Last night, a state in the Deep South voted to send a pro-choice, anti-death penalty Black preacher and an underemployed, Jewish millennial ex-journalist (who apparently listens to the Red Scare Podcast) to represent it in the U.S. Senate.
This is an ominous development for the Republican Party, and not only for its most immediate effects. Raphael Warnock’s defeat of Kelly Loeffler, and Jon Ossoff’s (apparent) victory over David Perdue in Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, have delivered the Democratic Party full control of the federal government. With 50 senators in the party’s caucus, and the tie-breaking vote of incoming Vice-President Kamala Harris, Democrats will have an effective majority in the upper chamber, enabling Biden’s Cabinet and judicial nominees to sail through with ease, and broadening the horizons of legislative possibility. The $2,000 COVID-19 stimulus checks that McConnell chose to block, in defiance of Donald Trump’s wishes and his own incumbents’ best interests, are poised for delivery — now, under Biden’s watch instead of a Republican’s. Should Clarence Thomas or Samuel Alito take ill in the next two years, the conservatives’ coveted 6-3 Supreme Court majority will be promptly reduced. It is at least conceivable, though admittedly unlikely, that Senate Democrats will abolish the filibuster and pass reforms that reduce the GOP’s counter-majoritarian power, such as restrictions on partisan gerrymandering and D.C. and/or Puerto Rico statehood.
But the Democrats’ double upset is also a grim portent for the GOP’s post-Trump electoral prospects. One shouldn’t read too much into special elections. The dynamics that govern irregular off-year contests and those that shape ordinary elections are very different. And a double-header runoff contest for control of the U.S. Senate, held amid a historic pandemic and a lame-duck president’s coup attempt, is an especially atypical special election. Nevertheless, Tuesday’s results suggest that “Trumpism without Trump” is a losing hand for the Republican Party. And it’s not clear that the GOP can deal itself a new one.
In November, David Perdue won nearly 2 percent more votes than Jon Ossoff, while the Republican candidates in the other Georgia Senate race collectively claimed more votes than the Democratic ones. For this reason, most observers expected Republicans to prevail in the runoffs. But the electorate that assembled on January 5 was not the one that Trump had amassed two months earlier. Voter turnout in deep-red, rural counties Tuesday night was markedly lower than in deep-blue Atlanta. And although conservatives had hoped that Georgia’s formerly Republican suburbs would reveal that their support for Joe Biden was just a one-off — as their residents proved less pro-Democrat than anti-Trump — these leafy districts remained true blue. After backing Mitt Romney by 9 points in 2012, Gwinnett County went for Biden by 18 points last November, and for Warnock by 21 points last night.
If this is indicative of what the national electorate will look like in the post-Trump era, the Republican Party is in trouble.
The GOP’s biggest post-Trump liability derives from its greatest Trump-era asset. By making their 2016 standard-bearer an overtly racist, anti-intellectual celebrity — who was known by readers of the business press as a tragicomic con man, but by credulous viewers of reality television as a genius entrepreneur — the Republican Party accelerated the exodus of college-educated professionals from their coalition, and the outmigration of working-class whites from blue America. At first blush, this looked like a favorable trade for Republicans. Only about a third of U.S. adults have college degrees. And that minority is disproportionately concentrated in urban and suburban areas that are systematically underrepresented by America’s political institutions. Thus, by swapping diploma-bearing suburbanites for working-class whites, Republicans built a supremely efficient coalition — a voting base so well-distributed across space, they were able to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote by 2 million in 2016, expand their Senate majority despite a “blue wave” midterm in 2018, and shrink Nancy Pelosi’s House Majority despite Biden’s triumph in 2020.
But the GOP’s new coalition has its defects. College-educated suburbanites are among the most reliable voters in the country. Historically, the Republicans’ strength with this constituency helped the party outperform the Democrats in midterm elections. By contrast, Donald Trump built a “just barely big enough” coalition in 2016 on the strength of his support from formerly Democratic non-college-educated voters and formerly nonvoting working-class whites. Which is to say, the celebrity candidate attracted politically disengaged Americans into the electorate, and these first-time ballot casters made his base of support just big enough to win an Electoral College majority, in a year with an unusually large third-party vote, and the most unpopular Democratic nominee in history.
The risk this poses to the GOP is straightforward: Their party might have durably transformed its brand for the sake of appealing to a coalition that only Donald Trump can assemble.
If even a small segment of the Trump coalition cannot be mobilized by non-Trump candidates, then Republicans will need to regain ground with college-educated voters in order to compete in presidential elections. Yet their base’s conversion to Donald Trump’s personality cult makes it hard for the party to re-embrace Romney-ism. Traditionally, when a party suffers an electoral rebuke, its base will sour on the losing standard-bearer. But the Republican base does not believe that their party just suffered an electoral rebuke. On the ground in Georgia, reporters struggled to find a single GOP voter who believed that Trump had lost the 2020 election. This mood is reflected in the recent actions of Republicans on Capitol Hill. More than 100 House Republicans reportedly plan to object to the certification of state Electoral College votes Wednesday. Support for this scheme is notably weaker in the Senate, where Republican incumbents are more insulated from a popular pressure. Every GOP lawmaker in the House was on the ballot in 2020 and will be again in 2022. That is not the case for their colleagues in the upper chamber. But tellingly, two Republican senators who (reportedly) plan to face primary voters nationwide in 2024, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, joined the cause of nullifying democracy in Trump’s name. And while campaigning in Georgia this week, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler both felt compelled to endorse the president’s quixotic coup attempt.
In other words, it does not look like Trump’s departure from the White House will spoil the Republican base’s appetite for his brand of authoritarian revanchism. And since the GOP’s minority coalition remains geographically efficient, “Trumpism without Trump” will remain a winning formula for the bulk of its elected officials, a reality that will limit their enthusiasm for rebranding the party. Yet an ideological and stylistic pivot may be necessary for the party to remain competitive in national elections. If Georgia’s Senate runoffs are any indication, “Trumpism without Trump” is extreme enough to chase away college-educated moderates, but not entertaining enough to mobilize the most disengaged segment of the Trump coalition. When creepy debate-club dweebs like Cruz and Hawley rail against “the cosmopolitan elite,” they may do more to alienate suburban professionals than stimulate rural Trumpists.
To be sure, it’s quite possible that Georgia’s Senate runoffs aren’t indicative of any broader trend in U.S. politics. The next major election in the U.S. will almost certainly not take place in a state where Republican officials are feuding with their party’s president over whether to orchestrate a coup. And although the GOP’s turnout failed to keep pace with the Democrats’, both parties saw unusually high voter participation. This said, the failure of the Trumpen proletariat to mobilize in sufficient numbers Tuesday night was a replay of its showing in the 2018 midterms. That fact, combined with non-college-educated voters’ historic tendency to turn out at relatively low rates, lends credence to the notion that Georgia’s results were no aberration.
And if they weren’t, then the Republican Party will soon find itself caught between America’s anti-Trump majority and a shrinking, hard-right base.