulent conditional: if control of the US Senate were at stake in this election, which it wasn’t because Trump actually won a second term, then voting for these Republican candidates would be important even though Democrats probably would steal this election too. Republicans thus depressed their own voter turnout and ensured their own defeat.
In addition, since Republicans have largely given up on governing, they had no positive program to run on other than supporting Trump and no policies to advance for coping with the economic and human toll of the pandemic. And the extent to which Loeffler and Perdue abased themselves before Trump’s demands – including their call for Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to resign for alleged “mismanagement and lack of transparency” in the November elections – confirmed public cynicism about politicians’ willingness to do and say anything in order to get re-elected.
Republicans will push this program of self-sabotage even further by objecting to the electoral college vote-count in the US Congress. It’s likely that a dirty dozen or so of Republican senators and more than a hundred Republican representatives will try to disenfranchise millions of voters in order to throw the election to Trump. The fact that it’s foredoomed to failure doesn’t lessen the dishonor of the attempt or the damage to American democracy.
The Republican National Committee is unlikely to engage in the kind of agonized reappraisal that followed Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, because any new “autopsy report” would have to confront the extent to which Trump has divided the party. The Republican civil war in Georgia, in which populist radicals claim that establishment leaders like Raffensperger and Governor Brian Kemp colluded with Democrats and nefarious elites to betray Trump, will play out across the country.
An honest autopsy also would have to acknowledge that even many of the establishment Republican leaders who upheld the law in the face of Trump’s authoritarian demands have themselves acted undemocratically in attempting to suppress minority votes, as Kemp did in 2018 when he was Georgia’s secretary of state. The present election results in Georgia demonstrate that such efforts are not only immoral but self-defeating, as African Americans’ high turnout was powered by a determination not to allow Republicans to deprive them of the civil rights for which their forbears fought and died.
The next few years will witness a titanic struggle within the Republican party between Trump’s fanatical grassroots supporters and whatever elements in the party still care about governing and holding the country together. But even the comparatively responsible actors will have to change course if the Republican party will ever deserve to hold power again.
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