In Georgia runoff, GOP worries about Walker, Trump and party’s future

Photo for The Washington Post by Elijah Nouvelage
People wait in line to vote on the first day of early voting in Marietta, Ga., on Nov. 26.

ATLANTA – Republicans have grown increasingly nervous about the final U.S. Senate election of the midterms, a runoff in Georgia that reflects larger concerns over candidate quality, infighting and ties to Donald Trump that loom over the party’s future.

The race between Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and Republican challenger Herschel Walker caps a turbulent election season in which voters rejected many inexperienced Republican nominees tied to the former president and his ideas in favor of Democratic incumbents who tried to keep President Joe Biden at arm’s length. Georgia, a purple state expected to factor heavily in the 2024 presidential election, is a final testing ground for these competing forces – and one that has generated plenty of GOP pessimism.

Seth Weathers, a Georgia director for Trump’s 2016 campaign, previously expressed confidence that Walker would win in a runoff. Now, he said, looking at early voting turnout, “I have more concern,” and he is unsure who will prevail.

“Herschel Walker doesn’t have the capacity to land a closing message,” said Ben Burnett, a Republican podcast host in Georgia and former city councilman in Alpharetta, an Atlanta-area suburb. “And the affiliation and support that he got from Donald Trump . . . is still a boat anchor around him with the 5 percent of voters that he couldn’t afford to lose.”

Democrats defied historical trends and low approval ratings for Biden to limit losses in the U.S. House, where a narrow GOP majority will take power next year. Their bigger victory was clinching a 50th Senate seat, which assured they would retain control of the chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris empowered to cast tiebreaking votes. Democrats are hoping to expand that narrow majority Tuesday, when the election in Georgia concludes.

Polls show a close race in the runoff, which was triggered because no candidate received a majority of the vote in the Nov. 8 election. A CNN survey released Friday showed Warnock, senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church who won his seat last year, with a narrow edge over Walker, a first-time candidate known for his star football career.

Even though control of the Senate is not in the balance as it was in last year’s Georgia runoffs, there are still high stakes for both parties, since surprise vacancies are not uncommon and a pair of centrist Democratic senators wield enormous power over their party’s agenda. Democrats also face a difficult 2024 Senate map and need every seat that can muster heading into a challenging cycle.

In the closing stages of the race here in Georgia, Walker’s personal scandals and meandering comments continue to complicate GOP efforts to harness voter frustration with Biden and the direction of the country, some Republicans said. Democrats have also sought to remind voters of Walker’s ties to Trump, who elevated the former running back in the primary with an endorsement, but has recently stayed away from Georgia.

Multiple women have accused Walker of domestic violence. Two former girlfriends have claimed that he encouraged them to get abortions despite his support for strict bans. Walker denies those claims. He also has made false claims about his background – at one point suggesting he worked as an FBI agent – and this week drew scrutiny for stating earlier this year that he lives in Texas. Public records showing he took a tax exemption on a Texas property meant for primary residences have fueled further attacks from critics.

Warnock, who says the race is about “character and competence,” has hammered Walker as unfit for the job, seizing on puzzling comments – among them a viral digression from the campaign trail where Walker compared werewolves and vampires while discussing a movie. “Vampires” and “werewolves” started popping up in word clouds of Georgians’ associations with Walker, according to Democratic strategists, even before Warnock launched an ad in which voters reacted to the comments with disbelief.

Walker’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. Surrogates and supporters either dismiss the allegations against him or say they think he’s changed and repented.

“I’m not going to stand up here today and tell you Herschel Walker’s a perfect man,” Georgia pastor George Dillard said Friday at a rally with the candidate, saying Walker “understands forgiveness because he has asked his savior for it, and he has received it, and now he wants to share it.”

Republicans say they are ramping up attacks on Warnock’s character in return. But they are also still framing the race around Biden, calling Warnock a rubber stamp for the president and pitching a vote for Walker as a vote against inflation and the national Democratic agenda. Walker often criticizes Warnock for voting with Biden 96 percent of the time.

“He says to be a senator you have to know some things. Well, what I do know is you haven’t done a good job since you’ve been in Washington,” Walker said at a recent stop in Powder Springs, a suburb of Atlanta. “What I do know is you are a terrible senator . . . you get an F.”

Warnock has touted Democratic legislative achievements on the trail while also focusing heavily on his opponent and pitching himself to independents and Republicans who are not enthusiastic about the GOP candidate.

“I believe in my soul that Georgia knows that Georgia is better than Herschel Walker,” he told supporters Thursday at a rally with former president Barack Obama, Democrats’ star surrogate as Warnock seeks distance from Biden, who has not visited Georgia during the runoff. “You deserve a senator who cares enough about the people to actually know the issues. You deserve a senator who will tell you the truth. You deserve a senator who actually lives in Georgia.”

Drawing an estimated 5,000 people on his second campaign trip to Georgia this year, Obama said Warnock’s reelection would give the party “more breathing room on important bills” – but echoed other Warnock allies’ efforts to focus on the candidates themselves. “Fifty-one is better than 50 because it means Reverend Warnock will keep representing you in Washington. That’s the best reason,” he said.

But Democrats are still facing a challenging political environment and struggled in Georgia on Nov. 8, losing every statewide race aside from the Senate contest, even as they overperformed across the country. “At this point, it’s not even really a question of whose base is more excited,” argued one Republican strategist working on the runoff, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more candid. “It’s more a question of whose base is less depressed.”

Walker and his allies also have highlighted issues that galvanize the Republican base, with one ad featuring the candidate alongside a former female college athlete who says a transgender woman shouldn’t have been able to compete with her in NCAA swimming championships. At campaign stops where voters sport Georgia Bulldogs gear, Walker gets reliable applause criticizing “gender ideology” in schools and “wokeness” in the military.

Democrats have long outspent Republicans on ads in the race, as Walker – one of the GOP’s better fundraisers in key Senate races – struggles to match Warnock’s record-breaking hauls. But the gap has widened in the runoff period as Walker gets less help from outside groups. Democrats are spending about twice as much on ads in this final phase, according to the tracking firm AdImpact, and this week said they are pouring an additional $11 million into get-out-the-vote efforts for Warnock.

Trump talks regularly with Walker and might hold a tele-rally for him but does not plan to campaign for him in person, according to Trump advisers, who said teams for Trump and Walker agreed it wouldn’t be productive. Walker has not mentioned Trump at recent rallies and focuses largely on Biden.

Democratic victories in midterm battlegrounds against Trump-aligned candidates have spurred more efforts to highlight the influence of the 45th president, who recently announced he is running for the White House again in 2024. Democratic strategists have said they believe swing voters are turned off by some of the extreme positions and combative rhetoric the former president and his allies espouse. Warnock’s campaign debuted an ad during the runoff centered on Trump’s praise for Walker.

In Georgia and beyond, GOP infighting has intensified over the past couple weeks, complicating efforts to present a unified front and message in the runoff. There have been numerous rounds of finger-pointing over what many in the party see as disappointing midterm results. Some have openly blamed Trump for the outcomes.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, declared himself unable to vote for either Walker or Warnock.

“When there’s division in the locker room, there’s finger-pointing. It’s usually kind of the hallmark sign of a losing season,” said Duncan, who has been highly critical of Walker. He drew derision from other Republicans this week after he said he stood in line to vote but left without casting a ballot.

“We’ve been asked to be team players as Republicans for too long,” added Duncan, who also has criticized Trump’s grip on the party. “We’re done being team players. If we want to win, we need team leaders.”

Allies and advisers to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee – long at odds over midterm strategy – have fought openly during the runoff, blaming each other for Republicans’ poor showing last month and questioning the other’s commitment to Walker. Scott unsuccessfully challenged McConnell for Senate GOP leadership after the election. The Florida Republican recently aired more public complaints about the party’s direction.

Early voting in the runoff has smashed daily records, with more than 300,000 people casting ballots Tuesday, according to Gabriel Sterling, an official with the secretary of state’s office. Democrats are encouraged by a relatively high share of African American voters, who tend to support them.

Republicans said the data shows strong Election Day turnout can push them to victory – but some lamented that Democratic strongholds got a jump-start by opening earlier for voting and said they have grown worried about their base’s growing preference for casting ballots on the last day possible.

Overall, Democratic operatives said they have grown more confident than they were heading into the general election, when Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was caught on a hot mic in late October fretting that “we’re going downhill” in Georgia.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, a group aligned with Schumer.

Michael Thurmond, chief executive of DeKalb County and a Democrat, said he’s encouraged by early turnout numbers but noted there was also strong early voting in some GOP-dominated counties – something Walker’s campaign has highlighted. Thurmond said he thinks many of Walker’ controversies have energized his supporters and even helped drive up their enthusiasm.

“It’s going to be a very close and tight race, and I don’t think anyone should take anything for granted,” Thurmond said.

Both sides are pouring millions of dollars into voter persuasion efforts, focusing on the roughly 200,000 people who voted for Gov. Brian Kemp (R) but not Walker in the general election. A Warnock ad features one such voter; a Kemp ad for Walker says he is voting for someone who won’t be “another rubber stamp for Joe Biden.”

Kemp kept his distance from Walker on the campaign trail in the run-up to Nov. 8, but has played a more direct role since securing his own reelection. Early in the runoff, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McConnell, announced a $2 million investment to repurpose Kemp’s turnout operation for the runoff, with more than 100 paid canvassers.

Abortion, an issue that was a prominent topic of debate in other midterm races, also has been a point of contention in the Georgia race. Walker has taken a strict stance on abortion, which Democrats have seized on amid anger over the end of Roe v. Wade and its federal protections for abortion. They believe such efforts helped propel them to victory in competitive races across the country.

Georgia’s ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy was reinstated last week after a court battle. Walker has endorsed that law and suggested early on that he opposes exceptions to such bans, though he later backtracked.

Martha Zoller, a conservative talk show host in Georgia, said the race should hinge on opposition to Biden and argued that controversies like the latest scrutiny of Walker’s residency will have little sway on the race. Zoller stressed the importance of denying Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate, but added that it’s a more complicated message than fighting to retake the majority.

“There’s the old saying, if you’re explaining, you’re losing,” she said.