Disaster: GOP Turnout Sags in Georgia, Democrats Sweep Runoffs, Seize Senate Control

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Posted: Jan 06, 2021 12:30 PM
Disaster: GOP Turnout Sags in Georgia, Democrats Sweep Runoffs, Seize Senate Control

It appears that Democrats have swept Georgia's two Senate runoff races, notching victories that will hand Senate control to incoming majority leader Chuck Schumer.  Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will break 50-50 ties. Republicans I'd spoken to in recent days had expressed guarded optimism about the overall dynamics and their election day turnout operation -- which they knew would be necessary to overcome the lead Democrats had banked with early and absentee balloting.  Shortly after polls closed, however, it started to become clear that that their cautious bullishness was misplaced.  Key suburban counties broke against the GOP, and the deepest crimson areas of the state under-performed on turnout metrics.  That math added up to a pair of excruciatingly close and consequential losses.  A few thoughts:

(1) GOP turnout suffered, period.  Democrats hit their marks compared to November, while red areas lagged.  The working theory was that weaker performances leading up to January 5th could be swamped by the inevitable red election day wave (think Florida in November), but it wasn't enough. Republican counties, including in rural, pro-Trump areas, fell short.  Basically, Democrats maximized their turnout, again, and Republicans simply did not.  Recall that the Republican vote share in both Senate contests exceeded the Democratic totals back in November.  Runoffs have historically favored Republicans in Georgia, but that was not the case this year.  In a battle of turnout, Democrats won thanks in large part to self-inflicted GOP weakness (including in areas like this, represented by a conspiracy theorist who's endlessly insisted that the election was bogus -- though not her own):


(2) Republicans' circular firing squad absolutely cost them two Senate seats and an upper chamber majority.  And I fear the circular firing squad is only beginning.  The president has spent weeks shouting that the election was 'rigged' in several states -- focusing much of his ire and attention Georgia -- and calling top statewide elected Republicans (including the Governor and Secretary of State) feeble and disgraceful.  He's even been running ads about it in recent days.  At the same time, he has attempted to rally his supporters to participate in the runoff election, in spite of all of this.  It's a discordant message.  Many Georgia Republicans absorbed both arguments and showed up to vote, setting aside reservations.  But a small, significant portion of the GOP electorate decided not to participate in a process that has been loudly denounced as tainted and corrupt by the most influential figure in the party, with many other officials echoing the sentiment to varying degrees.  I've seen many frustrated conservatives serving up sarcastic quips like, "repeatedly signaling to your own base that voting is pointless may not have been a good strategy."  Obviously correct, of course, but it wasn't the party's strategy.  It was Trump's coping mechanism for losing the presidential election -- and facing a base that's fiercely loyal to Trump, much of the rest of the party simply played along, hoping that voters wouldn't take the griping so seriously as to sit out the Georgia runoffs.  They were playing with fire, and they got burned.

(3) Trump loyalists will double down on the 'rigged' narrative and argue that Trump not being on the ballot is what sunk Perdue and Loeffler (they'll be right about Trump's absence being a major factor for a sizable chunk of voters).  They'll also say that if Trump hadn't campaigned as often and as hard for the pair of defeated Senators as he did, they would have likely lost by bigger margins.  This is also likely true.  Meanwhile, Trump skeptics and critics will blame his unfounded 'stolen election' carping for scaring away enough desperately-needed, angry, and demoralized Trump voters, tipping the turnout advantage to unified Democrats.  When people hear 'rigged game' often enough, some of them are going to decide not to play.  There is truth to this critique, as well.  And with the president's son issuing loyalty threats with an eye toward the future, and Trump himself vowing to return to Georgia to campaign against the Republican governor in two years, things are shaping up nicely for Democrats in this purple state.  And make no mistake, that's exactly what it is now: A purple state.  The Democrats who just won are quite liberal.  Neither is a moderate.  Being the Trump-with-a-capital-T Party resulted in a narrow loss for the Georgia GOP in November, and now a fractured party has gone down to another defeat a few months later.  It's not clear what the path forward will be, but the tenuous Trump-era coalition just faltered on a huge stage (millions of its members don't believe the losses are real), and the ramifications will be immediate and detrimental to the country.

(4) Thank goodness Republican Senators hung on in so many crucial races this cycle (Maine, North Carolina, Iowa), or else Schumer and Nancy Pelosi may very well have the votes to ram through virtually anything they want.  Because of the Georgia failure, however, conservatives are going to have to hang their hopes on a tiny handful of more moderate Senate Democrats like Joe Manchin and the duo from Arizona to reject truly catastrophic overreach. Counting on Democratic partisans to hold the line, under intense pressure from their base and leadership, is not a happy proposition for Republicans, to put it mildly.  But here we are.  Policy outcomes will inevitably suffer, and some of the more more radical nominations that would have been D.O.A. in a McConnell Senate will now likely go through in a Schumer Senate.  Elections have consequences.

(5) Starting now, and for at least the next two years, two of the most powerful people in all of Washington will be Joe Manchin and Susan Collins.

(6) To several of my previous points, this should be a wake-up call for the Republican Party (in Georgia and elsewhere), but I'm not sure it will be.  And even if it serves that purpose for many of the faithful, the resulting 'lessons learned' will be divergent.  A vast and vocal contingent will blame 'Never-Trumpers,' RINOs, and fraud, while demanding a deeper Trumpification.  Others will point the finger squarely at Trump and demand a reset of the party.  Unless an out-of-power GOP can figure out how to bridge this divide in such a way that at least partially satisfies its irate electorate, the supposed layup of winning back the House in 2022 could very much be in jeopardy.  Unity against Democratic overreach could certainly help matters, of course, as it did after the GOP's 2008 thumping.  But clawing back power in two years is not a fait accompli, even with a tiny number of seats required to seize back the lower chamber gavel. Republicans should be able to do so fairly easily, based on trends and history.  But they should have managed to not squander two Senate seats in Georgia, based on those exact same factors -- and we all just saw what happened.

A brutal night, with some bruising fights and challenges lie ahead.  Onward.