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The Georgia Senate runoffs were the first test of former President Donald Trump’s ability to bring his most fervent supporters to the polls without his name on the ballot. And after Republicans lost the seats and their U.S. Senate majority, in Georgia Republican circles, much of the blame has centered on the former president.
Trump’s refusal to concede his own race and constant questioning of the electoral system’s integrity sowed confusion that likely dampened Republican turnout. But it was the campaigns’ Trump-centric strategies that left them no room to break away, calling into question the future viability of the strategy in competitive states like Georgia.
And with Trump showing no sign of heading towards a quiet post-presidential retirement, the dangers of embracing him too closely could risk other GOP candidates in 2022, when control of the House and Senate could again be up for grabs.
“Telling everyone that the race was stolen when it wasn’t, cost the Republicans two Senate seats,” said Erick Erickson, a syndicated conservative radio show host and blogger in Georgia.
“The going all-in on the cult of personality around President Trump hurt them as a result. They had to play up this, ‘there’s no way Donald Trump could have lost. It had to be stolen from him.'”
In fact, according to sources close to the campaigns, people in and around the White House, including the president’s lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, also put near-constant pressure on the two Georgia Republicans, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, to shape their runoff campaigns around his demands.
“It was a hostage situation every day,” said one Republican strategist familiar with the campaigns who only agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity.
“We were always trying to guard against the Tweet [from Trump],” the strategist said.
“Every week we had some new sort of demand,” said another strategist involved with the campaigns. “Calling for the hand recount. The signature match. A special session. $2,000 [coronavirus relief] checks. Objecting to the electors.”
“It was, ‘If you do not do this, the president will actively work against you and you will lose,'” he recalled.
‘In the president’s shadow’
“What was happening was obvious,” said Brian Robinson, a Georgia Republican strategist who did not work for either campaign. “It was obvious from the outside, not just the inside.”
“Our Republican candidates have been in this corner for a couple of years, having to run 100% unrelenting, un-independently mindedly supporting Trump,” he said. “Whatever [Trump] says, that’s my new position. If it contradicts something I said before, that’s fine. It’s my new position.”
The campaign of former Senator Kelly Loeffler, appointed more than a year ago as a businesswoman and political newcomer, serves as a dramatic example.
Once a major Mitt Romney donor, Loeffler has said she was inspired to public service by her predecessor, moderate Republican Senator Johnny Isakson who was known for a willingness to periodically break with his party and criticize Trump.
Yet in her year long campaign, Loeffler rushed to tout an “100% Trump voting record,” and centered her candidacy around the former president.
In fact, her decision to certify the electoral college vote on January 6, two days after she pledged to object, and one day after she lost the runoff, was the first public glimpse of a split with the former president.
“Everyone I have talked to who’s close to her says, it’s not that she said things she didn’t believe when it came to policy,” Erickson said.
“She is pro-life. She’s conservative, fiscal conservative, but she had to be way more about Donald Trump than she would have preferred to be.”
“She got defined as being in the president’s shadow. For better or worse. I don’t know that we’ve really seen who is the real Kelly Loeffler,” he said.
Through a spokesman, Loeffler declined to be interviewed for this story.
“I know her personally, and I just think she is a fine person. I don’t think Georgians got to see all of Kelly Loeffler,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a longtime Georgia Republican strategist and fundraiser.
‘Every wind of Trumpism’
Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center is a veteran of the Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush White Houses, and a longtime critic of Donald Trump. He said Loeffler isn’t unique among today’s Republicans.
“Most Republicans have to one degree or another have been bent by Trump and several of them have been broken by Trump,” he said.
Loeffler, he said, seemed to remake herself around Trump in her attempt to win the election.
“She’s a politician; she’s trying to win,” he said. “So she remade herself, not into a conservative but more into an angry populist nationalist reactionary. And she didn’t do very well at it.”
“She was a sort of a typical person in the Republican Party these days. You know, in one of his epistles, the Apostle Paul talks about being blown about by every wind of doctrine. And I think she was being blown about by every wind of Trumpism,” Wehner said.
Erickson argued that Loeffler had no choice politically. She had not been Trump’s choice for the Senate appointment. And when Trump’s choice, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins also ran for the Senate seat, Loeffler was forced to campaign to the right, he said.
“She had to lock down the president’s base for her and make sure the president did not come out for Doug Collins,” Erickson said. “When [she] got into the runoff…she couldn’t walk away from that.”
Liz Mair, a national Republican strategist who worked for a pro-Loeffler PAC during the runoffs agreed that Loeffler had little choice but to focus on Trump’s base at all costs.
Plus, she was dealt a near-impossible hand of political cards, Mair argued, as an appointee with a short time frame to get to know voters.
“It was almost like asking her to step into a race and fight an election, not just with both hands tied behind her back, but forcing her to do it also in clown shoes,” Mair said.
Mair said the lesson from Loeffler’s race is the same as all other elections: be authentic.
“I think what you don’t want to do is be going out there presenting an image, an impression of you, that doesn’t accurately depict who you are. Because generally speaking, I think voters can smell a rat.”
It’s a struggle many candidates have had and will continue to have, Mair said, especially in the Trump era of the Republican Party.
“A lot of people are trying to figure out how much they can run exactly the campaign that they want to run, versus the campaign that they feel that they need to run,” she said.
“That’s been a challenge for a lot of people. I certainly don’t think that [Loeffler is] the only one that’s found that to be true. Nor do I think she will be the last person to find it to be true.”