The recriminations about the likely loss of two GOP incumbents in Georgia will ripple through Republican circles in a display of total acrimony. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the strong message from D.C. Republicans will be: If not for Donald Trump complaining about election fraud, this would’ve gone differently. And they’re right — you could say that about anything in the past five years! — though possibly not in the sense they mean.
What I heard repeatedly from people on the ground in Georgia was: Holding out hope that their re-election would make some difference for Trump motivated more pro-Trump voters to get out for David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler than the stolen-election talk turned off. Perdue and Loeffler knew they needed those voters, and they talked the best populist game they could — they just couldn’t get enough of them to win without Trump himself on the ballot. It’s telling that the outcome for Perdue, in particular, could be the 30,000 votes or so he lagged in newly-elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district.
Senate elections are now effectively nationalized to a greater degree than ever before. Presuming Perdue’s loss, a mere six senators — three Democrats, three Republicans — now occupy seats in states won by the opposing party’s presidential candidate. The whole thing creates a Republican version of the Obama coalition talk from 2009-2016: Can you get the Trump coalition together and build on it in these states without Trump on the ballot? Is that the coalition you want? In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Republicans have two years to figure that out.
The attitude from Washington Republicans in advance of this election was total confidence in their ground game. This confidence was reiterated in the past few weeks as a reason why, despite it polling as an 80-20 issue, Mitch McConnell was right to deny a vote on bumping stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000. Internals I saw for both candidates were trending ahead up to the point where the stimulus checks controversy happened. The choice to leave it as a live issue benefiting Democrats, who will now almost assuredly pass it, still befuddles me.
Republicans contacted millions over and over, knocked on all the doors, pulled out all the stops. And it’s true, they did all that. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent cycles, the reason people go out and vote isn’t just because they’ve been touched 10 times. The candidates matter, and you can’t just roll out a billionaire basketball team owner in a baseball cap and say, “Vote for her and like it.”
For the door-knockers, a repeated experience in Georgia was talking to voters who viewed these two candidates purely as vehicles to stand against a Biden-Harris agenda. The level of excitement about Perdue and Loeffler that was unique to them was basically nil. Gov. Brian Kemp, having overthought his choice — and overruling Trump’s preference — in naming Loeffler, a candidate with a wooden presence and no charisma whose most defining trait became ethically questionable stock trades, had to learn the hard way that self-funding isn’t that valuable if the candidate is incapable of the most basic politicking.
Perdue is in many ways the harder loss to feel. Unlike Raphael Warnock, Jon Ossoff won’t be up for re-election again in two years, and his thin resume and lack of charisma should’ve been easier to beat. But as with Loeffler, the populist moment just didn’t wear well for the wealthy businessman. It is not an exaggeration to say that Warnock carried Ossoff over the finish line against him.
As for Kemp — bloodied from his feud with Trump and his decidedly unpopular coronavirus response — now heads into his re-election facing the prospect of a legitimate primary challenge (perhaps from the denied Rep. Doug Collins) and an ebullient Democratic machine ready to Make Stacey Abrams Governor Again. So that will be fun to watch.
Meanwhile, the biggest winners in Washington conventional wisdom will be the “centrists” such as Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and Mitt Romney, whose votes theoretically become all the more important in a Senate headed for a 50-50 divide. In actuality, the 50-50 split will incentivize more gridlock on a host of matters actually important to voters, and more ease of passage for items important to Washington lobbyists with good access to the Biden-Harris administration, which should certainly serve to please everyone. The biggest impact will likely end up being in the arena of nominations, where Biden is now free to name more controversial choices to key positions.