President Donald Trump refuses to concede the 2020 election. In meetings with lawyers and political allies, some of whom openly advocate martial law, he has discussed ways to seize voting machines and block implementation of the election results. Now he’s planning a showdown on Jan. 6, when Congress meets to certify the votes of the Electoral College. There’s almost no chance that Trump, by staging this fight, could keep the presidency. But he might manage to do something else: lose the Senate.
Control of the Senate hinges on two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia. Democrats are doing well there in early voting, so Republicans need a big win among Georgians who cast their ballots on voting day. That shouldn’t be a problem for the GOP, because the party that loses a presidential election tends to do well in elections immediately afterward. One reason is that some voters in the middle prefer to limit the power of the incoming president by electing politicians from the opposition. Polls in Georgia fit this pattern: Up to now, they’ve shown that slight pluralities are inclined to reelect the two Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, to “check” Joe Biden.
All Trump had to do was get out of the way. He could have conceded on Nov. 7, when the media called the election, or in the days and weeks afterward, as states certified their results. If he had conceded on Dec. 14, when the Electoral College confirmed Biden’s victory, that would have given the GOP three weeks to acknowledge defeat, mourn the loss, and rally voters against Biden. Instead, Trump made himself a bigger threat. He met with martial law proponents at the White House, demanded that the election be overturned, and approved a plan to challenge the results in Congress in early January.
The timing couldn’t be worse. As Georgians prepare to vote, many of them won’t be thinking about checking Biden. They’ll be thinking about checking Trump.
Trump lost Georgia because most of the state’s voters don’t like him. In the November exit poll of Georgia, he lost independents by 9 percentage points and moderates by 32 points. His job approval rating was barely positive, but more Georgians viewed him unfavorably than favorably. Last week, a poll by Lake Research and Emerson College found that if Biden were to campaign for the Democratic Senate candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Georgians would be more likely to vote for them. But the poll indicated that if Trump were to campaign for Loeffler and Perdue, the result might be a wash or possibly harmful to the two Republicans.
The Trump factor is particularly risky for the GOP in the suburbs. Two careful examinations, one by Lenny Bronner in the Washington Post and another by Josh Kraushaar in National Journal, have underscored the role of suburban voters in swinging the state to Biden, even as Republicans led in races down the ballot. Polls taken this month indicate that suburban voters will also determine who wins the runoffs.
These swing voters don’t like Trump’s election conspiracy theories or his refusal to concede. From late November through mid-December, polls have consistently found that most Georgians, including solid majorities of suburbanites and moderates, oppose Trump’s legal challenges and want him to stop. In a Rasmussen survey taken from Dec. 8 to 14, likely Georgia voters, by a margin of nearly 20 points, said Biden “legitimately won the election.” The margin rose to 24 points among suburbanites, 38 points among independents, and 57 points among moderates. Suburbanites, independents, and moderates also opposed “the efforts of President Trump and his campaign to challenge the election results in Georgia and other states.” Among independents, the margin of opposition was 20 points. Among moderates, it was 39 points.
A Survey USA poll taken from Wednesday to Sunday found similar results. By margins of 29 and 51 points, respectively, suburbanites and moderates said Biden won the election “fair and square.” By margins of 28, 33, and 43 points, suburbanites, independents, and moderates said that when Congress meets on Jan. 6 to certify the votes of the Electoral College, Trump should “allow the count to proceed” rather than “ask Republican members of Congress to object.” Many of these voters will be making up their minds about the runoffs just a day or two before the congressional showdown. Anxiety over the fight and the outcome will be at a peak.
Democrats have yet to exploit Trump’s defiance. They hope that some hardcore Trump voters, angry at the GOP for failing to defend his postelection challenges, will refuse to turn out for Loeffler and Perdue. But there’s also an opportunity in the middle. Most Georgians, including more than a quarter of those who voted for Loeffler or Perdue in November, oppose the congressional fight Trump and his allies are preparing. These are law-and-order voters. They don’t want a crisis or a coup. If the GOP loses even a fraction of them, it will lose the Senate.