ATLANTA — The Democrats’ capstone reelection victory of Sen. Raphael Warnock forced Republicans to reckon on Wednesday with the red wave that wasn’t, as they turned with trepidation to 2024 and the intensifying divisions in the party over former President Donald Trump.
Warnock’s 2-1/2 percentage point win over Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate runoff left Democrats with a 51-49 seat majority in the upper chamber, a one-seat gain. That came despite dire predictions for a bloodbath for President Joe Biden’s party.
It quickly had Republican fingers pointing every which way: at Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader accused by detractors of abandoning or belittling embattled Republican Senate candidates; at Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who many feel badly mismanaged the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm; and at Walker himself, for hiding and lying about his past, only to see the details stream out steadily over the course of his campaign.
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But for a handful of Republicans, newly emboldened by reelection or retirement to say so aloud, the biggest culprit was Trump. In increasingly biting terms, they slammed him for promoting flawed candidates, including Walker, dividing his party and turning many swing voters against the GOP for the third election cycle in a row.
“I think he’s less relevant all the time,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of the former president, who has begun a third bid for the White House.
“It’s just one more data point in an overwhelming body of data that the Trump obsession is very bad for Republicans,” said Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a retiring Republican whose seat was flipped to Democrats by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
Trump campaign aides responded with defiance, in a back-and-forth likely to be on repeat for the foreseeable future. Steven Cheung, a senior communications adviser for the former president, said they “are not going to be lectured by political swamp creatures who are already looking to find ways to make a quick buck in 2024 by running to the media and providing cowardly quotes.”
The midterm losses like Walker’s not only squashed the GOP’s high hopes of retaking control of the Senate but also signaled the party’s steep climb ahead. Voters in several presidential battleground states resoundingly rejected candidates aligned with the former president, handing Republicans losses in winnable races in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Hampshire and, finally, Georgia.
Trump’s influence was indisputable in the suburbs, said Rusty Paul, the Republican mayor of Sandy Springs, a booming suburban city on Atlanta’s northern edge.
Paul allowed that the once almost-wholly affluent, almost-wholly white community had become more diverse ethnically, racially and economically, tipping it in Democrats’ favor.
“All of those are factors, but the greatest factor is Trumpism,” he said.
“There’s a very strong conservative streak in the northern suburbs, Cobb, North Fulton — if Trump’s not engaged, they’ll still vote Republican,” he continued, speaking of the northern edge of Atlanta’s main county and Cobb County, just to the west. “But if they feel Trump’s influence, they’ll vote against him.”
Trump loyalists in Georgia and beyond disputed that assessment. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented many of those suburbs for years as a House Republican, blamed a list of factors beside Trump, down to the mockery by “Saturday Night Live” of Walker three days before the runoff election. It’s the GOP versus the media, Big Tech, Hollywood and the nation’s social power structures, he said.
“We underestimate how big the mountain is that we’re trying to climb,” he said.
But Gingrich also raised the prospects of a disastrous 2024, as Trump’s supporters split acrimoniously with its anti-Trump wing of the party the way conservatives in 1964 backed Barry Goldwater and moderates sided with Nelson Rockefeller.
“My greatest fear is that we’re going to end up in a 1964 division” that left Republicans crippled in Congress, he said in an interview Wednesday. “I can imagine a Trump-anti-Trump war over the next two years that just guarantees Biden’s reelection in a landslide and guarantees that Democrats control everything.”
Emerging from the midterms, the anti-Trump wing has plenty of ammunition to make its case for a break. Two of Trump’s most prominent Republican foils in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, won reelection easily, in part because of their refusal to back the former president’s lie that the state had been stolen from him in 2020. Their resistance confirmed to Republican-leaning swing voters that they were not in Trump’s thrall.
In contrast, Walker, who was urged to run by the former president and has already said he intends to vote for Trump for president, lost ground among almost every type of precinct in the four weeks between Election Day on Nov. 8 and runoff day on Tuesday, according to a New York Times analysis.
The Republican fared worse in the runoff at precincts that initially backed Warnock and Kemp, at precincts dominated by college graduates, at urban and suburban precincts, affluent precincts and at Black precincts and Hispanic precincts. The only precincts where he held his own were in rural areas and areas with white, noncollege voters.
Walker, a first-time candidate and former football star, had plenty of troubles that had nothing to do with Trump. His campaign was repeatedly hit with damaging revelations that might have knocked other candidates out of the race, including accusations of domestic violence, unacknowledged children and hypocrisy on abortion.
And beyond Trump, there are other factors changing Georgia’s political hue: the in-migration of voters of color from around the country, the movement of politically active Black voters from central Atlanta to suburbs near and far, where they carried on their organizational activities, and the activation of white women like Jennifer Haggard, a real estate agent and lifelong Sandy Springer, who cast aside reflexive conservatism for a more open-minded politics.
“I’m the white Republican who turned swing voter for sure,” Haggard said after voting for Warnock. She cited Trump as easily the biggest factor, but happily voted for Warnock.
In the face of trends favoring Democrats, Georgia Republicans failed to nominate a Senate candidate who could galvanize both the party’s hyper-conservative base and its moderate factions — a group that many in the GOP believe still makes up a majority of the state’s electorate.
That failure extended beyond Georgia. Republican candidates in the primary season reached into Trump’s ideological milieu to capture his voters, moving so far that they could not credibly swing to win back the center in the general election.
“Even if you capture all of the Trump voters, you may be able to win a primary but you’re not necessarily going to win a general election and in this business, you have to win an election before you can actually govern,” said Cornyn, who for years dodged questions about Trump. “It’s not like coming in second and getting a trophy like you did in junior high school for participation.”
For many Trump-loyal voters, the question may come down to whether they are willing to make a cold-eyed assessment of electability or follow their hearts. The chorus of Republican voices arguing for electability is growing louder.
“More strings of defeats delivered to us clearly by Donald Trump is enough for our party to realize we’ve got to move on if we want to win,” Paul Ryan, a former Republican speaker of the House, said in a SiriusXM interview. “We should not just concede the country to the left by nominating an unelectable candidate like Donald Trump.”
Even Walker’s team seemed to acknowledge Trump was a drag on the candidate in the final weeks of the race. As the former president teased a visit to Georgia, Trump aides worked with the Walker campaign to agree to scrap an in-person rally and instead hold the event via phone.
Walker did not frequently mention Trump in his campaign speeches. And in his final concession speech, he did not say the former president’s name.
Jack Kingston, a former House Republican from the Savannah area, argued that Trump’s influence was overblown. In 2021, as two Georgia Senate races headed to a runoff, Trump, then the president, was railing against a rigged election, signaling to Republicans that their vote wouldn’t count, he noted. This time around, he was far less present.
“I would not say the invisible hand of Donald Trump was telling Herschel Walker what to do,” Kingston said Wednesday. “He was his own man.”
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