It was supposed to turn out so differently for Georgia Republicans.
On Saturday, after spending weeks railing against Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffesnperger—both Republicans—for refusing to embrace his lies about the Georgia election, Donald Trump grudgingly came to Valdosta, Ga., ostensibly to support embattled senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. But he still insisted the November election had been rigged against him, and that the runoff probably will be rigged against Republicans too. When Trump finally invited Loeffler and Perdue to speak to his crowd—and make no mistake, it was his crowd—his acolytes brayed, “Stop the steal!” The two Republicans did not seem super-comfortable.
Trump reran his complaints about Kemp and Raffensperger and other GOP election officials first. “You know we won Georgia, just so you understand,” he ranted, falsely claiming that illegal votes in the state were “coming out of ceilings and coming out of leather bags.” He went on: “This election was rigged, and we can’t let it happen to two of the most respected people in Washington,” Trump said. He urged the crowd to vote in the runoff, even though he implied that the runoff will be rigged, too, and warned that Kemp “needs to be a lot tougher…. Your governor could stop it easily if he knew what the hell he was doing.” Later, he claimed Kemp was “afraid of Stacey Abrams” and urged loyalist Representative Doug Collins to primary Kemp.
The following day, Loeffler delivered a robotic, unconvincing performance in her debate, aired on CNN, with the Democratic challenger, the Rev. Raphael Warnock. Loeffler sounded like one of the creepy characters in The Manchurian Candidate, robotically referring to Warnock only as the “radical liberal Raphael Warnock” every single time she mentioned him, which was more than a dozen times. Given her politics, it would have to be translated differently from the famous movie, more like “Radical liberal Raphael Warnock is the meanest, sickest, worstest human being I’ve known in my life.”
Also, Loeffler’s eyes looked dead. And she never acknowledged Trump lost.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called the whole thing a “nightmare scenario” for Georgia Republicans. How did this happen?
Having paid close attention to the weekend’s craziness, it’s clear to me that the Georgia nightmare is a microcosm of the rudderless, racism-dependent GOP. When Kemp defied Trump last year by appointing the businesswoman Loeffler (who immediately became the country’s wealthiest senator) rather than Trump loyalist Doug Collins to the Senate seat vacated by the ailing Johnny Isakson, he did it, ostensibly, to help Republicans build back strength in the white Atlanta suburbs where voters, especially women, were being chased into the Democratic Party by the odious Trump. Loeffler lives in the wealthy Atlanta Buckhead district, where Republicans used to have and now need much more support. She was supposed to be a semi-moderate savior.
It was no accident that one of her first public stops as Georgia’s newest senator last January was Ebenezer Baptist Church, the legendary base of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which is currently helmed by the Rev. Warnock—even though it was already rumored that Warnock planned to challenge Loeffler this past November.
But Ebenezer is hallowed ground to Atlantans of every race, and largely bipartisan ground, welcoming politicians and candidates of both parties, especially to its annual King holiday services. It was unremarkable that Loeffler would attend, Warnock would welcome her, and she would use its pulpit to showcase her less-than-Trumpian-racist campaign.
“I am so humbled to be here with you today in this sacred place, surrounded by men and women who advanced the cause of freedom,” Loeffler told the throng.
Not quite a year later, Loeffler is running a scorched-earth, race-baiting Trumpian campaign, smearing Warnock with lies and half-truths to make him seem the bastard child of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Karl Marx. Her ads have darkened the black leader’s image, placed it against a backdrop of urban rioting, and shrieked, “Saving the Senate is about saving America… from that.” On Saturday night, in ruby-red Valdosta, far south of her home base in liberal metro Atlanta, Loeffler continued to debase herself by embracing Trump, as he came to the state, supposedly to campaign for her and Senator David Perdue but mostly to air his claims that he won Georgia, along with his lunatic grievances against state GOP officials—all of whom supported him, but who have nonetheless certified Joe Biden’s obvious win.
The problem with Kemp’s plan to appoint “moderate” Loeffler was that Collins, predictably, ran against her, making the state’s nonpartisan primary a referendum on who could hug Trump more closely. The plan had been to let Loeffler frame herself as a relative moderate, while a bunch of Democrats, including former senator Joe Lieberman’s sad-sack son Matt, tried to take down Warnock. In the end, thanks partly to the vicious primary between Collins and Loeffler, but also to the state’s burgeoning black vote, Warnock came out first and Loeffler second.
Since somebody needed to win 50 percent to avoid a runoff, and nobody did (Warnock beat Loeffler 33-26 percent, with Collins at 20 percent, and a bunch of Democrats coming up way behind), here we are. Collins went on to be a cheerleader for Trump’s crazy campaign against Georgia Republican leaders who he claimed screwed him, and he appeared with Loeffler publicly only in late November, more than three weeks after his defeat.
Loeffler’s Sunday debate performance was another nightmare scenario for the state GOP. The wealthy Republican insisted she doesn’t “have a racist bone in my body,” which we all know now is code for you don’t know what racism means, and you’re actually racist. She spewed racist attacks at Warnock, insisting that he wanted to “defund the police,” while he said, calmly, no, he did not support that particular policy. Warnock hit her on solid ground: her dubious stock trades that seemed to rely on Senate briefings (but investigators brought no charges). He was very calm. Sometimes, to be honest, I wanted him to be feistier, and then I had an epiphany that rocked me back in my chair, and in my whiteness.
He could not be any of that.
Warnock cannot be feisty, contentious, cantankerous, even comedic, except slyly, as a black man in the South debating a slender, yellow-haired Southern lady (she’s originally from Illinois). The visual on some voters’ TV sets was a Rorschach test, not a political debate. So I don’t entirely know how to score this one. But Fox mocked Loeffler. And so did many others. She really was a hot mess. I believe Warnock won it.
Yet, despite Biden’s win there last month, Georgia remains a Republican state in my book, until Democrats take at least one Senate seat and/or Abrams defeats Kemp in 2022. It is a microcosm of the United States—urban and suburban areas trending medium to dark blue, rural areas still red, and exurbia, depending where it is, purplish. I want to believe these two Senate seats are winnable for Democrats. They may be. But it’s also possible they’re even more losable for Republicans trapped in this Trumpian dog pile. And that’s just fine with me.