Debacle in Georgia

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“The entire fate of the Republican Party for the foreseeable future will be cast in the next 48 hours,” predicted GOP strategist Bradley Blakeman on the eve of the Georgia Senate runoffs. “The Senate majority will be decided as well as the finality of the 2020 presidential election.”

For Republicans, it turned out to be a rough 48 hours. The party will soon find itself shut out of power in Washington, with the substantial exception of the courts, for the first time since early in Barack Obama’s first term a decade ago.

Both of the Georgia Senate seats fell to the Democrats, giving them a majority in that chamber, and unified control of the elected branches of the federal government, after noon on Jan. 20. Barely hours after these races were called, Washington descended into chaos as a mob, trusting in and infuriated by President Trump’s claim that the presidential election was stolen, breached the Capitol. The four deaths and destruction cast a dark shadow over Trump’s tumultuous term, triggering White House resignations and newly bipartisan calls for his immediate removal from office.

By early the following morning, Trump’s election challenges fizzled, and a joint session of Congress certified Joe Biden as the next president of the United States based on the Electoral College vote. Upon taking office, Vice President Kamala Harris will effectively be able to demote Mitch McConnell and promote Chuck Schumer to Senate majority leader with her tiebreaking vote.

How quickly things change. When the much-anticipated November results rolled in, Republicans appeared to have pulled off a death-defying feat that was not quite at 2016 levels — Biden won, after all — but remarkable nonetheless. Republicans were on the cusp of retaining their Senate majority. All they needed to do was win with two incumbent GOP senators in a reddish state, one of whom was already 0.37 percentage points away from an outright majority in the first round of balloting, in a climate of conservative anger over Biden’s election.

The Democrats’ House majority was whittled down to 222 seats, just four more than is necessary to ensure Nancy Pelosi maintains her grip on the speaker’s gavel. Republicans came within seven seats of the majority, falsifying predictions of a blue wave, ahead of the more favorable 2022 cycle. Republicans gained 52 House seats in 1994 and 63 seats in 2010, the first midterm elections of the last two Democratic presidents.

Even in defeat, Trump was more competitive in the Rust Belt than any Republican presidential nominee since the 1980s. He again won Ohio by 8 points while holding on to Florida and Texas. His subsequent stolen election claims derived whatever plausibility they had from the fact that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were once again close, as were the two other critical Biden pickups, Arizona and Georgia.

Despite a pandemic, a lockdown-induced economic slowdown, a summer of racial justice protests that drew controversial White House responses, and a generally polarizing political approach, Trump finished with north of 200 electoral votes. It would not be easy for a future Republican presidential candidate to maintain his gains with white working-class voters while reversing his debilitating losses in the suburbs, but a path back to 270 was visible. Trump once again lost the popular vote but outperformed expectations and most polls. “He added 11 million votes,” said Republican strategist Mark Smith, who compared it to Ronald Reagan’s improvement between 1980 and 1984.

For Trump-skeptical conservatives, the outcome almost seemed too good to be true. Trump lost but ran competitively enough not to doom the rest of the ticket. Biden won but without the Senate could not enact the furthest-reaching ambitions of the left-wing “Squad” or more than incrementally reshape the federal judiciary. Trump fell short in Georgia, but it wasn’t implausible Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler could run slightly ahead of him to prevail in the runoffs against Democratic challengers who were quite liberal by the state’s recent historical standards.

Trump may have lost his “Are you tired of winning yet?” bragging rights along with the White House. But it was far from the landslide defeat many reputable mainstream pollsters had once again predicted, this time running as an incumbent in much worse conditions against a far better candidate than Hillary Clinton. A Republican Senate could preserve many Trump policy accomplishments. And Trump was better positioned to pull a Grover Cleveland with a run four years later than any defeated president since Gerald Ford in 1976.

None of this was good enough for Trump, a major reason why the most optimistic scenarios for the GOP no longer seem like a foregone conclusion, if they ever truly were. The recriminations the party seemed to avoid in November are now upon us.

First came the finger-pointing over Georgia.

“The lazy take, championed by many in the mainstream media and by the chattering class, is to blame President Trump and the disjointed messaging that came from the GOP during the runoff,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “But the bottom line is that Republicans got outflanked on the ground in Georgia. Due to the changing demographics of the state, Democrats wisely invested in organizing and in registering new voters, and it paid off. Therefore, it is the Georgia Democratic Party that deserves the kudos here, and Georgia Republicans need to up their game because now, Georgia is a purple state that is getting bluer by the minute.”

Others defended the local GOP, including the beleaguered governor. “Brian Kemp’s team, including Kemp-aligned groups like Georgia United Victory, busted their butts to deliver a win for both Republicans, turning out as many as 180,000 low-propensity voters who, if they voted, would definitely, without a second thought, vote GOP and who no one else was even trying to turn out,” said a Republican consultant who worked for Loeffler. “This was the Stacey Abrams playbook, and the Kemp guys’ successful deployment of it should have worked, barring a bunch of the other nonsense from certain national-level and internet-famous Republicans we have seen over the past few weeks. But the nonsense occurred.”

The primary impact Trump has had on the GOP is to alienate suburban white voters, especially college-educated women. This was acute in Georgia, where he only won by 5 points against Clinton in 2016. When Trump tapped Rep. Tom Price to be his secretary of health and human services, Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who just beat Perdue, nearly won a special election in the district, which had been reliably Republican since the days of Newt Gingrich. Trump carried it by just 1.5 points the year he was elected.

“You’ve got the gang who couldn’t shoot straight,” said Smith, the Republican strategist. “A governor that I like, but unfortunately, a governor with a state party in shambles. [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, who suddenly became a fiscal hawk with the $2,000 stimulus checks because we can’t add any more to the debt. Trump supporters, including this moronic lawyer Lin Wood, telling people not to vote in the runoff.”

The Trump-McConnell debate will have implications for the party going forward. Did Republicans fail because Trump remained fixated on the election, sowing doubt about the electoral process in the very state the party needed to win to hold on to the Senate while demoralizing the conservative base? Or did they fall short because Republican congressional leaders did not learn the populist lessons of Trump’s improbable 2016 victory and continued to offer up a mix of cuts to corporate taxes and popular government programs that benefit the middle class?

McConnell, whose wife Elaine Chao abruptly resigned as transportation secretary in protest over Trump’s rhetoric and the Capitol attack, has clearly had enough of the president’s election challenges. Some Republican insiders think Trump’s political instincts on aid to the middle class are sharper than McConnell’s or former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s, but note the president only parachuted into the debate over $2,000 relief payments, which the Georgia GOP candidates ultimately supported, at the last minute. “And now he wants to change it after the fact?” complained a longtime GOP operative. “He needs a refresher on the Constitution and how a bill becomes a law.”

The most immediate result of Georgia is that Biden’s legislative agenda now has an easier path forward and can, if he chooses, be more ambitious. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist who was the Left’s choice in the last two Democratic presidential nominating contests, is in line for a major committee chairmanship. Pressure from outside left-wing groups will increase. “If we win the Senate, then I do think the administration should be open to more aggressive appointments, or rather appointments who would support a more aggressive agenda to help working families,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a top progressive from New York, told CNN.

But this is still a small majority by historical standards. Democrats had three-fifths majorities in both houses of Congress under Obama and just barely passed Obamacare, with many other legislative initiatives stalled. Their majorities were comparably sized during the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Hillary’s healthcare plan never received a recorded vote. The Clinton tax increase barely passed the House and made it through the Senate only by Al Gore’s tiebreaking vote. If Republicans are unified, everything would have to pass a Biden-era Senate with Harris’s tiebreaking vote.

The number of centrist Democrats is much smaller than under Clinton or Obama. But with such narrow majorities, it doesn’t take many — especially if the margins prove too slim to eliminate the legislative filibuster, which would remain a major point of leverage for embattled Democrats from red states. “The most popular person on Capitol Hill is going to be Joe Manchin,” Smith said. Manchin has trended in favor of voting more with his party even as West Virginia gets redder and Trump won the state twice by 40 points, voting for impeachment and against Amy Coney Barrett. Still, he has incentives to want to be a power broker, and Democrats have to accommodate him to some degree. If they lose his seat, it could be decades before they get it back.

Unified Democratic government also increases the likelihood that something will pass that will galvanize Republican voters, and help turn the page on Trump, in the 2022 midterm elections. This was the formula that worked in 1994, 2010, and 2014. Biden may hope that he can break this cycle by forging bipartisan consensus rather than getting mired in another round of partisan gridlock, but the liberals and socialists who reluctantly voted for him have bigger, more controversial plans.

It is possible to overreact to recent events. Trump-era controversies, from the Access Hollywood tape to the Vladimir Putin press conference to child separation at the border, seemed likely to doom the GOP, only to recede. The Georgia Senate races took place under an unusual set of circumstances and were still exceptionally close — Ossoff edged out Perdue 50.5% to 49.5%, Raphael Warnock topped Loeffler 50.9% to 49.1%. (Though the counterargument would be that candidates as liberal as Warnock and Ossoff are now able to run even with Republicans just a few years after the more centrist Max Cleland and Michelle Nunn were easily beaten.)

“Despite the losses, which will have serious effects for Georgians, the GOP, and Americans more broadly, this work demonstrated that Kemp and his team are forces to be reckoned with,” said the Republican who worked on behalf of Loeffler. “It took a lot to get Perdue and Loeffler into the situations they found themselves in, and the carnage would have been much, much worse if Kemp & Co. hadn’t pulled out all the stops the way they did. It’s pretty clear there is no other candidate or team equipped to do battle with Stacey Abrams in Georgia and perhaps even nationally.”

But as Republicans chart their course forward, they have a challenge determining how to keep the voters Trump added to their coalition while wooing some he alienated. In addition to policy debates, there is also a matter of temperament. Much of the base loved Trump’s combativeness, while this attitude, more than any specific action the administration undertook, undeniably turned off some voters otherwise inclined to vote Republican and cultivated a national mood many others found tiresome.

A president with a different character would not have hesitated to tell his supporters to stand down and accept the election results rather than engage in shameful violence. But there aren’t necessarily many Republicans on the horizon anyone would be excited enough to engage in a stampede over, either.

W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner's politics editor.





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