Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was pleading with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows: President Donald Trump’s wild conspiracy theories about voter fraud — which threatened to depress Republican turnout — were not helping things in the Georgia Senate runoffs.
It was part of a full-court press to get Trump in line ahead of the elections that would decide whether Republicans kept control of the Senate, according to more than half-a-dozen senior party officials involved in the discussions. National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Kevin McLaughlin made similar overtures to Meadows. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke with the president himself.
But the president ignored every entreaty — and senior Republicans are in near universal agreement that Trump’s relentless, two-month assault on voting processes around the nation and in Georgia played a major role in the party’s twin defeats in the state.
The Georgia races represented a stunning breakdown of the four-year alliance of convenience between McConnell and Trump that helped conservatives accomplish an array of longstanding policy goals — but ended with the GOP losing the Senate. Things finally came apart in mid-December, when McConnell recognized Democrat Joe Biden as president-elect, a declaration that culminated in a tension-filled phone call between Trump and McConnell in which the president made his unhappiness clear.
It was the last time McConnell and Trump spoke before the runoffs.
The tension between Trump and the Senate GOP burst out into the open on Wednesday, as Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock had their victories confirmed and pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes. Before the Capitol was breached, McConnell allies and other Republicans were pointing their fingers directly at the president over the Georgia losses.
Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based GOP strategist and longtime McConnell confidante, noted that the party had suffered poor turnout in conservative areas of Georgia where Trump had strong support.
“That’s on him. He told them their votes didn’t count, and some of them listened,” Jennings said.
Trump advisers pushed back ferociously. They asserted that the Republican incumbents, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, ran uninspiring campaigns. They expressed disbelief that Perdue ran a TV ad saying he’d been cleared of wrongdoing into insider stock trading allegations, only giving them further attention. And they argued that Senate Republicans’ failure to approve coronavirus relief payments of $2,000 was costly.
“Polling shows that if the U.S. Senate had passed $2,000 stimulus checks, we’d be celebrating the elections of David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler today. Senate Republicans have nobody to blame but themselves,” said Jason Miller, a senior Trump campaign adviser.
As they girded for the runoffs, Senate Republicans found themselves in a bind. To win, party strategists were convinced, they needed to find a way to win over moderate suburbanites who were repelled by Trump. But they felt the president was making their job harder by rehashing the idea the election had been stolen from him, including in Georgia, which was narrowly won by Biden.
GOP officials had conducted internal polling showing that moderate voters were especially receptive to the idea that a Republican-controlled Senate would provide a needed check on the Biden White House. But Republicans concluded they couldn’t wage a check-and-balance focused campaign because it would be an implicit acknowledgment that Trump had lost, something that would alienate the president and his supporters.
“Republicans had everything going for them in this race, except Trump. If this election had been about checks and balances, then the Republicans would have won. Instead it was about Trump and his conspiracy theories,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant, who was a top adviser on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
McConnell privately expressed concern that Trump’s ongoing obsession with voter fraud was creating a sense of chaos that was turning off suburbanites. But making inroads with the White House proved difficult.
Senate Republicans long regarded Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a key liaison to the president. But by the time the Georgia runoffs were in full swing, Kushner had gradually removed himself from the daily on-goings with the White House. Kushner, seeking to distance himself from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s conspiracy-laced legal effort to overturn the election, has been spending much of his time recently in the Middle East.
McLaughlin, the NRSC executive director, had an open line of communication with Meadows. He had communicated to the White House chief of staff that Trump’s attacks on Georgia election officials were damaging the party’s prospects, and they needed Meadows’ help in getting Trump to stop. But in mid-December, around the time that McConnell publicly recognized Biden as president-elect, the chief of staff went dark.
Those who did reach the president got nowhere. To no avail, Graham told the president that Democrats would try to undo his accomplishments if they won control of the Senate.
Communication had broken down — and if anything, Trump was increasing his assault on Georgia Republicans. The president used a December rally in Georgia to express support for a primary challenge against GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who drew the president’s ire by not intervening in the state’s vote counting on Trump’s behalf. Later that month, Trump’s campaign began running a voter fraud-focused TV advertisement in Georgia, colliding with the get-out-the-vote messaging Senate Republicans were trying to push.
To the annoyance of Republicans, the president refused to disavow Georgia-based attorney Lin Wood, a Trump supporter who at one point suggested that Perdue and Loeffler be arrested for not doing enough to stop vote fraud.
And the weekend before the election, Trump was captured on tape telling Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to “find” enough votes to put him over the top in the state. It was hardly the end-of-election messaging Republicans were seeking.
All the while, Loeffler and Perdue were under pressure to align themselves with the president. A few days after the November general election, they released a statement calling on Raffensperger, the state’s top elections official, to step down.
“By constantly exacting a pledge of fealty from the Republican candidates he basically froze them in place and made it almost impossible for them to run their own races. Instead they were in this constant state of reaction to Trump and his whims — whims that were toxic in the most important suburban areas of the state,” said Kevin Madden, a top adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
Still, Trump and his administration invested heavily in the Georgia races. The president made two campaign trips to Georgia, even though he initially told advisers his first event was “perfect” and a second stop wasn’t needed. He recorded robocalls and video messages. Vice President Mike Pence made four trips to the state, and first daughter Ivanka Trump was also a visitor. Larry Kudlow, the National Economic Council director, held a fundraiser.
But right up until the end, Trump held firm: Georgia was rife with fraud. Private Republican polling conducted in the days leading up to the runoffs showed that the president’s election fraud conspiracies were high on the minds of GOP voters, thanks in part to a Trump-backed push to thwart the congressional certification of Biden’s victory.
And as the election results rolled in Tuesday evening and Perdue and Loeffler went down to defeat, the president took to Twitter, where he touted the very unfounded conspiracy theories that senior Republicans blame for erasing their Senate majority.