It seemed like a pretty sure thing: two Republican senators, with the power of incumbency, would prevail in Republican-dominated Georgia where the GOP usually outperformed in runoffs. One incumbent’s opponent was a pro-Palestinian transnational leftist. The other’s was a 33-year-old progressive showman with few other obvious qualifications.
But Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue lost to Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—if current trends hold, that is—taking Republican control of the Senate with them. While the Republican establishment will be eager to blame outgoing President Donald Trump for the loss, the establishment’s inability to learn from Trump—and its desire to turn back the clock to a simpler, more corporate time—made the races competitive in the first place and cost the GOP power.
While Loeffler and Perdue were characterized as supporting Trump, they were in reality alien to the real essence of Trump’s new Right. They represented the elite and declined to fight on the key issues that matter today, in contrast with Trump, who realigned the party with the struggle for the forgotten man, and refused to play by the self-serving rules of debate set by Democrats and the lying media.
Perdue was a well-off man who became wealthier still in a long corporate career that involved outsourcing U.S. jobs to China. He lives on waspy Sea Island. When he first ran for the Senate in 2014, before Trump helped wake up America to the China threat, Perdue had an ad that boasted of his experience with a conglomerate that sent clothing production to China. He was also president of Reebok, the shoemaker that similarly benefited from exporting jobs to China on his watch.
The other Republican, Loeffler, whom Georgia Governor Brian Kemp appointed upon the early retirement of Senator Johnny Isakson, and who ran to complete the two years left of his term, was a quintessential establishment choice. Loeffler had a successful finance career in her own right but got her big break in marrying Jeffrey Sprecher, who is now chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. This background might not endear her to the struggling blue-collar workers energized by Trump, but it makes the old Republican establishment swoon. A rich candidate who can self-finance, whose family donated mightily to the Republican National Committee (and even to Hillary Clinton), and who is a woman, checks all the right boxes for the establishment.
GOP-inclined voters would have overlooked these elite backgrounds, as they did with Trump’s, if the senators had in fact fought for the forgotten man. Unfortunately, Perdue and Loeffler were nonfactors for most of the fights that mattered in recent years. Furthermore, their campaigns were largely free of specific ideas, and they failed to illustrate how they would make life better for average Georgians. They were tagged with being pro-Trump without actually gaining the upside of incorporating Trump’s virtues.
Loeffler allowed herself to be labeled as racist because she granted a photograph to a stranger who was racist. Of course, her opponent’s tactic was unfair, but Republicans will be defeated by it until they have the moral courage to go on the offensive when it is used, pointing out when their opponents are obsessed with race and identity politics and are themselves racist.
The two Georgia senators were ghosts last year when Antifa and Black Lives Matter were rampaging against America and its heritage with the revolting acquiescence of the media, schools, and corporate America. They were non-factors as politicians and public-health tyrants used the pandemic to trample the First Amendment and tell Americans they could go to the liquor store, marijuana store, or casino, but not to church, school, or peaceful protests against shutdowns. Among Republicans, the fight to confront China has been led by others.
Despite his defeat, Trump has shown that the future of the Republican Party is in fighting for blue-collar families, resisting China, and standing up for America rather than allowing progressives to trash it falsely as a racist police state. Trump also exposed the lying media as dimwitted lapdogs for the Left, and showed how to communicate with voters directly by confronting and transcending the media. Why would senators who learned none of these lessons expect to be relevant in the 2020s?
The GOP should stop preferring country club Republicans who aren’t willing to fight and dispense with other bad habits from the pre-Trump wilderness. Even before Trump leaves office, congressional Republicans just acquiesced to legislation sending millions of dollars to Pakistan, renaming military installations based on political correctness, and purporting to stop Trump from even a modest drawdown in U.S. forces in Europe, where they serve little purpose at great expense.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s pathetic Republican leaders in state government could teach a seminar in preemptive capitulation, failing to use their dominant position to tighten rules for mail-in ballots despite their susceptibility to fraud. These leaders did as much as anyone to demoralize supporters and produce failure.
If Republicans want to reclaim control of Congress next year, they’ll need to incorporate the best of what Trump illustrated, especially his willingness to stand up for the forgotten man, fight back in the culture war, and avoid a return to being the corporate party that is too fancy and genteel to hit back.
Christian Whiton is the author of Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest. He was a State Department senior advisor during the George W. Bush and Trump administrations.