No, Trump Didn’t Cost the GOP the Senate

Last week, author and conservative pundit Andrew Klavan found a surprising culprit for the likely confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US Supreme Court during his typically superb podcast: former President Donald Trump.  “The reason [Ketanji Brown Jackson] is going to get confirmed is because we don’t have a majority in the Senate, and the reason we don’t have a majority in the Senate is because of Trump’s baby-ness about the election...he kept complaining about it...he lost us Georgia, and that’s why we’re going to have Ketanji Jackson on the Supreme Court,” he argued in his monologue about the Supreme Court. 

Klavan is hardly alone in his assertion that Trump’s rhetoric cost the GOP both Senate seats in the 2021 runoff; the same opinion has been postulated by conservative political insiders, editorial boards, and even politicians from Trump’s own cabinet and party.  Essentially, they argue that Trump’s accusations of election fraud in 2020 undermined confidence among conservative voters that their vote would actually count, leading many GOP voters to simply stay home during the Georgia runoff despite an election-eve Trump rally.  

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They point to polling data indicating a decrease in confidence among Republicans in the US democratic process along with low Election Day turnout in conservative areas as two key pieces of evidence that Trump’s rhetoric was damaging.  While Trump himself has suggested that his actions had a negative influence on the Georgia runoffs, placing the sole blame on Trump is both intellectually lazy and a major oversimplification. Indeed, other factors played much larger roles:

1. Georgia is Becoming a Purple State

If you believe that the 2022 elections were free and fair, then you also believe that the GOP lost at the top of the ticket: Democrat Joe Biden beat Republican Donald Trump in Georgia by just under 12,000 votes. In the same race, incumbent GOP Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) outperformed Trump and led Democrat John Ossoff by about 88,000 votes (or 1.8%),  but failed to clear the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.  These results came only two short years after Republican Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams in the gubernatorial race by a very narrow, 1.4% margin (or ~55,000 votes), while a host of other statewide races were decided by similarly small margins. 2022 polling suggests another close race for the governorship of Georgia,  although the GOP should benefit from the sheer incompetence of the Biden administration.  In other words, Georgia has hardly been a GOP stronghold over the past 4 years, and a Senate runoff would therefore have been close with or without Trump’s intervention. The reality is that Georgia has been a purple state for the past half-decade, as evidenced by the Biden campaign’s decision to devote significant time in that state during the final days of the 2020 campaign.  The GOP cannot take Georgia for granted.

2. Runoff Elections are Unpredictable

It is also important to note that special and runoff elections are often much more difficult to predict than general elections due to a number of factors, particularly lower turnout. Past elections (even those that have ended in blowouts) have been nightmares for pundits to predict, such as the 2016 Louisiana Senate election.  Moreover, motivation becomes a key factor, and Trump, who tended to attract both new and infrequent voters, was not on the ballot.  This is particularly crucial because Trump voters tend to be more enthusiastic than other voting blocs, both inside and outside of the GOP.  Determining Trump’s effect down-ballot is difficult given Trump’s polarizing nature, which drives turnout from supporters and detractors alike.  Anecdotally, the GOP performed much better down-ballot in 2016 and 2020 when Trump was on the ballot, versus 2018 when he was not atop the ticket.  Certainly, candidates in red states such as Iowa benefitted from turnout driven by enthusiasm for Trump.  Notably, fundraising numbers suggest that momentum and motivation were on the side of the Democrats heading into the runoff, as both candidates significantly out-raised their GOP counterparts, smashing election records.  Winning both runoff elections, in which voter motivation is crucial, was certainly not a guarantee with or without Trump’s intervention.

3. The GOP Incumbents were Weak

Good candidates find ways to win even in difficult political climates. Just ask moderate Susan Collins (R-ME), who won her Senate re-election bid by nearly ten points, in the same state and election where Donald Trump lost to Biden by nearly the same margin.  Or Joe Manchin (D-WV), who manages to keep winning re-election in one of the reddest states in the country.  Donald Trump himself defied polls and negative media coverage to Trump in both the 2016 primary and general elections and remains a force within the GOP. 

David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are hardly high-profile candidates.  In fact, neither candidate even attempted to challenge Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) in 2022, a stunning development for two former office-holders  Instead, Perdue has opted to challenge GOP Governor Brian Kemp, with strong backing from Trump.  If Trump held sufficient sway over the Georgia GOP that he could single-handedly doom both Senate seats, one would think that his endorsement would lead a high-profile candidate like Perdue to cruise to an easy primary victory.  Instead, he is currently behind in the polls and struggling with fundraising, suggesting that Trump’s influence in Georgia may be overstated and that Perdue himself is not a particularly strong candidate.

Compounding the matter, both Perdue and Loeffler were embroiled in scandals related to their financial dealings in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, which has contributed to bipartisan support for banning insider trading by members of Congress.  Whether the accusations against Loeffler and Perdue were fair or not, the optics were awful, particularly in light of their tremendous wealth.  Recall that Loeffler was not elected to her seat, but rather was appointed by Gov. Kemp. Again, the optics of appointing a wealthy GOP donor without any prior political experience to an open Senate seat are terrible. Notably, Kemp’s appointment of Loeffler went against the public wishes of Trump, who advocated for then-Representative Doug Collins (R-GA). It remains to be seen whether Herschel Walker, the GOP frontrunner for Senate, can succeed where Loeffler and Perdue failed.  The early returns are encouraging, however: his fundraising numbers have been strong, and early polling numbers give him a slight lead over Warnock.  The recruitment of strong candidates will be crucial in a state like Georgia, where the past several state-wide elections have been extremely close.

Next Time, Let’s Avoid The Runoff

As it turns out, Klavan’s point on the Supreme Court nomination battle is moot: the week following his podcast, multiple Republican Senators announced that they would support Ketanji Jackson’s nomination. Nonetheless, his larger observation that elections have consequences is true, whether directed at the conservative voter who didn’t show up during the Georgia runoff, or towards the Never-Trump “Republicans” whose pearl-clutching over Trump’s tweets directly led to Joe Biden’s current reign of error.  Frustrations remain from the 2020 election: the passage of a voting reform bill in Georgia is an encouraging step forward, but it came too late.  The mainstream media showing some semblance of respectability in admitting that they failed in their coverage of Hunter Biden in 2020 is similarly an encouraging step forward, but once again it came far too late.  We cannot make the same mistakes in 2022, nor can we take the Georgia Senate race for granted: polling data still indicates a dead heat, and Walker trails Warnock significantly in fundraising. With the GOP surging in national polls, 2022 can be a golden opportunity to begin to reverse the damage caused by the 2020 election. Realizing that success, however, will require avoiding the mistakes of the 2020 Georgia race: the GOP must nominate strong candidates, motivate its base, and win the election the first time.

J. Allen Cartwright is a chemical researcher in the energy sector. His interest is in the interplay of politics with cultural and scientific institutions, and he can be followed on Parler at @jallencartwright

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