“Trump is the cause of this, lock, stock and barrel,” said one Republican strategist. “But when you’re relying on someone to win you a Senate race that also lost statewide eight weeks prior, you’re not in a position of strength.”
The immediate recrimination is emblematic of the complicated GOP dynamics that have emerged after Trump’s loss in the November election. Fissures are forming as Republicans decide whether it’s useful to cling to Trump — even as he tries to subvert an election — or to distance themselves. And if the Georgia races are any indication, it appears Republicans are willing to turn on Trump if he can’t reliably turn out the vote for candidates in the months and years ahead.
When asked why Republicans didn’t prevail on Tuesday, a senior Senate Republican aide simply said: “Donald J. Trump”
The frustration stems from the days after the Nov. 3 election. While Republicans tried to reset in Georgia and prepare for the two runoff races, the president set off a civil war within his own party as he launched a divisive campaign to overturn the 2020 election.
For the next few weeks, the president’s focus remained on trying to overturn his personal results in Georgia and other states. Just this past weekend, he badgered Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger by phone for an hour, imploring him to “find” enough votes to take the state away from President-elect Joe Biden.
Even at a Monday rally designed to drum up voting for Loeffler and Perdue, the president obsessed over his own political grievances, swiping at lawmakers from his own party, including Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
The behavior left Republicans shaking their heads Tuesday night, incensed that it might have cost them two critical races.
They ticked off a variety of reasons why Trump was to blame, even offering conflicting theories. For instance, while some Republicans wished Trump had been more involved in the races, others argued he should have actually excised himself from the situation.
“He is the Dems’ best base animator,” said one GOP strategist involved in the Georgia races. “Look at how high turnout was on their side compared to historical trends. Look at how much their candidates raised. He steps back after Election Day and denies them that oxygen. He didn’t.”
The GOP blame game has expanded beyond Trump to some of his party acolytes. One party official suggested RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel — Trump’s hand-picked party leader — should step down, only a day ahead of the Republican National Committee’s annual Winter Meeting in Amelia Island, Fla.
“I think the blame will be spread around, but a party chairman losing a presidential election and losing the Senate majority should, out of honor, offer her resignation even if the committee doesn’t accept it,” the Republican official said.
McDaniel spent the months leading up to the election trying to support the president’s efforts to subvert the election, while simultaneously addressing concerns his efforts might suppress the Republican vote in Georgia. In late November, McDaniel pleaded with Republicans to vote in the runoff elections after people at a campaign stop repeated Trump’s false claims and told McDaniel the election was “already decided.”
Far-right corners of the party only contributed to voter skepticism and confusion. At one point, pro-Trump attorneys Lin Wood and Sidney Powell held a rally in Alpharetta, Ga., where they encouraged voters to boycott the runoff elections unless Raffensperger changed the state’s election process.
“Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election?” Wood asked the cheering crowd.
“I would encourage all Georgians to make it known that you will not vote until your vote is secure,” said Powell, who pushed false conspiracy theories about state voting machines being corrupted by the dead Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.
The suggestion prompted the president to pick up the phone and ask Wood to “knock it off.”
But the damage may have already been done.
“Turns out if the leader of a party spends two months actively delegitimizing elections and saying voting doesn’t matter, voters listen,” said a Republican who worked on the runoff races. “There was one decisive factor in Georgia and anyone who says otherwise is probably sharing substances with Lin Wood.”
Josh Holmes, former chief of staff and campaign manager to McConnell, pointed out how poorly Trump’s message had played in the Georgia suburbs.
“Suburbs, my friends, the suburbs,” Holmes tweeted. “I feel like a one trick pony but here we are again. We went from talking about jobs and the economy to QAnon election conspiracies in 4 short years and – as it turns out- they were listening!”
Trump’s closest allies pointed the finger right back at McConnell, arguing his decision to block the Trump-backed $2,000 Covid stimulus checks doomed the Georgia candidates.
Behind the scenes, Georgia Republicans were also frustrated that Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son and one of the GOP’s most popular surrogates, backed out of appearances in the state on the Sunday before the election. Perdue personally asked for Trump to reconsider, but Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) stepped in instead.
In the end, Republicans appeared gobsmacked at the emerging results in two Senate races that most believed favored the GOP at the outset.
“This should not be close. This should not be a conversation for us at this point,” said former RNC chairman Michael Steele on MSNBC. “We should be going for beers right about now because the evening would have been over. And the reality of it is, it’s not, because of what this president has done to the Republican Party.”
Sam Stein contributed to this report.