Georgia Republicans draw lessons from Senate losses ahead of 2022

‘We can’t just turn out the Trump coalition and win,’ GOP consultant says

Former GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who is weighing a Senate run next year, has launched a new group to engage and organize Georgia voters.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who is weighing a Senate run next year, has launched a new group to engage and organize Georgia voters. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 25, 2021 at 6:00am

After losing both Senate seats in Georgia, beleaguered Peach State Republicans are drawing lessons from those defeats ahead of another competitive Senate race in 2022.

Republicans are still reeling from the Jan. 5 losses in a pair of runoff elections, when Sen. David Perdue lost his bid for a second term to Jon Ossoff and appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler lost to pastor Raphael Warnock in a special election. Perdue this week passed on a challenge to Warnock, who is running for a full term next year, but Loeffler is considering a rematch.

Loeffler has spent the several weeks since her loss talking to a range of Republicans and supporters, according to spokesman Stephen Lawson.

“A significant number of those calls were centered around: We’ve got to fix what’s going on in Georgia,” Lawson said. “We’ve got to get back on offense, and we’ve got to engage more people and really shore up some things that we’re seeing in our state.”

Those conversations culminated in a new nonprofit called Greater Georgia, which Loeffler launched this week with a three-pronged mission of registering new voters, expanding existing voter outreach and advocating to “instill transparency and uniformity in our election process,” according to a press release.

Republicans say her group could help mitigate some of the dynamics that contributed to the twin Senate losses last month. But, in Georgia and across the Senate battleground, former President Donald Trump’s involvement and influence remains an X-factor. 

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Undoing Trump’s damage

Greater Georgia’s focus on election processes is a nod to a significant problem experienced by Peach State Republicans during the runoffs: Some of their voters believed the November elections were rife with fraud and their second-round votes would not count. 

“The No. 1 issue is getting Republicans out to vote,” said Martha Zoller, a radio host and former GOP congressional candidate who chaired Georgia United Victory, a super PAC that supported Loeffler. 

“There are still enough Republicans in Georgia to win races, but they didn’t get out to vote,” Zoller added. “And my concern is … that we have a group of voters that think they’re more powerful by staying home. And that’s not a good place to be.” 

Multiple Georgia Republicans blamed Trump for discouraging GOP voters from heading to the polls in January by falsely claiming that he actually won the state in November. President Joe Biden won Georgia by a narrow margin of less than half a percentage point, becoming the first Democrat to win the state in 28 years. Loeffler and Perdue did not push back on Trump’s falsehoods.

“Donald Trump is what went wrong,” said Jay Williams, a Republican strategist who worked with Georgia United Victory. “He threw a complete bomb into the runoff.” 

Having a pair of races that would decide control of the Senate led to a record turnout for a runoff election. But turnout was still down from the November election, and data from Georgia Votes showed it was lowest in two of the most Republican House districts, the 11th and the 14th. An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also showed that turnout dropped in the deep-red northwestern and southern parts of the state, where Trump held campaign rallies. 

Some Republicans are concerned that Trump will stay in the headlines and continue to cast doubt on the state’s elections, especially since the former president has pledged to campaign against GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who is up for reelection next year and pushed back on Trump’s fraud claims. 

“I don’t have a crystal ball but I would say that certainly that’s on the forefront of Republicans’ minds,” Georgia GOP strategist Chip Lake said. “We know the chaos surrounding election integrity wasn’t helpful for us.”

“Over time, how much does that wane? I don’t think any of us know the answer to that question,” Lake added. “We’re hopeful that doesn’t seep into the 2022 election.” 

Lawson, the Loeffler spokesman, demurred on Trump’s continued influence over voters’ confidence in elections. 

“I’ll leave that to the pundits, but I do know that we can control what we can control,” he said. “I think rebuilding that trust and that confidence in our electoral processes starts with supporting policies that the vast majority of Georgians want and support.”

Lawson named adding a photo identification requirement for absentee ballot requests as one example, which is a proposal that passed the state Senate on Tuesday. Republicans in charge of the state legislature are pushing for broader election changes, which Democrats and voting rights groups have criticized as attempts to disenfranchise voters, especially voters of color. 

Lawson said Greater Georgia is not involved in advocating any of the current legislation, but the group is looking to build an infrastructure to rival the Democratic operation led by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. 

Abrams’ group Fair Fight Action has been slamming the GOP proposals, launching statewide TV ads accusing Republicans of trying to make it harder to vote. Abrams also criticized Loeffler’s new group in a Monday interview on CNN, saying it was “disheartening” to see the former senator “spend her time and her resources to publicly engage in the type of conspiracy theories that say that only certain Americans should be valued.”

Asked for a response to Abrams’ remarks, Lawson said Greater Georgia was focused on registering new voters. 

Some Republicans have given credit to Abrams’ organization and Democrats more broadly for engaging new voters and implementing an extensive absentee ballot program that boosted Democratic turnout. Lawson said the lack of a similar operation on the Republican side in part spurred Loeffler to start her group. 

More lessons learned 

Greater Georgia is estimating that “a significant portion, if not a majority,” of the roughly 2 million unregistered Georgians of voting age could lean Republican, Lawson said. Most of those voters are concentrated in the growing Atlanta metropolitan area, where Democrats have expanded their margins of victory thanks to an influx of new voters and moderate Republicans and independents abandoning the GOP. 

Some Republicans said the party also has to address broader problems in the suburbs to win statewide again. 

“We can’t just turn out the Trump coalition and win. No one’s going to out-Trump President Trump, and he didn’t win here,” Georgia GOP consultant Brian Robinson said. “And I don’t know who threads this needle.” 

Republicans may have to contend with a divisive Senate primary next year. All eyes are currently on Loeffler and former GOP Rep. Doug Collins, who finished third behind Warnock and Loeffler in the special election first round in November. If both decide against the Senate race, the GOP primary field could get very crowded.

Some Republicans said the Loeffler-Collins battle was problematic last year because it allowed Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, to boost his positive name ID and it delayed GOP attacks until after November. 

Others said the dynamic was unique to the special election timing. In 2022, the GOP could have its nominee by June, when the primary is expected to occur, leaving more time to attack Warnock. But if the primary becomes crowded, the nomination race could be pushed into a runoff. 

Republicans are optimistic that historic trends will be in their favor since the president’s party typically loses congressional seats in his first midterm. They also believe that Democratic control of Congress and the White House will produce far-left policies that Republicans can unite against. 

“Warnock won’t be able to run on puppies and holiday cheer,” said Robinson, referring to two popular campaign ads from Warnock. “He’ll have a record.” 

Warnock, though, is confident he’ll win. He told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday, “I am prepared to defeat whatever Republican they come up with.”