In one sense, the two runoff elections taking place in Georgia on Tuesday are relatively simple. If Democrats win both of the seats that are up for grabs, they gain control of the Senate. Anything less than that and they don’t. A Republican sweep of the seats means Joe Biden will begin his presidency alongside a 52-48 GOP Senate majority.
Nothing is that simple in the strangest White House transition process on record, however. As with so much else over the past four years, President Trump looms large. He has not conceded the presidential race and Georgia is one of the states where he is contesting the results, even though that puts him at odds with local Republican elected officials.
This means that Trump is sowing doubts about the electoral process in a state where Republicans need a large number of their supporters to turn out and vote. He is openly feuding with the Republican governor and secretary of state. Lawyers not formally affiliated with his campaign but nevertheless filing lawsuits on his behalf are urging a boycott of the election and, in the case of Lin Wood, spreading increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories involving the GOP power structure.
Trump’s basic argument about the presidential election even undermines the whole case for why it is important to reelect Sen. David Perdue and give appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler a full term. Perdue and Loeffler are said to be the linchpin of a Republican Senate majority that will counteract President Biden. But Trump is telling his supporters that if Republicans would just grow a spine, there won’t be a President Biden.
In fact, if Trump’s election claims stand up, the Senate isn’t even in play. If Democrats win both of Georgia’s Senate seats, the upper chamber will be split 50-50. Chuck Schumer needs Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote to take over. If Mike Pence is still casting tie-breaking votes as the freshly reelected vice president, Mitch McConnell hangs on as majority leader.
Trump has disavowed his allies’ call to boycott the election. He has endorsed the Republican candidates and traveled to Georgia to campaign for them. Perdue in particular is a Trump ally. For his party, the President has said all the right things about the Georgia Senate races. And 52-48 is surely better than 51-50 even if you believe there will be a second Trump term.
Still, when Trump leads his patented rallies on behalf of Perdue and Loeffler he talks at least as much about his own election-related grievances, if not more. It was a central theme of his election eve remarks to the senators’ supporters. Despite wall-to-wall campaign ads with the candidates calling each other communists and Klansmen, Trump is still the story. Republicans would like the focus to be on the Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Revd Raphael Warnock.
Then there’s the matter of what Trump has wrought in the suburbs. This is what made Georgia competitive in the first place, in these Senate races, the presidential election and a few congressional contests over the last four years. A suburban revolt against the GOP cost the party the House in 2018 and the presidency in November — even if you believe Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud, he like ‘Big Jim’ Thompson in the 1982 Illinois gubernatorial matchup would have survived any Democratic chicanery if he had simply held onto his 2016 suburban vote share in the battleground states. Might this now cost Republicans the Senate?
It is possible the answer is no. An angry Republican electorate may be exactly what the senators ordered. Such a strategy worked in 1994, 2010 and 2014. It averted a bicameral wipeout in 2018, as red-state voters incensed by the Democrats’ treatment of Brett Kavanaugh saved the Senate for the GOP. Similar conditions propelled Trump into the White House.
Some local Republicans think a split decision is possible. Perdue came closer to winning outright in November. He is a little more popular, has some modest crossover appeal to black farmers in the southern part of the state, and unlike Loeffler has a white opponent. That opponent has started aiming some of his fire at Loeffler rather than the candidate he is actually running against.
But for a party that had a leadership crisis even before Trump — the reality TV star became the standard-bearer precisely because Republicans didn’t trust or like their elected leaders — it is a dangerous game.
W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor.