Georgia’s harsh lesson for Republicans

The US Democrats are likely to control both Capitol Hill and the White House for the first time in a decade. It is a measure of the importance of Tuesday’s Senate elections in Georgia that this is only the second most historic fact about them. A former Jim Crow state, a founding member of the Confederacy, has returned its first black senator and, if the remaining votes match expectations, its first Jewish one too. The hoary trope about a New South has never rung truer. After a year of racial strife, the results are no less momentous for the wider US.

Raphael Warnock and — pending confirmation — Jon Ossoff only bring the Democrats level with the Republicans in the Senate. It is with the clinching vote of Kamala Harris, the vice-president-elect, that Joe Biden can now expect to steer at least some of his planned reforms through Congress. He will have to prioritise measures against the pandemic and its economic effects when he is sworn in as president this month. Unified government, for the Democrats at any rate, has tended to be fleeting since the 1960s.

© Jim watson/AFP

How to husband a slim advantage is at least a pleasant problem to have. For Republicans, these election results are unambiguously dismal. Georgia has been “their” state for a generation. Both of their Senate candidates were incumbents. Since Mr Biden’s win, they have had two months to warn against a Democratic trifecta in Washington.

To lose in these conditions says much about the other side’s vaunted turnout machine. It says even more about the recent comportment of the Republican party itself. President Donald Trump’s anti-democratic chicanery will not overturn his defeat to Mr Biden. But it seems to be sinister enough on its own terms to put off swing voters. Gabriel Sterling, a senior Georgia Republican, pinned the results in his state on Mr Trump’s “actions since November 3”. These have encompassed sham litigation in several states, an improper phone call to a Georgian official and the march on Washington that is due for Wednesday. As hard as it is to assign cause and effect, this quest to stop a non-existent “steal” failed to mobilise enough Republicans in at least one race on Tuesday.

Ideally, the GOP would renounce the president’s behaviour in principle. With honourable exceptions, though, this is a party whose moral epiphany never seems to come. Kelly Loeffler, who lost to Mr Warnock, is among the senators who plan to challenge the certification of Mr Biden’s win on Wednesday. Such reckless game-playing will be no great loss to an august legislature.

And so, failing the moral entreaties, it is left to appeal to Republican self-interest. As well as a contest between individual politicians, the Georgia run-offs were the first tangible public reaction to Mr Trump’s post-defeat behaviour. The findings hardly suggest an appetite for more. The president appears to be leaving his party with less institutional power than it wielded before him. Throw in Mr Biden’s win in Arizona, and there are cracks in the Sun Belt that is, or was, a conservative dominion. Georgia is confirming what the presidential election and the previous midterms implied: as much as the outgoing president rouses his base, it is not a plurality of the electorate.

Assuming that Mr Ossoff wins, Mr Biden can now command the federal government. He can certainly expect to get most of his nominations to the executive approved. The president-elect’s horizons will have expanded overnight, and his opponents will have themselves to blame. Georgia is administering a lesson to Republicans, if they would only heed it.

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