Raphael Warnock defeated Sen. Kelly Loeffler in Tuesday’s runoff election in Georgia, and it looks like Jon Ossoff will do the same to Sen. David Perdue. If Ossoff’s lead holds through a possible recount, Georgia will be represented by two Democrats in the U.S. Senate, giving the party a narrow majority with Vice President–elect Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.
This was not a given, or even expected, outcome. Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by fewer than 12,000 votes in Georgia in November, and the Republican Senate candidates earned more votes than the Democratic ones. Georgia hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 2000. And the voters who have historically turned out for Georgia runoff elections have been older, whiter, and more conservative than those who show up for general elections. Even Democrats who’ve led in general elections in Georgia have fared poorly in runoff races.
There are a zillion reasons this runoff was different: the high stakes for the Senate and, thus, the Biden administration; the hundreds of millions of dollars sunk into the races; the historic candidacy of a charismatic Black pastor; and, of course, the years of disciplined, ambitious, heretofore thankless work advocates like Stacey Abrams and Nsé Ufot have done to enfranchise underrepresented Georgia voters. But the Republican incumbents would have made it a lot closer to victory if it weren’t for the efforts of one putative ally, the guy they bent over backward to please all campaign season long: Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s November loss in Georgia didn’t necessarily presage a double loss for the GOP in the Senate runoffs. Many voters, notably white suburbanites, split their general election tickets between Biden and a Republican Senate candidate. Straight-ticket Republicans and Trump loyalists made a strong showing, too. Had they all shown up, they could have sent Loeffler and Perdue back to the Senate to fight against Marxism, anarchism, socialism, and all the other terrible forces allegedly on the verge of overtaking the U.S. government. Everyone would have won! (Except Trump, who had already lost.)
Instead, Trump did what everyone with an ounce of sense expected him to do in the event of Biden’s victory: He spent the months between the general election and the runoff whining to his fans that he was the victim of a sophisticated election-stealing conspiracy, and that the mainstream Republican Party should pay for refusing to overturn the election results on his behalf. He railed against Georgia’s Republican leaders, telling voters that Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger were incapable of running a free and fair election. In a phone call with Raffensperger last weekend, Trump warned that Republican voters wouldn’t turn out to support their candidates if Raffensperger didn’t “find” the votes necessary to reverse Georgia’s presidential election results. Indeed, some of the president’s most vocal “stop the steal” supporters told Georgia Republicans to boycott the runoffs in a convoluted effort to shore up Trump’s coup attempt.
And they did! Voters in many rural, majority-white, reliably Republican counties turned out at lower rates than they did in November, while turnout in majority-Black areas remained high and in some cases increased. It is a widely accepted premise of political campaigning that people won’t be motivated to vote if they think their votes won’t count, and Trump just went ahead and told his people the election was rigged. Meanwhile, advocates told me, Black voters, Asian American voters, and young voters saw the general election results and realized their votes did count. They saw Biden win Georgia, which told them it was possible for Georgia to send Democrats to Washington in 2021. They saw his narrow margin of victory, which told them every vote mattered. Republicans attended Trump’s final rally in Georgia on Monday and heard him mock Hillary Clinton and promise to campaign against Kemp when he’s up for reelection. Trump encouraged them to fight for him to remain president at the expense of getting them to care about a Senate majority.
Warnock’s and Ossoff’s smallish margins of victory obscure a much bigger shift in turnout between the general and runoff elections. Both candidates outperformed Biden by a long shot this week, even as Ossoff and the Democrats in Warnock’s special election underperformed the president-elect in November. Whether the former Trump voters who didn’t turn out for the runoff were staging a deliberate boycott or simply weren’t motivated to show up (or vote by mail) without their favorite guy on the ballot, the common denominator of their inaction was the same: Trump’s single-minded selfishness is finally coming for the GOP.
For people who have been neither pleased nor amused by Trump’s authoritarian experiment, the least surprising part of this whole GOP debacle is that Trump has behaved exactly like Trump every step of the way. There’s nothing new or out of character about his decision to sabotage Perdue’s and Loeffler’s candidacies—and, by extension, the GOP’s one potential hold on federal legislative power—merely because he was sad that tens of millions of people told him in November that they didn’t like him. His shortsightedness, pettiness, bottomless wells of spite, and indifference to anyone’s interests but his own has benefited the Republican Party for a good, long while. They made Trump a star, helped move along extreme versions of GOP pet policies, and motivated a surge of infrequent voters to turn out in his support. Then, they cost the Republican Party the House, the presidency, and the Senate. The GOP made a deal with the devil, and now they’re paying the bill. As I write this, hordes of Trump supporters, egged on by the president and his allies, have fought back police officers, breached the U.S. Capitol, and stormed the Senate chamber in an effort to intimidate members of Congress into going along with Trump’s coup. Republicans and Democrats alike have been forced to shelter in place or evacuate for their own safety in a still-developing assault on the Capitol. It’s a terrifying, tragic, and wholly predictable outcome of abetting a wannabe authoritarian with a god complex for more than four years. And while it cost Republicans the Senate, it’s costing our country much more.