Three ways Democrats helped foil Trump in Georgia last night

AP Photo/Joe Maiorana

I don’t mean to minimize a big win for sane Republicans by sharing credit for it with Democrats. Brian Kemp and especially Brad Raffensperger prevailing without runoffs is the most encouraging thing to happen in GOP elections since…

I can’t even think of the last encouraging thing. Sometime in the Before Times.

Anyone inclined to cite last night as proof that Trump is losing his grip on the party, though, should bear in the mind that we have yet to see a truly anti-Trump Republican win anywhere this year. Raffensperger himself is the closest thing, but even Raffensperger won’t rule out voting for Trump in 2024 despite the many death threats his family received amid Trump’s “stop the steal” insanity. Trump’s hold on Republican primary voters remains so strong that Charlie Baker, who boasts the highest approval rating of any governor in America, declined to run for a third term this year in Massachusetts because he suspected he couldn’t win the GOP primary.

Meditate on that. In a state where Baker is the only Republican who could plausibly win, primary voters there would have turned him out of his office because he’d committed the sin of criticizing Trump in the past.

I think it’s fair to conclude from last night’s results that Republican voters in Georgia no longer regard failing the “rigged election” litmus test as disqualifying for a GOP politician provided that that politician has a strong conservative record and hasn’t otherwise antagonized Trump. That’s how Kemp won. And Raffensperger probably sneaked through on the strength of Kemp’s support plus the fact that his challenger, Jody Hice, reportedly ran a miserable campaign. “He mostly frequented small-scale GOP gatherings and far-right talk shows where he continually preached to the choir rather than expand his base,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said this morning of Hice. “And he hoarded his cash expecting a runoff, which was a very bad bet in the end.”

That was lucky. Kemp was lucky too. If Trump had taken Steve Bannon’s advice and backed a challenger who was more in tune culturally with GOP populists than David Perdue, Kemp probably doesn’t win by 50 points. And if Kemp doesn’t win by 50 points, Raffensperger probably doesn’t avoid a runoff. And in a runoff, with Trump campaigning in Georgia to see him defeated, he would have been in trouble.

There was another sense in which Kemp and Raffensperger were lucky, though. In three different ways, one intentionally and two unintentionally, Democrats helped make their surprise victories possible. Let’s count:

1. Relentless hysteria about Georgia’s new election law. I’m convinced this was the secret sauce in the two Republicans’ victories, especially Raffensperger’s. After January 6, his only claim to fame in Georgia was thwarting Trump’s attempt to “find” another 11,000 votes and overturn Biden’s victory there. That’s a hard platform to run on in a Republican primary. But then he was given a gift — not only did Georgia Republicans pass a new “election integrity” law, Democrats turned the demagoguery up to 11 in lambasting it as the “new Jim Crow.” That was Raffensperger’s opportunity to realign himself with the Republican base. He spent the past year defending Georgia’s law as good for election security and for election access, taking care to knock Stacey Abrams’s opposition to it as often as possible.

Slowly but surely, some GOP voters who had been angry at Raffensperger for resisting Trump began to see him as “one of us” again. In an alternate universe where Democrats don’t have a months-long freakout over Georgia’s new law, that doesn’t happen.

2. They nominated Stacey Abrams for governor again. Kemp likely would have won his primary regardless of who the Democratic nominee was so long as he was pitted against a candidate as underwhelming as Perdue. But having an A-list Republican hate object like Abrams running unopposed on the other side was a boost to him. It let him argue that the Democrats’ candidate was formidable, having come close to winning once before, and that he was the only Republican candidate with a track record of defeating her. The fact that Abrams clearly has national ambitions may also have refocused Republican voters away from the primary, where Trump was all-in, and towards the general election, where another defeat might end Abrams’s electoral career. If you’re staring at the prospect of Gov. Abrams and you already dislike her because of her 2018 “stolen election” nonsense, you’re apt to stick with Kemp in hopes of playing your strongest hand against her. Even if you’re sore at him for not helping Trump stage a coup in 2020.

And if I’m right that Abrams’s nomination helped pad Kemp’s margins, it’s possible that the high turnout for Kemp also helped pad Raffensperger’s margins downballot. Having her name in the news lately may have reminded some undecided Republicans that Raffensperger has been jousting with her over the new election law for months. That may have tipped them into his camp instead of Hice’s.

3. Some Democratic voters crossed over and voted in the GOP primary. Ed touched on this earlier but it’s worth flagging again. To be clear, there weren’t enough Dems voting Republican last night to affect Kemp’s victory — he blew the roof off in obliterating Perdue. But they may have been important to Raffensperger’s race.

Raffensperger probably would have finished ahead of Hice either way, but having to go mano a mano with Trump (and Hice) in a runoff death match would have been daunting. Without Dem crossovers giving Raffensperger a boost, he probably falls short of the 50 percent threshold and is in grave peril of losing the nomination today.

In a timely piece published yesterday at the Atlantic, Sean Trende and Jonathan Robinson argued that more voters should cross over and vote in the other party’s elections in states that hold open primaries or allow for same-day re-registration. Specifically, in cases where one party’s primaries are a foregone conclusion and the other’s are hotly contested, voters in the former party are idiots to vote in their own primary. They should cross over and try to help the other side’s moderates prevail. That logic may have made the difference last night in Georgia and could have made the difference in other recent races, like Ohio:

Consider the recent Senate primary in Ohio. Democrats had an entirely uncompetitive race, with Representative Tim Ryan winning nearly 70 percent of the vote, handily defeating Morgan Harper, whose previous claim to fame was losing a Democratic congressional primary in the Columbus area in 2020. On the Republican side, however, polls showed a very close race with a crowded field, and early indications suggested that turnout would be relatively low. Ryan faces a tough general-election race; no Democrat not named Sherrod Brown has won a federal statewide election in Ohio in nearly a decade.

The most moderate candidate in the Republican field, state Senator and Cleveland Guardians part-owner Matt Dolan, who surged in the polls late in the race, came in third, trailing the Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, whom former President Donald Trump endorsed, by nearly 95,000 votes. At first, this seems like quite a large number of votes, and indeed it would have represented almost 40 percent of Dolan’s eventual vote total. But if just 20 percent of the more than 500,000 Democrats who voted in their primary had cast ballots for Dolan, a more moderate voice likely would have prevailed on the right, and Democrats would have increased their odds of being represented by a senator who shared at least some of their values. Instead, 500,000 Ohio Democrats cast a vote—more than 350,000 of them for Tim Ryan—in an election that wasn’t competitive at all.

Some Georgia Democrats appear to have wised up to that thinking in time to put Raffensperger through without a runoff. No doubt Liz Cheney’s team in Wyoming, where same-day re-registration is allowed, is hoping for Dems there to come through in the same way. It could be just the sort of moderating force American elections need — until, a year from now, the parties inevitably begin closing their primaries in response to screeching from their bases about the other side “meddling” in their elections.