WASHINGTON – As Republicans assess the future of their party following their seventh popular vote loss in eight presidential elections, the biggest remaining unknown could become clear this week in a longtime GOP bastion that two months ago flipped to Democrat Joe Biden.
Republican losses in the pair of Georgia runoff elections Tuesday would throw control of the Senate to Democrats, giving them control of the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade — and adding an exclamation point to President Donald Trump’s November loss.
Trump became just the fourth president in a century to fail to win reelection, and his refusal to concede and continued lies that Democrats “stole” it from him have put off the sort of analysis that the party undertook after losing to incumbent Barack Obama in 2012. Suddenly losing the Senate as well could heighten the party’s sense of urgency.
“Then all of a sudden there’s some questioning,” said one longtime Republican National Committee member, who spoke to HuffPost on condition of anonymity. The RNC member added that Trump would certainly get some of the blame: “He’s inserted himself in the results.”
Trump lost Georgia by 11,779 votes on Nov. 3. The state’s two Republican senators were both also on the ballot. David Perdue sought his second six-year term. Kelly Loeffler — who was appointed to replace former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson in 2016 — wanted to win the final two years of that term. Neither won outright in November, and both now face runoffs against Democratic challengers.
If either Perdue or Loeffler wins, Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell will remain majority leader, thereby giving the party a continued level of influence in Washington.
But if Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both win, it would create a 50-50 tie in the chamber, and Vice President Kamala Harris would be able to cast any tie-breaking vote. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York would become the new majority leader.
Trump held a rally for both Loeffler and Perdue in early December — during which he mostly complained about the election he lost a month earlier — and he plans a second one on Monday.
Some Republicans, including many of the most vocal Trump critics, said that the party deserves to lose both of the Georgia Senate seats for failing to stand up to Trump over the past five years. Doing so might be the best path forward to reclaim its independence from him, they added.
“Clean house and rebuild from the wilderness. Loyalty has become the qualification, and it’s allowed insane and unqualified people to rise to the top,” said a former RNC official, also on condition of anonymity. “Until that’s fixed, I’m not sure the GOP deserves to be in power.”
Of course, whether most Republicans — especially those with presidential ambitions themselves — even want to reclaim the party Trump hijacked five years ago remains unclear.
Prominent GOP pollster Neil Newhouse said that his firm’s final NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in late October asked Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters whether they considered themselves supporters of Donald Trump or of the Republican Party. A full 54% cited Trump. Only 38% said they supported the party.
“The data and the ‘on-the-ground’ results indicate that this is still Donald Trump’s Republican Party,” he said. “You cannot underestimate the strength he has within the Republican base.”
Perhaps reflecting this, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who ran unsuccessfully against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, volunteered last month to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court a widely ridiculed legal challenge to overturn the 2020 election results in four key states. The court refused even to hear the case just days later.
Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri — who like Cruz is believed to be considering a 2024 presidential run — last week became the first senator to say he would support challenging Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College victory when Congress meets to accept those results on Wednesday.
And Cruz one-upped that on Saturday with a letter signed by 10 other GOP senators rejecting the certification of the election for Biden and calling for an “emergency audit” of the results.
“The ‘party’ has become so dysfunctional that I’m not sure anything can save it from itself,” said Terry Sullivan, the campaign manager for the 2016 run by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for the GOP presidential nomination.
Trump, who continues to lie about the so-called “fraud” that he said cost him reelection, has also floated the idea that he will run for president again in 2024. Possibly to that end, he created a “leadership” committee on Nov. 9 and began raising money for it through one of the joint fundraising committees his campaign created with the RNC.
That “Save America” PAC could give him $150 million or more to help lay the groundwork for a 2024 presidential run. Such committees, however, have few restrictions, and he could just as well use the proceeds to pay for his personal expenses or even give himself a seven- or eight-figure salary.
As long as Trump continues to talk about running — whether or not he actually winds up doing so — it will likely make it difficult for other 2024 hopefuls, particularly those who seek to run as Trump’s heir by appealing to the racial and cultural grievances that are Trump’s specialty.
The RNC member, though, said he doubts ambitious politicians such as Hawley or Cruz or others will simply sit idly waiting for Trump to decide on another run and will instead actively start building their own operations. “That’s just human nature,” he said.
Trump will lose his privileged status with the RNC for purposes of fundraising and visibility when he leaves office on Jan. 21. At that point, the committee will have to adopt a neutral stance toward all potential 2024 candidates.
Indeed, some of those hopefuls are expected to appear at the RNC winter meeting in Amelia Island, Florida, later this week.
But Newhouse said it makes little sense to worry about how things might shake out in a 2024 Republican presidential field before Trump has even left office.
“The current political environment is going to change dramatically in the next couple of years,” he said. “2024 is a long, long ways away.”