Opinion: To win, GOP candidates have to move out of Trump’s shadow

There are many factors driving this trend but underlying everything is a familiar name: Donald Trump. The search for documents at Mar-A-Lago did more than jolt a sleepy August to life: it thrust the former president into the headlines. It also prompted the GOP’s leading names — even those vying to be the party’s next standard bearer — to rush to his defense, at least in the short-term.

It allowed Democrats to insist that the Republican Party remains the party of Trump.

Long before terms like “special master” or “Presidential Records Act” entered the national discussion, Trump had made his mark in the midterms, having played kingmaker in the country’s marquee Senate contests. Many of the biggest names in must-win races — Blake Masters in Arizona, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in my home state of Georgia — hitched their political wagons to Trump’s star.
To win their primaries, each of the above candidates has trafficked in Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Yet they have all encountered a far different general election landscape. They have tried to re-make their images for a new audience, even drawing unfavorable attention for scrubbing their campaign web sites of references to the 45th president.
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In Georgia, we know the results of GOP Senate candidates turning the campaign keys over to Trump. When GOP incumbent Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue were forced into runoffs after the 2020 election, they did not run on their own records, visions and accomplishments. They instead fell in line behind Trump’s messaging about the election, calling for the Georgia secretary of state to resign, sending a message to conservatives that their votes did not matter. Turns out folks were listening, as too many commonsense Republicans stayed home and Democrats flipped both seats.
The consequences of these special elections cannot be overstated. Every piece of contentious legislation passed in the evenly-divided 117th Congress — including the so-called “Inflation Reduction Act” — did so on a sheer party line vote, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.

If Loeffler and Perdue did not have “former” in their titles, neither the votes of Joe Manchin (Democrat, West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Democrat Arizona), nor any other Democrat, would matter. The GOP would have remained in control of the upper chamber, and President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda would have taken on a very different look. The White House would have been forced to the negotiating table with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whether they liked it or not.

Past is prologue, something a savvy veteran like McConnell knows well. His observation calling a Senate flip a “50-50 proposition” raised eyebrows and earned him the ire of some on the right, but is grounded in reality. Masters and Oz are trailing, while Walker holds a narrow lead. These states should be ripe for the picking for the GOP. In Georgia and Arizona’s case, hardly more than 10,000 votes separated Trump from Biden in the latter’s victory.
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By the same token, Georgia has also offered a roadmap for Republicans navigating the Trump-infused political waters. When Perdue launched a quixotic political comeback attempting to oust Governor Brian Kemp in a primary, voters rejected the defeated former senator by a 50-point margin. Perdue grounded his campaign almost entirely on Trump’s endorsement and his election lies, and GOP primary voters chose Kemp, the governor who certified the 2020 election results and drew the everlasting ire of the former president, over Perdue, who opened a debate by declaring, “the election in 2020 was rigged and stolen.”
One of the turning points in that battle occurred almost a year ago during a rally in Perry, Georgia. In his screed against Kemp, Trump turned heads with his words about the Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. Trump said of the former state senator, “And Stacey Abrams, who still has not conceded, and that’s OK. Stacey, would you like to take his place? It’s OK with me.”

It was a bridge too far for many conservatives, proving that grievance politics has its limitations.

To be sure, midterms and majorities are made in November, not around Labor Day. The economy remains volatile, and Biden’s approval ratings remain closer to 40 than 50, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll.

But one thing is clear: the GOP slate of Senate candidates is struggling to land their punches against Biden and the Democrats, let alone make the case for Republican leadership. It’s one thing to ride a national wave to victory at the House level. Running statewide requires a message that involves more than just a re-litigation of past grievances. We must lay out concrete plans to improve the lives of the citizens we are running to represent, especially relating to economic and energy concerns.

If George Costanza’s injuries were exacerbated with his body in a state of “advanced atrophy,” GOP candidates must move beyond Trump’s shadow. The Trump years were not without accomplishments, but now is the time to move forward, not backward. That process begins with a focus on conservative policies, not disproven conspiracy theories. If we don’t take our medicine, a Democratic Senate is our future — and we’ll have ourselves to blame.

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