Trump or McConnell? Two competing explanations for the GOP's defeat in Georgia

Did $600 stimulus checks or presidential allegations of rigged voting cost Republicans the Senate?

Updated: January 6, 2021 - 11:06pm

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As the dust settles from the GOP's double loss in Georgia — losses which handed narrow control of the Senate to Democrats for at least the first two years of Joe Biden's presidency— strategists and analysts are scrambling to explain how Republicans could have ceded two Senate seats in a reliably red Southern state after holding onto a solid majority in that chamber for half a decade. 

Rapidly coalescing in the wake of those defeats are two explanations which point fingers alternately at Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump, with pundits and pollsters arguing that one or the other proved decisive in scuttling the GOP's narrow chance at maintaining control in the Senate in the first half of the Biden administration.

GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler this week lost to Democrat Raphael Warnock, while challenger Jon Ossoff narrowly defeated Republican incumbent David Perdue.

McConnell in the days leading up to the election received significant criticism for his refusal to hold a clean vote on increasing the latest round of COVID-19 stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000, a measure championed by President Trump with broad bipartisan support.

The majority leader referred to the provisions derisively as "socialism for rich people," though he did attempt to hold a vote on the $2,000 checks as part of a package deal that would include an election investigation commission as well as repeal of a shield law for technology companies.

President Trump was highly critical of Senate GOP reluctance to pass the $2,000 checks. "Unless Republicans have a death wish ... they must approve the $2000 payments ASAP. $600 IS NOT ENOUGH!" he tweeted in late December.

On Tuesday, following Loeffler's loss to Warnock and as Ossoff's win over Perdue looked all-but-certain, Trump reiterated that criticism. "Your leadership has led you down the tubes," he said at a massive rally in Washington that turned out in support of him and his presidency. "[Republicans said] 'We don't want to give $2000 to people. We want to give them $600.' Oh great. How does that play politically? Pretty good?"

Robert Cahaly, a pollster who runs the Trafalgar Group polling outfit, argued unequivocally that the $2,000 stimulus issue doomed Loeffler and Perdue in their respective races. 

Calling McConnell's decision "the single biggest unforced error I've ever seen," Cahaly pointed to Trafalgar Group polling that found 75% of Georgia runoff voters favored raising the stimulus amount to $2,000.

Citing an apocryphal yet perennial Thomas Jefferson quote — "Democracy will cease to exist when people realize they can vote themselves more money" — Cahaly said in a phone interview: "That's probably true, but if you're going to vote to give them money, you might want to vote for a bigger amount just before an election."

Lauren Stephens, the founder of the campaign outfit Election Day Strategies, echoed that sentiment. 

"I think absolutely Mitch McConnell should have considered the demographic and voter base of Georgia in his decision about the $2,000," she told Just the News, saying of the bill: "Everybody supported it but Mitch McConnell."

Stephens did argue that a "combination of things ... led to a really bad outcome" for the GOP, citing what she said was Loeffler's weaknesses as a candidate as well as a split-ticket race with Republican competitor Doug Collins. 

Cahaly said that Democrats "out-populisted the Republicans" in Georgia over the $2,000 issue. 

"It was absolutely genius," he said, "how quickly Ossoff and Warnock's teams were everywhere talking about, you know, 'You vote for these guys, you're never going to get anything, and if you vote for us, there's going to be more money.'" 

Counter-argument: Trump's attack of election integrity

Yet others have argued that the blame for the GOP's Georgia failures can be laid at least in part at the feet of President Trump himself, who since the November election has aggressively criticized what he claims is the state's rigged election system. 

At a December rally for Perdue and Loeffler, Trump told a large crowd of supporters: "They cheated, and they rigged our presidential election, but we will still win it. We will still win it. We'll still win it. And they're going to try and rig [the runoff] election, too."

Just days before the runoff election, Trump was still criticizing what he said was an unfair election system there. 

"The Georgia Consent Decree is Unconstitutional," he wrote on Twitter, presumably referring to election system changes agreed to by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in 2020

"The [Georgia] 2020 Presidential Election is therefore both illegal and invalid," Trump continued, "and that would include the two current Senatorial Elections."

Allegations such as those from the president have drawn sharp rebuke and criticism from both Democrats and Republicans in the weeks since the election, with politicians and pundits pointing in part to Trump's claims as a handicap to the GOP candidates in this week's election.

"It turns out that telling the voters that the election is rigged is not a great way to turn out your voters," Utah Sen. Mitt Romney told media on Wednesday.

"Trump spent the last few weeks of the Georgia runoff campaign attacking the Republican Governor and Secretary of State and telling voters that the system is rigged," commentator Josh Jordan wrote on Twitter, "because he cares a whole lot more about his election loss than he does about the Republican party going forward."

The president's rhetoric may very well have had the depressive effect feared by some in the GOP: Voter turnout in reliably red districts in Georgia was reportedly significantly lower than that of many Democratic strongholds. 

A record three million residents in Georgia, meanwhile, cast early votes in the runoff elections; early votes have historically favored Democrats over Republican candidates. 

Though the Democratic victories in Georgia have given the parties a 50/50 split in the Senate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris can wield a tiebreaking vote there in her role as Senate president, handing Democrats a slim one-vote majority in that chamber. 

Democrats last controlled the Senate in the 113th Congress from 2013-2015, when they enjoyed a 55-45 majority.