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Winning by Losing
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Winning by Losing

A good night for the GOP in Georgia.

Herschel Walker delivers his concession speech on Tuesday in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.)

Sometimes in politics you get lucky.

For weeks, polling predicted a tight race between Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock in Georgia’s Senate runoff. The early returns last night affirmed that the polling was correct. The GOP teetered on the edge of electoral disaster.

But in the end, thankfully, Georgians stepped away from the abyss. Traditionally conservative voters in the suburbs came through and delivered a well-earned Republican victory by sending the Republican nominee down to defeat.

I’m not trying to be cute in saying that. (Fine, a little cute.) Rarely has an election loss produced as much long-term benefit for a party at such meager short-term cost as Tuesday’s did. Right-wing populists won’t be argued out of believing that Trump is America’s savior and the silent majority of voters support the MAGA agenda. But they might have those beliefs gradually beaten out of them at the polls in swing states.

Tuesday was the final beating in an election cycle that’s been full of them.

I use that term loosely. Warnock’s 51.4-48.6 margin of victory ain’t much of a beating, especially against a nominee as weak as Walker. Last night’s Democratic victory had a whiff of the 2020 presidential outcome, in which the grossly unfit candidate lost—but only just barely. “The closeness of this race is … among the most depressing and ominous things I’ve seen in American politics in my lifetime,” Sherilynn Ifill tweeted afterward. It was close enough that devout populists took to claiming that the problem in Georgia’s election was something other than what the problem obviously was.

Walker losing by 10 points would have been unspinnable. Walker losing by less than 3 might be just encouraging enough for MAGA not to learn its lesson. Again.

In fairness, Walker was unique in certain ways among the crop of Trump-backed nominees this fall. He had a singular asset: being so famous and beloved in his home state for his football stardom that he probably would have won the primary even without help from Trump or McConnell. He also had singular baggage. Say what you will about Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano, at least they never had to explain alleged secret abortions, secret children, and a history of domestic abuse.

If you want to make Georgia’s result a story about Herschel Walker instead of a story about weirdo populism, in other words, you’re free to try. Certainly, that’s the story many Trump devotees would be telling this morning if candidates like Lake and Mastriano had won their own races.

But they didn’t win. With Walker’s defeat last night, in fact, 2022 became the first midterm cycle since 1934 that the governing party managed to avoid losing any Senate seats. Even MAGA-friendly conservatives will find themselves wondering why that is, and mulling what the common denominator might be.

The first step to recovery, it’s said, is admitting you have a problem. More Republican voters are destined to take that step after last night. Which makes it a good result for the GOP.

“It’s never a good thing to lose a Senate seat,” you might respond. To which I’d answer: It’s never entirely a good thing.

Walker’s defeat will cost the GOP in the short term. With 51 Senate seats, Democrats will have little trouble confirming Biden’s executive and judicial nominees. They no longer need worry about Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema making trouble for them individually; only if the two team up can they successfully tank a Biden appointee.

Having 51 seats also means Democrats won’t need to share power with Republicans on committees, an artifact of the current 50/50 arrangement. Committees that split evenly between the parties move slowly. Committees in which one party enjoys a majority will move faster in advancing bills and, perhaps, issuing subpoenas.

But … so what?

A Senate with 51 Democrats would have been ominous for the right if the GOP had performed a tiny bit worse in New York and Florida House races last month. Republicans nearly fumbled away a House majority that looked to be a lock before Election Day.

But only nearly. Kevin McCarthy’s shockingly narrow advantage in the chamber will still be enough to kill legislation advanced by the Democratic Senate. Biden’s agenda died when Republicans clinched their 218th seat. Having an extra Democratic senator won’t change that.

As for judges, the president and his party did surprisingly well getting them through with only 50 Senate Democrats. For all the trouble Manchin and Sinema have caused their caucus on policy, they’ve been loyal soldiers on judicial confirmations.

A longer-term drawback for the right is last night’s success turning Warnock into a national figure. He finished first in no fewer than four Senate elections in the past two years in a key swing state and raised gobs of money in the process. As of this morning, he’s arguably the most politically formidable African American officeholder in the United States. Republicans could have ended his career yesterday; because they didn’t, they may have to contend with him as a presidential nominee someday.

Or maybe not. Circumstantial evidence suggests Biden is running again in 2024, and 2028 is a long way away. If the best we can do to find a major problem in the Georgia result is to speculate about a presidential election six years from now, it’s hard to describe that problem as “major.”

Finally, losing a seat in 2022 obviously makes the GOP’s task of regaining the Senate majority in 2024 that much harder. But “harder” is a relative term: The 2024 map favors Republicans decisively, enough so that the GOP winning a majority of some greater or lesser degree seems a fait accompli notwithstanding last night’s disappointment.

We should take nothing for granted about the party’s chances after they bungled what should have been a red wave this year, admittedly. Yet one can plausibly argue that Walker’s defeat last night will help Republicans net more Senate seats in the next cycle than a Walker victory would have.

That’s one big benefit to the right from the Georgia outcome. Let’s consider some others. 

The most obvious benefit is that a man manifestly unfit for office will not, in fact, hold office. I can’t do better than Walker’s own son in making the case against him.

“Herschel was like a plane crash into a train wreck that rolled into a dumpster fire. And an orphanage. Then an animal shelter. You kind of had to watch it squinting through one eye between your fingers,” said one Georgia Republican operative to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Normally political candidates of bad character are smooth talkers and skilled in discussing the issues; or, if they’re not good on the issues, they’re at least of upstanding character. Walker was the rare case who had nothing going for him except fame.

True, this country elected someone like that president in the recent past. But there’s no Electoral College in Senate elections to rescue a checkered candidate who can’t win the popular vote.

You might challenge me here by noting that keeping embarrassing Republicans out of the Senate is good for America but not so good for the GOP. Is that really so, though? Walker is such a loose cannon that he was seemingly assigned “chaperones” like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham to join him in interviews during the home stretch of the campaign, even when chatting with friendly outlets like Fox News. God only knows what grisly embarrassments, rhetorical or otherwise, the Republican Party will be spared now that he’s been denied a national platform. Democratic ad-makers just lost 50 percent of their content over the next two years.

Senate seats are more valuable than House seats for obvious reasons, but would anyone disagree that the GOP as an institution would have benefited greatly had a Democrat defeated Marjorie Taylor Greene in her first run for Congress?

Sometimes a loss is a win.

Which brings us back to the 2024 Senate cycle. Unless conservative populists would rather defeat establishment Republicans in primaries than Democrats in general elections (and maybe they do?), they’re destined to think twice about nominating kooks next time. They may have no substantive objection to the likes of Herschel Walker or Blake Masters, but they do object to being owned by the dreaded libs in otherwise winnable races. In 2010 the GOP left Senate seats on the table when it nominated Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell in the heat of the Tea Party moment. Four years later, still smarting from those defeats, it tacked toward more generic nominees and cleaned up in November.

The same thing may happen in 2024. Certainly, Mitch McConnell and the GOP donor class will go all-in next time to try to snuff weirdo populists in primaries. Some right-wing voters who prefer weirdos on the merits will be chastened by the populist wipeout this cycle and conclude they’re better off with a RINO who can win than an election-denying MAGA who can’t. Had Walker won Tuesday, his victory might have steered those voters back toward gambling on kooky nominees, notwithstanding their record last month.

Because he lost, they’re left staring at this scoreboard today.

They’d much rather have a fighter than a sucker as nominee, but the calculus will change if it turns out that only the suckers are capable of winning.

Which brings us to Trump.

A Walker victory wouldn’t have undone the damage to Trump’s chances after last month’s midterm flop, but Walker’s defeat feels like a coup de grace, one last warning to the MAGA faithful that ruin awaits in 2024 if they don’t change course. Again, because of Walker’s notoriety in Georgia, Trump’s endorsement probably didn’t affect the outcome of this year’s Senate primary. But without Trump there may have been no Walker candidacy to begin with.

If not for Trump egging Walker on, Republicans in Georgia may have ended up with a generic nominee for Senate. And if they had, it’s easy to guess how he would have fared against Warnock.

Only Herschel Walker could have lost this race, and he did. Donald Trump’s golden political instincts once again led him through a crowd of electable alternatives to find the one Republican capable of blowing an election in a favorable national climate. Then, for good measure, he wrecked whatever chance remained of Walker pulling out a win by indulging in typical Trump antics during the final weeks of the campaign. “He forced Walker to stagger through the runoff against Raphael Warnock in the shadow of Trump’s own low-energy campaign announcement,” Ross Douthat writes, “which was succeeded by Trump’s dinner with anti-Semites, which was succeeded by Trump’s call to suspend the Constitution in order to restore him to the presidency.”

This makes four times that Trump has lost Georgia. On Election Day 2016, when he won the presidency, five of the six senators representing the swing states of Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania were Republican. Six years later, with Warnock’s victory, Democrats hold all six seats.

Last night’s county results continued the years-long alienation of suburban voters from Republicans during the Trump era—at least when MAGA candidates are on the ballot.

By comparison to Trump-backed Herschel Walker, Trump nemesis Brian Kemp did much better in Atlanta en route to an easy victory. Kemp and Raphael Warnock are very far apart ideologically, but Kemp/Warnock voters were real and possibly decisive yesterday.

When Todd Starnes blamed Never Trumpers for Walker’s defeat, he might not have been wrong. If you prefer mainstream conservatives to Democrats and Democrats to loose-cannon MAGA populists, Kemp/Warnock was the ticket for you. And Team Warnock knew it. The senator’s deputy campaign manager shared their winning blueprint with NBC: “Creating a permission structure for soft Republicans, swing voters and independents to support Reverend Warnock was key to our strategy, and why we highlighted things like working w/ Ted Cruz or standing up for peanut farmers.”

By downplaying policy differences with the right while playing up Walker’s weirdness and chumminess with Trump, Warnock’s campaign found just enough centrist Republicans willing to split their tickets to earn a full six-year Senate term.

After the race was called, disappointed Fox News anchors tried to put the blame where it belonged without being too explicit about it. Trump crony Sean Hannity groused that Republican voters have become foolishly unwilling to vote by mail “for whatever reason,” as if the reason hasn’t been painfully clear for two years.

Laura Ingraham got closer to identifying the culprit, although not by name.

Strangely, Republican voters’ skepticism of voting by mail didn’t seem to hurt Kemp, Brad Raffensperger, or any other GOP candidate in Georgia who isn’t longtime buddies with Donald Trump.

Ingraham went on to complain that the party continues to have “the same people in place in leadership” despite its dismal record this year, ostensibly a shot at RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel but in context a jab at the capo di tutti capi. Other Trump-friendly figures pointed to corruption among Republican fundraisers, specifically the greedy intermediaries who siphoned off huge chunks of donations intended for Walker’s campaign. That too was a veiled criticism of Trump, whose super PAC sent out emails last month asking for contributions to Walker and then kept 90 percent of the proceeds for its own uses.

As usual, it was McConnell’s operation that was forced to pick up the slack. Team Mitch’s PAC dropped $18 million on the runoff to try to drag Walker over the finish line. If it hadn’t spent so much in other states trying to rescue underwhelming Trump-backed candidates, like the $32 million it blew in blood-red Ohio to save J.D. Vance, there might have been enough left in the bank to get Walker those final 3 points he needed to win.

There’s one more way in which Trump might have hurt the GOP on Tuesday. You may have expected Democratic turnout to drop steeply between November’s general election and December’s runoff after the party clinched a Senate majority last month. Liberals in Georgia had no strong reason on the merits to show up and vote for the fourth time in less than two years. Chuck Schumer and the Democrats would be back in charge in January no matter what.

Republicans did have a reason to show up—avenging the national disappointment in November—and show up they did. GOP turnout last night was 90 percent of what it was for last month’s general election. Walker’s problem was that Democratic turnout proved to be even greater, hitting 93 percent of Warnock’s vote total on November 8.

There’s no silver-bullet explanation for that. Credit obviously is due to Warnock’s GOTV operation, his ad team, and Walker’s many scandals. But the fact that Democratic turnout keeps beating expectations in MAGA-era elections, most notably last month, makes me think anti-Trump sentiment will continue to scramble forecasts about participation rates indefinitely. The clearer Trump’s authoritarian intentions become, the more his enemies will view each election as an opportunity to confront an existential threat. They’ll keep showing up at the polls in force until his grip on the GOP loosens and the populist threat has passed, or at least diminished. 

I wasn’t a regular voter for most of my life, but I’ll be in line for every federal election until he’s retired. I’m not alone.

Which, in sum, is why the GOP defeat in Georgia was really a GOP victory. As weirdo populism proves itself unviable at the polls, conservative voters will retreat from it in primaries. And in time that’ll bring me and lots of those Kemp/Warnock voters fully back into the fold. Trump’s loss is the mainstream Republican Party’s gain.

And the mainstream Republican Party knows it.

I’ll leave you with a few minutes from Walker’s surprisingly dignified concession speech. While he was losing graciously, his political patron was busy hosting QAnoners at Mar-a-Lago.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.