Once the 2020 election results became clear, Republicans everywhere looked forward to salvaging control of the Senate and putting a hammerlock on the new Biden administration by winning the two Georgia runoff races for Senate. Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue were the early betting favorites. It was generally assumed that having harpooned the white whale in the White House, Democrats might be unenthused about showing up for a wintry stand-alone election (just as what happened in Georgia in the 2009 Senate runoff after Barack Obama’s election). Meanwhile, Republicans had an obvious message — providing a curb on Biden and his liberal congressional allies — that might appeal not only to base Republicans but to suburban swing voters who stayed home or went for Biden in November and didn’t really trust either party with total power.
Instead, Donald Trump has turned these crucial runoffs into yet another referendum on himself, though, this time around, it’s all about his empty, if vociferous, claims of a stolen election in Georgia and nationally. He has relentlessly attacked Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensperger and Governor Brian Kemp for certifying Biden’s narrow win in Georgia and rejecting his various demands for post-certification reviews of, or changes in, the tabulations. And just as Republicans were trying to stay focused and united in the run-up to January 5, the president blotted out the sky with his bizarre and quite possibly illegal hour-long phone call to Raffensperger, basically asking him to “find” enough new Trump votes to flip the state just prior to the official tabulation of electoral votes on January 6. Justifiably fearful of Trump lies about the conversation, Raffensperger taped it, and it quickly became public and dominated Georgia political news coverage as the state prepared for the fateful runoffs.
If there was any doubt at all about Trump’s determination to make the runoffs the final narcissistic act of his narcissistic presidency, he erased it during an election eve appearance in heavily Republican northwest Georgia (where a strong January 5 turnout is needed to offset relatively low early voting). As the New York Times reported, it was all about me, me, me:
In an appearance that was supposed to bolster the fortunes of the two Republican candidates — Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — Mr. Trump instead turned the nearly 90-minute rally into a rambling lecture filled with conspiracy theories, rumors, unproven assertions and personal attacks on Democrats, the news media and Georgia’s Republican officials.
“There’s no way we lost Georgia,” Mr. Trump said just after taking the stage. “I’ve had two elections. I’ve won both of them. It’s amazing.”
Moments later, after briefly mentioning the two Republican senators, he shifted back to his own, losing election: “They’re not going to take this White House. We’re going to fight like hell, I’ll tell you right now.”
Trump also found time to pledge to return to Georgia to campaign against Kemp’s reelection in 2022 (which must have discomfited Loeffler, sitting on the platform with him, since Kemp put her in the Senate with an interim appointment late last year). Again, Trump is doing this for the unforgivable sin of failing to confirm presidential lies about the November results. His presence and message also extorted from Loeffler a pledge to vote against acceptance of the electoral-vote count on January 6, which was echoed by Perdue at a distance (he is in quarantine after exposure to COVID-19). And to the extent that Trump paid attention to the senatorial candidates on whose behalf he was ostensibly appearing during his 80-minute speech, it was mostly to argue that their reelection was necessary to protect his own accomplishments. “Everything that we achieved together is on the line tomorrow,” Trump reportedly said. “Our fight to take back our country from the big donors, the big media, and the horrendous big-tech giants.”
Other remarks at the rally from Donald Trump Jr. and the area’s new wild-ass representative, Marjorie Taylor Greene, reinforced the message that the runoffs were just another battleground in Trump’s permanent war on his various enemies.
So we can now be sure that whatever happens in the Georgia runoffs, it will be interpreted as a reflection of Trump’s grip on the Republican Party and his prospects after he leaves office in a couple of weeks.
If Loeffler and Perdue lose (and the smart money has been drifting slowly in the direction of their Democratic opponents, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff), the silver lining for Georgia Republicans is that they may be able to slough off blame for an election they may have lost anyway onto the president who insisted on personalizing it. Loeffler and Perdue both ran marginally ahead of Trump in the crucial Atlanta suburbs on November 3. If they fall short there in the runoffs, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump was effectively on the ballot instead of the senators. Nationally, Republicans may have the opportunity to reconsider an automatic “leader of the opposition” (or, as Lindsey Graham recently put it, “shadow president”) role for Trump in the early days of the Biden presidency and may even plot to head off any 2024 Trump comeback. In combination with what looks to be a robust number of Republicans in Congress who will resist Trump’s demands for a vote to overturn Biden’s victory on January 6, a Georgia setback might give the GOP a fighting chance to choose something other than vengeance for Trump as its raison d’être going forward.
If Loeffler and Perdue do win, however, Trump will take 100 percent of the credit. Such a result would arguably show that he is the indispensable agent for Republican enthusiasm. Instead of representing the last political contest of 2020, the Georgia runoffs may begin to look like the first battle of the Trump post-presidency or an intended restoration. The long-suffering voters of Georgia, who have been bombarded with saturation levels of campaign ads and calls and knocks on the door even as citizens elsewhere begin to heal from overexposure to politics, will have a lot of responsibility beyond determining control of the Senate.