How Many Voters Can GOP Senators Afford To Offend?

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
January 29, 2021

Former President Trump’s impeachment trial officially starts Tuesday, but it won’t begin in earnest for another two weeks. This is more than satisfactory for both political parties. President Biden and Senate Democrats need to make more headway on getting Biden’s nominees confirmed and advancing coronavirus relief legislation. Trump is still putting together his legal team and needs all the time he can get to prepare a defense.

Perhaps most critically, it gives Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell some extra time to finesse this particularly thorny political problem. His members are looking to offend the least number of voters, choosing between the GOP base that still adores Trump and swing voters who have had enough and remain offended over the attack on the Capitol building.

McConnell likely holds Trump personally responsible for losing the Senate. Republicans were able to get out of Nov. 3 in as good a shape as they had any right to hope for, needing to win just one of the two Georgia seats in the Jan. 5 runoffs to salvage their majority. Before the votes were counted, a lot of people were asking whether Trump’s behavior, at times juvenile and petulant, at other times just bizarre, would cost Republicans one or both seats. My thought before the runoff was that the conduct of the head of the Republican Party was certainly important but that the changing nature of the state of Georgia was such that the GOP could lose one or both seats just based on demographics.

In the end, given how close both races ended up being, it is hard to conclude that Trump’s trashing of the state’s Republican party leadership, complicating the efforts of Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to drive through a winning message, didn’t make any difference. Perdue lost to Jon Ossoff by just 1.2 percentage points, about 55,000 votes out of about 4.5 million cast. Loeffler came up 2 percentage points short, losing to Raphael Warnock by just under 95,000 votes. Both Republicans effectively lost ground since the general election two months earlier. Trump’s behavior may have dampened GOP turnout as much as it turbocharged turnout on the other side.

McConnell probably sees this as unforgivable—never mind the specter of Trump intervening in GOP primaries next year, when he could boost the prospects of candidates who would have a far more difficult time winning a general election, or even convince some GOP incumbents to simply pass on running for reelection. Monday morning, news broke that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio wouldn’t be standing for reelection again in 2022, a surprise to most observers. When I talked with Portman about four months ago, he certainly did not sound like someone contemplating retirement.

Obviously, a million things will happen between now and the midterm election 651 days from now. Because midterms are almost invariably referenda on the incumbent president, chief among the variables will be how Biden performs—whether he will be an asset or a liability for his party. The former rarely happens and the latter is the norm, but normal is not something that we can count on anymore. Do a Biden administration and his wafer-thin Democratic majorities in the House and Senate talk and act in a way that gives more oxygen to the warnings of socialism in the last campaign, or will that be remembered as just hot air?

Last year’s astronomical voter turnout, the highest of any presidential election since 1900, following on the heels of a midterm election with the best participation rate since 1914, was almost certainly driven by voters’ feelings toward Trump, both pro and con. The people who loved him came out in droves, as did those who loathed him. But will those who adore him come out again in a post-Trump era? (Remember that Barack Obama brought out a large number of infrequent and first-time voters for his 2008 election and 2012 reelection, but many were nowhere to be seen in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, hence the Democratic disasters in both of those elections.)

The flip side of this coin, however, is causing concern among Democrats: Without the motivation to show up and cast a ballot against Trump, will their voters be less inclined to show up?

One thing on the minds of a lot of strategists in both parties is what the residual effect of Trump will be on his party. An impressive amount of unreleased survey research—both quantitative polls and qualitative focus groups—since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol suggests that between 25 and 30 percent of Trump voters now have very mixed feelings about having backed him. They are less likely to believe that the election was stolen, and they were alarmed by the attack in Washington. They care more about the coronavirus pandemic and the direction of the economy.

Moreover, the research shows that these voters believe Biden comes across as more focused and more effective in getting COVID-19 under control than Trump was. That’s an issue that might have far more salience with these voters than the “Stop the Steal” rhetoric of the hard-line Republicans in Congress. This slice of the GOP is feeling more hopeful about the direction of the country since the inauguration. No doubt it is this slice of Republicans whom McConnell and some of his colleagues are thinking about right now.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on January 26, 2021.