Skip to content
The Morning Dispatch: All Eyes on Georgia
Go to my account

The Morning Dispatch: All Eyes on Georgia

Plus: Moderna's great COVID vaccine news and a new multilateral trade deal in Asia.

Happy Tuesday! The Chicago Bears exist purely to inflict pain on the unlucky souls foolish enough to root for their success.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Preliminary data from Moderna Inc. show that the biotech company’s COVID-19 vaccine is 94.5 percent effective at preventing the disease. Moderna plans to apply for emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration within weeks.

  • Republicans in Washington are increasingly coming around to the reality of President-elect Joe Biden. Sens. John Cornyn, Kevin Cramer, Marco Rubio, Mike Rounds, and Jim Risch hinted at as much yesterday, and Robert O’Brien—President Trump’s own National Security Adviser—promised a “very professional transition” if Biden is determined to be the winner. “Obviously things look that way now,” O’Brien said.

  • President Trump is reportedly preparing to order the Pentagon to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan (from 4,500 currently to 2,500) and Iraq (3,000 to 2,500) by January 15. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged Trump to reconsider: “A disorganized retreat would jeopardize the track record of major successes this Administration has worked hard to compile,” he said in a statement.

  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that 28 counties—accounting for 94 percent of the state’s population—will be moved back into the state’s most restrictive “purple tier” of coronavirus restrictions. He characterized the move as an “emergency brake” in order to slow down the state’s rise in cases, which are currently on track to exceed the state’s summer peak.

  • Hurricane Iota made landfall in Nicaragua last night as a Category 4 storm that the National Hurricane Center called “extremely dangerous.” Iota is the second storm to batter that part of Central America in as many weeks.

  • The United States confirmed 168,784 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 10.4 percent of the 1,624,343 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 969 deaths were attributed to the virus on Monday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 247,175. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 73,014 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

Georgia on All Our Minds

Heading into this month’s election, just about everyone expected the Republicans to lose their Senate majority—including the people whose job it was to maintain it. One GOP strategist working on Senate races told us last month Republicans had a 15 percent chance of hanging on. “The question isn’t whether the tide is going to continue to move against us,” he said. “The question is simply, how high is the water?”

Well, Election Day came and went, and the widely predicted Blue Wave never materialized. Although Sens. Cory Gardner and Martha McSally lost their races, incumbent Republican Sens. Joni Ernst, Dan Sullivan, John Cornyn, Steve Daines, Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, Thom Tillis, and Susan Collins are all still standing. Thanks to Tommy Tuberville successfully picking off Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, Republicans currently hold a slim 50-48 edge in Congress’s upper chamber; two January runoff elections in Georgia are Democrats’ last chance to make up the difference.

Both of Georgia’s Senate seats were up for grabs this year, and the elections are a little wonky. In Georgia, candidates need to receive a majority—not plurality—support to avoid a runoff. And due to longtime Sen. Johnny Isakson’s abrupt retirement in 2019, one of the Georgia elections is operating under a “jungle primary” system: All candidates from all parties run on the same ballot in November, and if no one is able to secure an outright majority of support, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff. Neither race finished with a candidate exceeding 50 percent of the vote. Republican Sen. David Perdue led challenger Jon Ossoff 49.7 percent to 48 percent in one, and in the other, Democratic Rev. Raphael Warnock received 32.9 percent of the vote compared to GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s 25.9 percent and GOP Rep. Doug Collins’ 19.9 percent.*

As a result, the Peach State will be the center of the political universe from now until January 5. If Ossoff and Warnock win, Democrats will (with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote) control the White House, House of Representatives, and Senate. If either Perdue or Loeffler hang on, the GOP will have a strong check on President Joe Biden.

For obvious reasons, the races have already taken on national importance, with prominent figures on both sides of the aisle getting involved. Erstwhile Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced he is “moving to Georgia to help @ossoff and @ReverendWarnock win!” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said last week she raised $100,000 for grassroots and voting rights groups in the state. Fox News’s Laura Ingraham devoted a segment of her show last week to making the case that the “Senate and Country are at stake in Georgia.” Donald Trump Jr. sent a text message on behalf of Perdue and Loeffler yesterday: “If the Democrats win the runoffs in Georgia, they take control of the Senate. We cannot afford to let that happen.”

Setting aside the fact that control of the Senate is only up for grabs in Georgia if Joe Biden is indeed president-elect, GOP operatives like their party’s chances in January. “I think the overall environment benefits Republicans, because a lot of the air was let out of the balloon with the apparent victory of President-elect Biden,” strategist David Kochel—who had a hand in Sen. Joni Ernst’s reelection campaign this month—told The Dispatch. “Voters make an unconscious choice sometimes to put a check on the White House. … It will have a high turnout, in part because of the attention, and the spending, and what’s at stake. But my guess is you’re going to see these Republican candidates win by a couple of points.”

Republicans, of course, lost the most recent statewide election in Georgia: Joe Biden eked out an apparent 0.3-percentage-point win in the state this month. But Georgia has long been a red state—Trump won it by 5.1 percentage points in 2016, while Mitt Romney won it by 9 in 2012—and it could once again become more reliably so with Trump off the ballot. “Trump had a very unique problem with suburban voters,” Kochel said. “I think that problem exists for the party, but it’s not as pronounced for candidates not named Donald Trump.” In 2012, Romney won the suburban Atlanta counties Cobb and Gwinnett by 12.6 and 9.4 points, respectively. Trump lost them this year by 14.3 and 18.2 points. 

Even if Republicans are in pole position heading into the runoffs, it’s far from a done deal. And this uncertainty can help explain some of the institutional GOP’s behavior vis-a-vis Trump over the last several weeks. “We need his voters,” GOP Sen. John Thune bluntly told reporters last week. “Right now, he’s trying to get through the final stages of his election and determine the outcome there. But when that’s all said and done, however it comes out, we want him helping in Georgia.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell cares about two things above all else: Confirming conservative judicial nominees, and maintaining his majority in the Senate. To do the latter, Perdue, Loeffler, and GOP Inc. will have to turn out not only Trump’s hardcore fans, but also some suburbanites who may have pulled the lever for Joe Biden. McConnell has likely determined that cautiously humoring Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud is—for now at least—the best way to strike that balance. And other Republicans are looking to the Majority Leader for guidance. “Once McConnell goes, the dam breaks,” one Senate GOP source told us.

“We just came through a base election,” Kochel said. “Special elections are even more inclined to be base elections. So why do anything that’s going to be dissonant with what your base is saying and thinking?”

The Georgia candidates themselves are running party packages. Loeffler and Perdue have been acting in tandem for several weeks now, releasing joint statements and hitting the trail together. “We are the firewall. Not just for the Senate, but the future of our country,” Loeffler said at an appearance alongside Perdue last Friday. Some of their early ads ding Warnock for his previous praise of controversial preacher Jeremiah Wright and his anti-police rhetoric, and others argue Sen. Chuck Schumer is trying to “use Georgia to take the Senate majority and radically change America.”

Sen. Joe Manchin—the most conservative Democrat in the Senate—has been on a media tour of sorts trying to blunt these attacks. In an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, Manchin vowed to oppose efforts to pack the court or end the filibuster.

Ossoff and Warnock are holding joint events as well, and working to tie their Republican opponents to the outgoing president and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. “David Perdue ignored the medical experts, downplayed the crisis, and left us unprepared,” the narrator in a recent Ossoff ad reads over a side-by-side of Perdue and Trump. A Warnock ad details a Daily Beast story from earlier this year finding Loeffler dumped millions in stock after receiving a briefing on the coronavirus last winter. (The Justice Department and Senate Ethics Committee both dropped their probes into the matter earlier this year.) 

Moderna Hits Paydirt 

Pfizer’s announcement last week that its upcoming COVID vaccine was 90 percent effective in preliminary data was an extremely bright moment in a month of mostly grim pandemic news. Yesterday, we got another equally encouraging development: Moderna, creator of another of the leading vaccine candidates, said its early data showed its drug to be 94.5 percent effective in preventing the disease. Like Pfizer, Moderna said it will ask the FDA for emergency use authorization based on that data to begin distributing their vaccine as quickly as possible.

“Since early January, we have chased this virus with the intent to protect as many people around the world as possible,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement. “All along, we have known that each day matters. This positive interim analysis from our Phase 3 study has given us the first clinical validation that our vaccine can prevent COVID-19 disease, including severe disease.”

In the wake of Pfizer’s similar announcement, it may not be immediately clear why Moderna hitting vaccine paydirt as well is so important. The first reason is the simplest: Two effective vaccines means significantly more doses getting to patients significantly more quickly. Both Pfizer and Moderna have been laying the groundwork for months (with a sizable assist from the White House’s Operation Warp Speed) to fire up industrial production of their vaccines the moment they were shown to be effective. Pfizer has said it hopes to make 50 million doses of its vaccine available globally by the end of the year; Moderna expects to have 20 million doses ready to ship in the U.S. in the same time frame.

Just as importantly, Moderna’s sterling preliminary results are a strong indicator that Pfizer’s weren’t a statistical fluke. The two drugs were both created by means of the same unprecedented mRNA vaccine technology. (Without getting too technical, the gist is that rather than containing a weakened version of the virus itself, the vaccine contains cellular construction orders that cause the patient’s own cells to build copies of the virus’s outer spike proteins—which proteins the immune system trains itself on to defeat the actual virus.)

The technology has long been seen as promising, but there was no way of knowing prior to large-scale trials how effective a COVID vaccine based on it could actually be. Well, now we know.

“It validates the concept,” virologist Dr. Paul Offit, one of the inventors of the modern rotavirus vaccine, told The Dispatch. “Pfizer announced this rather surprising news that they had greater than 90 percent efficacy. Now you come back with a different company that used different investigators, that used a different population of people—you know, Pfizer had 44,000—this is 30,000. And they find essentially the same thing. … It makes you feel even better that those original data are now being confirmed by this second group that’s looking at essentially the same strategy.”

As a cherry on top, Moderna’s vaccine does not require the same sub-zero dry-ice maintenance that Pfizer’s drug requires during shipping and storage, which some warned was a recipe for a “logistical nightmare.” The company announced Monday its vaccine would remain stable at standard freezer temperatures for six months and refrigerator temperatures for up to 30 days.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

After eight years of negotiations, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, and the 10 ASEAN member states struck an agreement to form the world’s largest free trading bloc. Dubbed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the pact notably excludes the United States and India, and signals a willingness among even our closest security allies to strengthen economic ties with China. Despite only modest changes to standing trade tariffs between member states, the deal carries symbolic weight: China’s economic and diplomatic leadership in the Asia-Pacific region is expanding while America’s wanes.

With the inclusion of 15 member states, RCEP accounts for about a third of the world’s economic activity, 30 percent of the world’s population, and a combined GDP of $26.2 trillion U.S. dollars. “It is a clear win for all signatories. What it delivers in real terms remains to be seen, of course, but it is reasonable to expect it will drive significant growth at least between some member-country pairs,” Fred Rocafort, a legal expert on China and a former diplomat, told The Dispatch. “Because of the need to accommodate widely divergent interests, the RCEP is not as far-reaching as some other trade deals, but the fact some form of agreement was reached is itself remarkable.”

Some analysts have dismissed the deal as small potatoes compared to the more robust Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Trump withdrew the United States from in 2017, saying he preferred to negotiate trade deals on a bilateral rather than multilateral basis. The remaining 11 countries in that agreement—including Canada and Mexico—rejiggered and rebranded the deal as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in 2018.

Because the CPTPP excluded China, the recently signed RCEP has been held up as the PRC-friendly alternative. But according to Cato Institute Senior Fellow and Capitolism author Scott Lincicome, it’s a mistake to view the RCEP simply as the “anti-TPP.”

“[The RCEP] includes a lot of TPP members, and it’s not nearly as deep an agreement in terms of tariff commitments, services liberalization, and investment liberalization. And a lot of these countries already had free trade agreements with each other beforehand,” he explained. “With that said, the only way that it is the anti-TPP is simply that it’s not a U.S.-led endeavor and has China at the center of it.”

Even though China wasn’t the driving force behind the deal, its addition as RCEP’s foremost economic power poses a threat to the United States’ historic standing in the region. 

“For the United States, the signing is a warning on many levels. The RCEP leaves no doubt that U.S. allies in the region highly value China as a trading partner, despite their own issues with China. This clearly suggests there are limits to what America can expect of these allies in terms of confronting China,” said Rocafort. “Moreover, the logical result of deepening economic ties between Asia-Pacific countries would be a gradual shift in strategic priorities, very likely in detriment to the United States.”

So what might a Biden administration do after the United States’ abrupt departure from trade negotiations three years ago? Rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership could be a step in the right direction, but doing so would be fraught with domestic and geopolitical complications. “I think Biden will be hamstrung politically in terms of what he can do proactively. Jumping back into the TPP, for example, is going to take some time,” said Lincicome.

During the Democratic primary, Joe Biden told the Washington Post he’d be open to joining the CPTPP—the original version of which was negotiated largely by President Obama—if certain tweaks were made. “When it comes to trade, either we’re going to write the rules of the road for the world or China is—and not in a way that advances our values,” he said. “TPP wasn’t perfect, but the idea behind it was a good one: to unite countries around high standards for workers, the environment, intellectual property, and transparency, and use our collective weight to curb China’s excesses. … I would not sign any new trade deal until we have made major investments in our workers and infrastructure. Nor would I sign a deal that does not include representatives for labor and the environment at the negotiating table, and strong protections for our workers.”

Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s reputation as a bad actor in the region, key American allies have taken the first step in improving relations by engaging in a mutually beneficial trade deal with China. Their willingness to negotiate with the CCP coincides, not by accident, with a U.S. retreat from decisive defensive and economic positions in Asia-Pacific. 

“The main takeaway from RCEP is that it’s not the end of the world, it’s not a geo-economic game-changer, but it’s just another signal that the United States is no longer the lone economic hegemon,” Lincicome said. “The United States is rapidly, due to a lot of our own actions, becoming just another country in the global economy.”

Worth Your Time

  • Elise Stefanik—who for a brief time was the youngest woman ever to be elected to the House—is one of the GOP’s best-known House members. But she emerges from the Trump era a markedly different politician than she was four years ago. After initially backing John Kasich in 2016 and repeatedly calling Trump out—after his disparaging remarks about the Khan family, after the Access Hollywood tape, after his so-called Muslim ban—Stefanik found her voice defending the president vociferously during last year’s impeachment trial. And she “did not look back,” Russell Berman writes in The Atlantic. Check out Berman’s full piece for a look at one of the more interesting career trajectories in the House, and the work Stefanik has done to recruit more GOP women to the chamber.

  • On November 7, 21-year-old Chris Nikic became the first person with Down syndrome to finish the Ironman triathlon. But growing up, the odds were stacked against him. “At 5 months old, he endured open-heart surgery. He was so weak and had such poor balance that he did not walk on his own until he was 4,” writes New York Times reporter Kurt Streeter. “At every turn, experts spoke of Nikic in terms of limits instead of possibilities.” But Nikic persevered in spite of it all. “I learned that there are no limits,” he told Streeter. “Do not put a lid on me.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On the most recent episode of Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David talk electoral conspiracy theories, the race-based admissions case at Harvard, the latest DACA developments, and The Mandalorian.

Let Us Know

We know today’s TMD was longer than usual. Generally speaking, what are your thoughts on the length of this newsletter? Do you usually make it through the whole thing? Does it include too much information? Not enough? Just right?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images.

Correction, November 17: Only one of the Georgia Senate races is operating under a “jungle primary” system this year, not both.