Georgia Republicans worry about runoff as Trump-backed Herschel Walker falls short

·6 min read

Georgia Republicans woke up Wednesday morning filled with dread at the prospect of another runoff for a U.S. Senate seat and no small tinge of regret for having nominated a Donald Trump-backed candidate who underperformed as compared with the rest of the statewide slate.

Overall, it had been an excellent night for the state GOP. Reversing a 10-year trend line that had seen Democrats steadily advancing in state elections, Gov. Brian Kemp thumped his 2018 rival, Stacey Abrams, with 53% of the vote, helping to sweep his fellow Republicans to victory in almost all statewide contests.

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But the one outlier was Senate candidate Herschel Walker, the former football star whom Trump threw his full support behind. After a bruising, mudslinging battle with incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, Walker garnered 48.7% of the vote — nearly 5 points less than Kemp, translating to about a 200,000-vote discrepancy.

With Warnock currently at 49.4%, shy of the 50% needed for outright victory under Georgia law, the results mean the state will likely face four more weeks of campaigning until a runoff election is held next month.

Raphael Warnock
Sen. Raphael Warnock at an election night watch party in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

“I can tell you, if you’re a Georgia Republican waking up this morning and you’re looking at your Twitter feed, it's not saying, ‘This is awesome, we get four more weeks for a runoff,’” said Brian Robinson, a veteran Atlanta-based Republican consultant. “There is fatigue. The only people happy about this are the email and TV vendors for Warnock and Walker.”

Two years ago, amid the uproar over Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen election, the eyes of the country were on Georgia as it held a historic runoff for two Senate seats that would determine control of the chamber. With hundreds of millions of dollars spent by both sides, both seats were won by Democrats, Warnock and Jon Ossoff, on Jan. 5, 2021, making New York Sen. Charles Schumer the majority leader.

With tight races still to be called in Nevada and Arizona, it is unclear whether the outcome of this year’s Georgia runoff will determine which party controls the Senate. But Walker’s relatively underwhelming performance on Tuesday night would appear to put him at a disadvantage. And if party control is not at stake, interest and enthusiasm for the runoff would be diminished even further — and reliable donors on both sides may take a pass on the race, said Robinson.

“I don’t think there is a huge appetite on either side to have a slightly different minority [in the Senate] or slightly different majority,” he said. “Between Warnock and Walker, Georgians have tapped out their checkbooks for political spending.”

Herschel Walker
Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaking in Atlanta on election night. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

The other big takeaway many Georgia Republicans have from Tuesday’s results is profound regret that Walker was their candidate for a Senate seat at all. He had no experience in politics or government, had a history of self-described mental illness, often struggled to articulate a coherent message on the issues and went through a high-profile scandal in which the anti-abortion-rights candidate was revealed to have allegedly paid for two abortions. Virtually anybody else, some Republicans said, could have beaten Warnock; they placed the fault on Trump for putting Walker in play in the first place.

“I think a lot of Republicans like me are waking up this morning going, ‘What could have been if we picked a better candidate that could have won with a margin like Brian Kemp, that would have been able to put real leadership on display, real ideas on display, win the hearts and minds of Georgians and get the state back to fully red?’” outgoing Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said on CNN.

“I think it sends a message to the country, along with other states, that this is a pivot point for the Republican Party,” Duncan added. “This is a time that Donald Trump is, no doubt, in the rearview mirror. It’s time to move on with the party, it's time to move on with candidate quality. If they would have just woke up 12 months ago and stopped taking [Trump’s] lead and took the lead of what real Republicans, real Republican policies, mattered, we'd be in a different place.”

President Donald Trump with Herschel Walker, right
President Donald Trump with Walker at a campaign rally in 2020. (John Bazemore/AP)

It was not unnoticed that the two Georgia Republican candidates who underperformed Tuesday were the two most associated with Trump — Walker and lieutenant governor candidate Burt Jones, who squeaked to victory over Democrat Charlie Bailey with 51% after having served as one of the so-called fake electors in 2020, pledging to vote for Trump in the Electoral College despite Joe Biden’s win in the state.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — who famously resisted Trump’s entreaties to “find” enough votes to flip the outcome of the 2020 contest — cruised to victory with 53% of the vote, just slightly behind Kemp’s total. And Raffensperger, in his own understated way, attributed his victory to his refusal to buckle to Trump and accept his bogus claims about the election. “To free and fair elections,” he said, holding up a glass of champagne with a small group of supporters shortly after 10 p.m.

Indeed, Georgia — the focus of so much of Trump’s efforts to overturn the last election — seems the state most inhospitable to him at the moment. Kemp, like Raffensperger, had refused to back Trump’s election denial campaign, earning him the former president’s unceasing wrath. And while campaigning for reelection against Abrams — on one occasion with former Vice President Mike Pence — Kemp studiously avoided even mentioning Trump.

Gov. Brian Kemp
Gov. Brian Kemp gives his acceptance speech after defeating Stacey Abrams on Tuesday. (Akili-Casundria Ramsess/AP)

And yet it could still be Georgia that determines Trump’s fate. The former president has intimated that he plans to announce his run for president as early as next week. Yet he remains under criminal investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis over his pressure campaign on Raffensperger and other Georgia officials, with many in the state’s legal community expecting an indictment by early next year.

Until now, the conventional wisdom has been that Trump could ultimately escape conviction because any Fulton County jury would likely contain at least a few Republicans who live in Buckhead, a wealthy, predominantly white area within the majority Black county. But the swing of Republicans away from Trump could spell added trouble for the former president if any case does go to trial.

“If I was Trump, I would be feeling a lot worse about that jury pool,” said Chris Huttman, a Democratic political consultant who studies voting trends in the state. “Even if you get a Republican or two on there, they could be looking at a way to end the [Trump] problem.”