GOP election denialism is really about winning crucial Senate run-offs

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on November 15, 2020.

While the sane world acknowledges — and in many corners, celebrates — president-elect Joe Biden’s victory, Donald Trump and much of the Republican Party hang onto their election denialism the way Linus hangs onto his blanket.

From an anthropological perspective, it is a fascinating phenomenon: there is clear cognitive dissonance in accepting the surprisingly strong down-ballot Republican results, while questioning the results of the presidential election at the top of that same ballot.

The election results played out as many observers anticipated: Trump took an early lead and then mail-in ballots put Biden over the top.

What the observers didn’t predict was that Trump would use the long delay in announcing results to mount a quixotic campaign to discredit the election results themselves.

Now, relax, those same observers implore us. The president is very unlikely to prevail. While that may be sad news for Trump as he looks ahead to January 20, the rest of the Republican Party is watching the calendar for another, earlier date: January 5, when two run-off elections will determine Georgia’s Senate seats.

While liberals are celebrating easy wins in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, or having a laugh about the idiotic Giuliani press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, their eyes, and their efforts, should be on Georgia. After all, the Georgia elections are the big prize. Those run-off elections, to be held at the start of the year, will determine control of the Senate. If the Democrats take the two seats, the Senate will be split along party lines, 50-50, with Democrat vice-president-elect Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote.

Lose, and the Republicans will retain control of the chamber, once again saddling America with their version of a minority government. The consequence? Much of Biden’s agenda will be foiled before it is even out of the gate.

And that, my friends, explains the decision of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and other ranking Republicans to embrace Trump’s otherwise insane election denialism. Turns out, they need him just as they always have. Trump is key to turning out the Republicans’ base voters. Consequently, both of the party’s senatorial candidates in Georgia are tied to the lame-duck president, even more than they are to the Republican Party itself.

Just look at the shocking statement jointly issued by both GOP candidates, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, on Tuesday. Claiming that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, had “failed to deliver honest and transparent elections,” they called on him to resign. (He has refused.)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution subsequently reported that the president and his aides had pressured the two into taking this step, “lest [Trump] tweet a negative word about them and risk divorcing them from his base” ahead of the run-off.

Although Trump has lost the state and because it is a run-off election where casual voters are less likely to turn out, the party’s ability to goose the base and drive turnout will be more important than ever. It will also prove to be an enormously expensive undertaking — the Democratic candidates claim to have raised $10 million over the last weekend alone, and Republicans are fundraising furiously on the back of Trump’s ongoing legal challenges.

But Trump continues to be Republicans’ lucky rabbit foot. His hold remains so strong on the base that no Republican can afford, politically or financially, to leave him behind.

So where does this all lead? It’s hard to know. Perhaps after the dust settles in Georgia, McConnell and others will finally toss Trump overboard. The problem is, the run-offs are perilously close to Inauguration Day on January 20. It will be too late to have cooperated with an orderly and peaceful transition. It will have hobbled the U.S. response to the out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic. And it will have contributed to a serious erosion in the trust Americans have in their own democracy.

What’s more, there is no guarantee that Trump will ever go quietly, whether on January 5, January 20, or ever. It is no great stretch to see him decamping to Mar-a-Lago, setting up TRUMP TV as a rival to Fox News, and continuing to exercise his grip over the Republican Party — at least until he runs again in 2024.