ATLANTA – In Georgia’s Senate runoff, Republicans once more met the realities of giving Democrats a head start they could not overcome.
According to tallies from the secretary of state, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock built a lead of more than 320,000 votes heading into Tuesday's election. He topped Republican Herschel Walker by an almost 2-1 ratio in mailed ballots and had an advantage of more than 250,000 early, in-person votes over Walker. So even with Walker gaining more votes on Election Day, the challenger lost by nearly 97,000 votes.
It was only the latest example of how Republicans have handed Democrats an advantage in balloting due to former President Donald Trump's lies about the risks of mail voting. Conservative conspiracy theorists urged GOP voters to wait until Election Day before casting their ballots and spun tales about how such a strategy would prevent Democrats from rigging voting machines to steal the election.
There was no widespread fraud in the 2020 election or this year's midterms.
One problem with such a strategy is the random glitches that often arise on Election Day.
In Arizona's most populous county, for example, a printer error created long lines at several voting locations on Nov. 8. Republicans ended up losing several statewide contests, including for governor and secretary of state, although Maricopa County officials said all voters had a chance to cast a ballot and that all valid ballots were counted.
The race for Arizona attorney general, where the GOP candidate is behind by just over 500 votes, is heading to an automatic recount.
In northern Nevada, a snow storm made travel tricky on Election Day. The Republican candidate for Senate lost his race by 8,000 votes. In Georgia's runoff, rain drenched the state as the disproportionately Republican crowd finally made its way to the polls.
Overall, Republican turnout was fairly robust in the midterms, suggesting the party did not have many problems getting its voters to the polls. But the loss in Georgia, which enabled Democrats to gain a Senate seat during an election where the GOP hoped to retake the chamber, was the last straw for several conservatives.
"We’ve got to put a priority on competing with Democrats from the start, beat them at their own game,” said Debbie Dooley, a Georgia tea party organizer who remains loyal to Trump but is critical of how he has talked about the U.S. election system.
In Washington, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking GOP leader, told reporters: “We've got to get better at turnout operations, especially in states that use mail-in balloting extensively.”
Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said in an interview on Fox News this week that Republican voters need to cast ballots early.
“I have said this over and over again," she said. "There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail, don’t vote early.’ And we have to stop that.”
McDaniel did not name the main person in 2020 who was attacking voting before Election Day — Trump.
When the U.S. went into lockdown during the March 2020 primaries, the nation's voting system shifted heavily to mail. The then-president began to attack that manner of casting ballots, saying Democratic efforts to expand it could lead to “levels of voting that if, you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Trump continued to baselessly claim mail balloting would lead to massive fraud, then blamed that imaginary mass fraud for his loss in November even after his own Department of Justice found no such organized activity. Trump's lies helped spur the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, new GOP-backed laws tightening election regulations in Republican-led states and a wave of Republican candidates running for statewide posts in the 2022 elections who embraced his conspiracy theories.
Academic research has shown that mail voting increases turnout but doesn't benefit either party. It is, however, normally pushed by campaigns. Once they have locked in some votes by mail, they can focus turnout operations on the laggards and get them to vote by Election Day.
Mail voting also provides a hedge against bad weather, equipment mishaps, traffic jams and other Election Day woes that can discourage voters.
Republicans in states such as Florida and Utah set up robust systems of mail voting and kept expanding their footprint. In states such as Colorado that mail every voter a ballot, older, conservative-leaning voters were the ones most likely to return their ballots by mail.
Still, the GOP has traditionally been more skeptical of mail balloting, though it was not a central piece of party identity until Trump made it so in 2020. But even conservatives who push back against expanding mail voting warn that the party has to wake up to reality.
“There is a tension on the right between folks who say, ‘They’re the rules and you've got to play by them,' and those who say, ‘No, you do not,’” said Jason Snead of the Honest Elections Project, a conservative group that advocates for tighter restrictions on mail voting. “I think there's a lot of reevaluation and reassessment going on.”
“You can stand on principle and say, ‘I am not going to do this,’ but it's a drag on performance if you do,” Snead said.
He noted that Republicans with robust early voting programs, such as Govs. Brian Kemp in Georgia and Ron DeSantis in Florida, easily won their elections while those who echoed Trump's conspiracy theories mostly lost.
One of the worst performances for election conspiracy theorists was in Pennsylvania, where the Republican candidate for governor, who had watched as protesters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, lost by nearly 15 percentage points. The GOP also lost a Senate seat there and control of the lower house of the legislature.
Democrats out-voted Republicans by mail by more than 3-to-1, netting 69% of the nearly 1.25 million mail ballots cast in the state. That was almost one-fourth of a total of nearly 5.4 million ballots cast.
Republicans who control the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a massive overhaul of the state's voting system in 2019, allowing anyone to cast a ballot by mail. Many Republicans had second thoughts in 2020 after Trump began to castigate mail voting. GOP lawmakers and their allies have since fought in court to throw out the law and inflate the number of mail ballots rejected for technicalities.
Top party officials in the state are now reassessing.
“Republican attitudes on mail-in ballots are going to have to change,” said Sam DeMarco, chair of the Allegheny County GOP. “President Trump is running across the country telling people not to use it, and it’s crushing us.”
Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.