It’s a headline almost too tempting to resist: “Tuesday was the night the lights went out in Georgia for Donald Trump.”
David Perdue, Trump’s handpicked choice for Georgia governor, lost the Republican primary in a landslide to incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, who had the temerity to insist that Joe Biden in fact won the state in 2020. By the time you read this, Trump — who more or less dragged Perdue into the race, and whose PAC threw some $2.6 million into the contest — will be saying he barely knew the guy.
Worse for Trump, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — who not only insisted Georgia’s 2020 vote was accurate, but who taped Trump’s demands he “find” enough votes to change the outcome — ran far ahead of his Trump-backed primary challenger and even avoided a runoff. And Trump’s choice for Georgia attorney general likewise went down to a solid defeat.
With Trump candidates for governor failing earlier in Idaho and Nebraska, it’s understandable that much of the post-Georgia coverage will be asking whether Trump’s star is fading, whether Republicans are beginning to move away from the former president. It’s understandable, but profoundly misleading. Taken as a whole, the primary season thus far has produced a slate of Republican Party winners overwhelmingly devoted to Trump’s obsession with the lie that Biden stole the 2020 election and is not a legitimate president. Further, looked at collectively, the Republican candidates have all but declared their intention to make sure that the “steal” does not happen the next time around, by controlling every lever of the election machinery.
Look past Kemp, and what do you see? In the other key Georgia race, Herschel Walker, whose sole political asset other than his football career is Trump’s backing, won the GOP Senate nomination outright. He joins a slate of other Trump-endorsed senatorial candidates — J.D. Vance in Ohio, Ted Budd in North Carolina and (pending a recount) Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania — as well as gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, who won in a landslide to the horror of the entire state’s Republican establishment. Yes, there are other cases where Trump’s choices lost — in the governor’s races in Idaho and Nebraska, for example — but by the time the primary season is over, Trump will be able to point to a significant number of contests where his support was the major, if not the sole, reason a candidate won.
Much more important, this metric is not the key to understanding the full dimension of what Trump is doing. In virtually every contest, none of the main contenders have pushed back against Trump’s fantasies about the 2020 election. (I’d call it an Ahab-like obsession, but in Moby Dick, there was a white whale.) In Pennsylvania, neither Dr. Oz nor David McCormick pushed back against Trump’s election fraud lie; Mastriano not only embraced it, but has crowed that as governor, he’d have the power to appoint the secretary of state and could “de-certify” every voting machine in the state.
In Alabama, Rep. Mo Brooks, whom Trump dis-endorsed for Senate for allegedly “going woke,” surged in recent weeks and made it into a runoff Tuesday night. But if anything, Brooks is more committed to the election falsehood argument than his opponents, having been an active participant in the effort to block Biden’s accession to the White House. A Brooks win might be tabulated as a defeat on Trump’s scorecard, but it would be a victory for as Trumpist a Republican as imaginable.
You can see this in bolder detail on down-ballot races, particularly in the campaigns for secretary of state. In just about every battleground state, Republican candidates are asserting serious doubts, if not flat-out rejections of the idea that Biden was the legitimate winner of the last election. A look at the state legislatures provides more compelling evidence. According to the New York Times, “At least 357 sitting Republican legislators in closely contested battleground states have used the power of their office to discredit or try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election … The tally accounts for 44 percent of the Republican legislators in the nine states where the presidential race was most narrowly decided.”
Remember, it was Republican state legislators — in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin among others — who rejected Trump’s pressure to have them throw out the Biden electors who had actually won. But since then, the conviction that the election was stolen from Trump has become an article of faith among rank-and-file Republicans: two-thirds of GOP voters embrace the idea. These voters, in turn, have “persuaded” Republican candidates at every level that the key to victory, at least in the primaries, is to either support that theory or — as Oz and others have done — express “doubts” about the outcome. Next time out, in other words, many election offices and state legislators will likely have a very different approach to certifying election results, especially if Democrats win in close races. It is, in fact, highly possible that the offices that oversee the election will be occupied by people who embrace the heart of Trump’s delusions, and that the state legislatures will be controlled by members who are determined to avenge the “big steal” of 2020. Whether Trump actually endorsed these officials is immaterial.
One more worrisome point: If election disputes wind up in the Supreme Court, they will be adjudicated by a court whose conservatives have shown strong sympathy for the “independent state legislature” theory, which says that when it comes to election rules, these bodies cannot be overruled by any other force — not federal courts, not state courts, not even voters who might seek by referendum to limit their power. So if GOP-controlled legislatures either ratify the decisions of state officials, or overrule them and impose their own judgment about who won and lost, it’s highly unlikely that this Supreme Court will void their judgments.
If the question is whether Trump maintains all but total power over his party’s choices of candidates, the answer is “no.” In some cases, at least, his endorsements have not and will not carry the day. But if the question is whether the Republican Party has succumbed almost wholly to Trump’s canard that he was robbed of his presidency, and whether they are determined to ensure a different outcome to the next presidential election, the answer is a clear and compelling “yes.”