In Georgia, Republicans Learn the Limits of Negative Partisanship
In the era of Donald Trump, nothing has seemed as unassailable as Republican partisanship.
Last Tuesday, Georgia voters elected Democrats Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the U.S. Senate, nine weeks after delivering the state to the Democrats in a presidential election for the first time since 1992. President-elect Joe Biden’s sunbelt victory was stunning enough; but the defeat of two Republican senators in an off-year election proved to be the clearest repudiation of President Trump.
To be sure, incumbent Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue were poor candidates in their own right. Loeffler was appointed to her seat by Governor Brian Kemp in December of 2019, and Trump’s public berating of Kemp in the weeks leading up to the run-offs only reminded Republican voters that she was not their choice for the seat. And Perdue inexplicably refused to participate in any further run-off debates with Ossoff, making him appear not only intimidated by the younger, less experienced candidate, but entitled to Republican votes.
And of course, both Loeffler and Perdue were among a group of senators accused of downplaying covid-19 in public while privately selling off stock that would be impacted by the oncoming pandemic.
Perdue’s bet that he could coast his way to another term wasn’t entirely crazy, though. Nor was Loeffler’s wish that if she went full MAGA — going so far as to call for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s resignation out of deference to Trump’s bruised ego — MAGA would turn out for her the way they did for Trump in November. After all, in the era of Donald Trump, nothing has seemed as unassailable as Republican partisanship.
Specifically, Loeffler and Perdue had convinced themselves that invoking fear and prejudice of their opponents in white voters across the state would overcome their own badly run campaigns. For months, Georgians were bombarded with TV ads claiming that Warnock, a Black preacher, and Ossoff, a Jewish journalist, were co-conspirators in the Democrats’ plot to enact a radical left-wing agenda on Capitol Hill.
And if Warnock and Ossoff weren’t secretly sympathetic to the far left, they were at least afraid to condemn leftists. In one particular Loeffler ad, Warnock’s statements condemning police officers who assault members of the public are plastered against images of rioters destroying police cruisers during the George Floyd protests in Atlanta. In this instance, Warnock’s Blackness is coded as radical because it means he will always take the side of Black people over police officers, who are coded as white and as protecting white people’s property.
In the aftermath of the Trump-led storming of the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday by right-wing extremists, the idea that Democrats are dangerous because they refuse to condemn left-wing extremists sounds a bit like projection. Only when Twitter suspended his Twitter account did President Trump explicitly condemn the attack on the Capitol launched in his name.
Loeffler and Perdue aren’t the only ones who deluded themselves into thinking Georgia Republicans would turn out for them no matter what. Perhaps the only thing more consequential to their defeat than their own shoddy campaigns was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to block the $2,000 covid-19 direct relief bill from moving forward in the Senate just days before the run-offs. While agreeing to the lesser amount of $600 per adult, national Democrats aptly messaged to voters that the reason voters weren’t getting more money from the government is that Republicans didn’t want them to have more.
Even with Trump, Loeffler, and Perdue eventually coming out in support of the $2,000 direct payments, the narrative had already been set. And voters in Georgia were ready to make them all pay the price.
It is unclear if the Democratic sweep of Georgia reflects a long-term realignment of the state or the sheer unpopularity of Trump and anyone running with his support. But one thing is clear: Republicans can’t bet on fear or resentment of Democrats to carry them over the finish line each time, not even in the South. Like everybody else, they have to give voters a good reason to vote for them.