Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart is a CNN political analyst. He was the White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
This holiday season, President Donald Trump has wreaked havoc on Congress, our democracy and our judicial system by pardoning political associates and convicted murderers. But Trump has saved a special kind of Grinch-like behavior for the two Republican Senate candidates in Georgia who are headed for runoff elections in January and for Senator Mitch McConnell, whose fate as majority leader depends on the GOP winning at least one of those races.
These three are only the latest to realize that the return on investment for loyalty to Donald Trump is exactly zero. McConnell, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler all stood on the Senate floor in February and acquitted Trump on charges he abused his power in office and obstructed Congress. But now that it’s time for Trump to return the favor, our self-absorbed President seems to be doing everything he can to make it harder for all three – and perhaps giving the Democrats the gift of control of the Senate as he leaves office.
Trump’s political messages started hurting the Republican senators in Georgia long before this Christmas season. Trump railed against early voting throughout the campaign to sow doubt about the election results and set the predicate for the outrageous claims of voter fraud and attempts to nullify the November election.
Early voting, traditionally a strong suit for Republicans, provided Biden with the margins he needed around the country. In Georgia, Perdue fell just short of the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff in his re-election bid. In the other Georgia Senate contest, Loeffler came in second to Democrat Raphael Warnock in a race where no candidate hit the threshold. The combination of massive early voting by Democrats and lower numbers on the GOP side made the January 5 runoffs possible.
Trump’s reaction to the election results has also hit Perdue and Loeffler hard. His bitter criticism of Georgia’s Republican governor and secretary of state for not helping him overturn the results has split the Republican Party in the state. Setting off a circular firing squad within the Republican Party was an unexpected gift for the Democrats.
And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Trump’s crazy conspiracy about voter fraud and his refusal to accept the results of the election present a clear messaging challenge for the GOP. Under more normal circumstances, a lame duck President would make a strong case for winning the races to help keep his party’s control of the Senate. But Trump can’t be full-throated with this message and lay out the stakes while contending against all evidence that he will have a second term. Republicans don’t need to win either race if Vice President Pence will still be there for the next four years to break a tie in the Senate.
Making it worse for the state Republican Party, lawyers who are supportive of Trump, led by Lin Wood, have cast doubt on Georgia being able to conduct a fair election. They’ve told Trump supporters to stay home and not vote in the January runoff. Clearly, in such a close race, neither side can afford any significant boycott on voting.
After McConnell finally acknowledged that Joe Biden was President-elect following the Electoral College vote, Trump had an aide send a memo to Republicans in Congress trashing the majority leader. It suggested that the reason McConnell won his re-election contest by nearly 20 points was because of the President’s endorsement and that the majority leader wasn’t sufficiently grateful. That sent a message to Trump supporters that maybe McConnell wasn’t worth saving.
Trump may have saved his biggest gift to the Democrats with his Christmas week torpedo launched at Congress. House and Senate leaders spent months painfully negotiating a Covid-19 relief bill providing desperately needed aid to millions of Americans suffering through the pandemic.
Democrats were pushing for a large stimulus check to be sent to Americans, while Republicans opposed any direct payments. The compromise at $600 was seen as a victory for the Republican Senators who held the line against a bigger number. Then, after all the votes were taken in Congress, Trump called the bill a disgrace and proposed a $2000 check – a move that completely undermined the Republican messaging machine.
Perdue and Loeffler now have to defend why they voted for the small payment, which the President now opposes. Voters are not likely to focus on the President being completely absent from the relief negotiations and only speaking out after the votes were cast.
To make matters worse, the President also conflated the Covid-19 bill with the omnibus spending bill, which were attached to each other for the vote. The President derided multiple spending items like foreign aid and support of the arts, which in fact were taken from his own budget proposal, reminding conservative voters in Georgia that their Senators voted for what Trump calls disgraceful spending.
While the President may in the end sign the bill, he did no favors for his party’s Senate candidates. The President is the leader of the Republican Party, and all signs suggest he will continue to be influential for some time after leaving the White House. But his actions this week should remind Republicans that Trump has no loyalty to the GOP.
Time and again we have learned with the President that it is only about Trump. And the parting gift of Trumpism, as Joe Biden is sworn in, may well be a Senate controlled by the Democrats.