There’s a possibility that Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff can change the balance of power in the U.S. Senate towards Democrats. The pair are popular, they’re running in the same Georgia that recently tilted ever-so-slightly for Joe Biden, and there’s a real national effort to support their bids. It would put the Senate in 50-50 control with the deciding vote cast by Vice President Kamala Harris, a prospect appealing for Georgia Democrats – who, led by powerhouse Stacey Abrams, are eager to see a Black woman in such an incredible important position.
And to all of that add the most unexpected but perhaps not unsurprising development: Georgia conservatives might not turn up.
At a recent event hosting GOP national chair Ronna McDaniel, fiercely loyal Trump supporters claimed that McDaniel and other party leaders weren’t interested enough in Trump’s failed re-election or the fraud that the president has repeatedly insisted happened. There is no evidence to support Trump’s claims, and he often makes claims about voter fraud to cover his own failings. But for his diehard supporters, the voter fraud was real and it infected Georgia, aided by Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – both Republicans who are not keen on the assertion that their state elections were tainted by voter fraud.
This is the kind of thing that Republicans have engendered after years of insisting voter fraud is rampant – long before Trump took office. Trump has worsened something the party was already doing. But he has, for sure, worsened it. And brought it to its logical conclusion: if state officials can’t stop the fraud, what’s the point in voting? Ossoff and Warnock will win no matter what, Trump’s supporters insist, because Democrats are rigging Georgia’s elections.
“Why should we vote in this election when we know it’s already decided?” a voter asked McDaniel last Saturday. If you’ve been listening to the president, it’s a very good question. A question that McDaniel can’t answer without appearing to contradict Trump, something his supporters don’t like.
She tried. “It’s not decided. This is the key—it’s not decided,” she told the crowd. Based on the results from November 3, incumbent David Purdue is leading in his race against Ossoff. But those are also the results that show Trump losing, and if the Purdue results are genuine then so too are the Trump results.
Of course, you could argue – as many have – that the fact that Purdue is leading shows that the Trump result really is genuine. Why would Democrats rig the White House but let Mitch McConnell keep control of the Senate?
Trump could resolve this problem by admitting that he was defeated and encouraging his voters to support Purdue and Kelly Loeffler. He could. He will not, though, because he doesn’t care about conservativism or the Republican Party.
And yet Republican politicians – at least national ones – are unwilling to walk away from the man who twice lost the popular vote and had the most unpopular presidency since Ford. Why?
Reason 1: Trump is still the best they’ve got
For all his myriad problems, Trump won the 2016 presidential election, at least as far as the all-important electoral college went. Trump’s path to the presidency was through the upper midwest, where he won the states of Michigan and Wisconsin, and through the critically important state of Pennsylvania. All three of these states have some manufacturing heritage, some outdoors lifestyle, and often have Republican-controlled legislatures. They’ve always been potential grabs for a Republican presidential nominee. But they’re not particularly religious (Pennsylvania and Michigan are one of many states tied at the middle of religiosity ratings while Wisconsin is near the bottom) and there’s still strong union membership (again more in Pennsylvania and Michigan than Wisconsin) so you have people in these states who are wary of politicians who are over-religious or speak harshly about unions.
While a Republican presidential nominee might suggest unions are holding back manufacturing, Trump said it was China. A Republican nominee might say we’ve lost our religious faith but Trump said it was foreigners and outsiders impacting our culture. In 2016, voters in those three states were receptive to this message, not necessarily because they embraced the xenophobia inherent to it but because it provided an explanation and a potential solution to their most immediate fear. Manufacturing jobs are leaving my state, they are going to China, and Donald Trump will stop them.
In 2020, a slim majority of voters in those states seemed to say that whatever Trump might have done – and it honestly wasn’t good – it wasn’t worth the racially-charged anti-democratic rhetoric that he peddled.
In the past three decades, only one Republican nominee – George W. Bush – won a presidential popular vote, and it was just once: 2004. Bush’s 2000 victory and Trump’s 2016 victory both came sans popular vote, while Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 victories, Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories, and Biden’s 2020 victory all came with popular vote victories (as did Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss and Al Gore’s 2000 loss).
Georgia’s razor-thin 2020 flip may well portend the coming demographic cliff that the Republican Party faces. Virginia, once a solid conservative vote, is now an uncontested Democratic stronghold. Call it a swing state all you want, but the increasingly urban New Hampshire hasn’t given its electoral votes to a Republican since 2000. Arizona and Georgia may well be next, becoming SSINOs – swing states in name only – as Democrats harness the power of educated urban voters in Phoenix and Tucson and Atlanta and Athens.
Trump represents the last and perhaps most frightening hope of the Republican Party. The moderates, like the late John McCain or Mitt Romney (the only GOP senator to vote to convict Trump at his impeachment trial), couldn’t win national races. Trump did, even if only through the technicalities of the electoral college and even if only once. So Trump still represents something of a success story for the party.
With the likely presidency-in-exile that awaits (or with Trump launching his 2024 election bid), Republicans are fearful that crossing Trump could alienate his base – something we’ll get to in a second – but they’re also worried that crossing Trump could alienate Trump himself and, like it or not, a Trump bid in 2024 might have more legs than Marco Rubio or even the Trumpesque Tom Cotton.
At the very least, a friendly-to-the-party Trump could campaign for the 2024 nominee even if it isn’t Trump.
Reason 2: Trump is more popular than they are – with voters
Think about those Georgia voters for a moment. It’s true that they’re being told by President Trump that the voting is rigged, but it’s also fair to say that without Trump they have no interest in the Republican Party.
Whenever Trump turned his back on a Republican politician, his base did, too. Republicans who stood up to Trump did so at their own peril. Utah Republicans have been increasingly upset with their junior senator, Mitt Romney, and some have claimed to have been duped into voting for him believing he was a conservative when he really isn’t.
Of course, Mitt Romney is a conservative.
“It’s not that he’s not conservative, it’s that he’s not loyal,” Weber State University Political Science Professor Leah Murray told NPR member station KUER back in September. “It’s more of a branding thing than I think it is an actual understanding of Mitt Romney’s positions.”
Although Romney never supported Trump’s election bids, Trump has been particularly hard on Romney since he voted to convict in the president’s impeachment trial.
Romney is a multimillionaire who is still respected in Utah for stewarding the 2002 Winter Olympics there and while his approval numbers have fallen dramatically since he took office he’s unlikely to face any serious challenges to his re-election. But it takes the first two things to get to the third thing – in other words, if Romney wasn’t personally wealthy enough to fund a campaign if he has to and wasn’t already liked by his community for a literal once-in-a-generation feat, he might be on rockier ground. It’s no wonder that other Republicans aren’t lining up to criticize Donald Trump.
Even in defeat, Trump remains popular. It’s part of why it’s essential for him to spin his defeat as the product of fraud. If Trump lost genuinely, the idea of the invincible all-powerful uberpresident collapses. If Trump lost in a fraud, he remains the ultimate champion of American values.
His base remains energized. Republicans are faced with the choice of reaching beyond the base to moderate voters or doubling down on pro-Trump partisanship. They’re going to double down because they have to. To reach one inch across the divide, even to the most centrist voter, will be treated by Trump’s base as a betrayal. He made their bed and now Republican politicians must lie in it.
Cover image credit: Aaron of L.A. Photography / Shutterstock.com. Used under license.