In the bewildering, seemingly interminable period between the conclusion of voting in the 2020 election and the networks’ declaration that Joe Biden had won, one thing seemed clear: The GOP had a bright future. The party held onto its Senate majority—pending two runoff elections in Georgia, where the Republican candidates had outperformed their Democratic opponents—and won a dozen seats held by Democrats in the House. It romped at the local and state level, setting up what Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, told Politico would be a “decade of power,” thanks to redistricting.
Donald Trump had not only once again run well ahead of the polls but also won larger shares of the Black and Latino vote than anyone thought possible. In Trump’s loss was the making of a possible realignment. Indeed, he appeared to have left the party in better shape than he found it. “Win or lose, President Trump will emerge more powerful than ever inside the GOP, by defying expectations for himself and lifting fellow Republicans to surprise victories in the House and Senate,” wrote Axios’s Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei the day after the election. Many Republicans were elated. “Our president absolutely grew our party,” said Jennifer Carnahan, the chair of the Republican Party in Minnesota. “He totally advanced our party … I think that as Republicans, we just need to continue to remain on the course.”
There was little concern at the time about those runoff elections in Georgia. Joe Biden may have eked out a victory there, but it was still Georgia—its runoff system, the thinking went, strongly favored Republicans. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were flawed candidates, for sure—both were accused of insider trading relating to Covid-19’s disruption of the economy. Perdue once ran the vampiric Dollar General, while Loeffler, a department store mannequin, had never won an election in her life. Still, all they had to do was remain on the party’s Trumpian course, which is exactly what they did. Throughout November and December, Perdue and Loeffler made their campaigns all about Trump. They went after their state’s Republican governor and secretary of state for not stealing its electoral votes for the president. They pledged to contest the certification of the election if reelected. They didn’t show up to override Trump’s veto of a military spending bill. They backed his eleventh hour request for $2,000 stimulus checks.
And they lost, not in spite of their decision to back Trump to the hilt, but because of it.
Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock’s apparent victories in Georgia upend the post-election conventional wisdom. Suddenly, it’s the Republicans that are in disarray. “Trump is the cause of this, lock, stock, and barrel,” one Republican strategist told Politico. The president’s increasing demands that all Republicans—but especially Perdue and Loeffler—jump through hoops on his behalf likely hurt both candidates with voters who might have split their tickets. His belligerent claims of voter fraud may have further dampened turnout by convincing some of his most dogmatic voters that there was no point in voting in a rigged election. His insistence that the November election had been stolen from him, moreover, took away the GOP’s strongest election message. Instead of campaigning solely on the need for a check on Democratic control of the House and the presidency, Loeffler and Perdue were arguing that, actually, the president had won.
At the same time, Perdue and Loeffler struggled without Trump on the ballot—both ran behind him in deep red, pro-Trump counties, despite hitching their wagon to the president, and failed to win Black voters at the same clip. It was, in some ways, a repeat of the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans can bray all they want about their loyalty to Donald Trump. Trump can even campaign on their behalf. But without Trump on the ballot, a large number of his voters appear to stay home anyway.
The conclusions made in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election—that Republicans were set up for years to come and would start clawing their way back to power as early as 2022—were premature. Instead, Republicans may struggle to turn out portions of Trump’s diehard base while, at the same time, the president’s insane demands for loyalty damage their candidates in other ways. Marco Rubio’s post-November claim that the GOP was now a “multiethnic, multiracial, working class party” was always wrong, but it’s especially wrong now—the realignment did not materialize in Georgia, likely because Republicans ran two wildly corrupt, charisma-deficient candidates who couldn’t mimic Trump’s appeal.
This election may also have repercussions for Republicans who have staked their future on being toadies for Trump. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz will object to the certification of Biden’s victory on Wednesday because they think it will help them win over Trump diehards in the next Republican primary. While it’s certainly true that Perdue and Loeffler were weak candidates, it seems that there are many Trump voters who have no interest in pretenders to the throne. They only want the real thing, and Hawley and Cruz, two smarmy and portentous strivers, do not fit the bill.
The lesson of the 2020 election for Republicans was supposed to be that the party could only win elections and expand its base by emulating the president. But there may simply not be a Trumpism without Trump. In Georgia, Loeffler and Perdue did everything they could to appeal to the president’s base—and they handed control of the Senate to Democrats.