Brian Kemp has emerged as Herschel Walker's most powerful surrogate in the Georgia Senate runoff.
Kemp, who won reelection as governor, didn't campaign with Walker during the general election race.
Republicans are working intently to win over the November voters who backed Kemp but not Walker.
Last Saturday, Georgia Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker hugged newly-reelected Gov. Brian Kemp at a campaign rally outside a suburban Atlanta firearms store.
This normally wouldn't be a notable act in GOP politics, but the Georgia Senate runoff election is not a normal contest.
Walker did not run a conventional general election race, as he didn't appear on the campaign trail alongside Kemp — by far the most influential Republican in the state — until last week.
The GOP won virtually every statewide election in Georgia earlier this month, except for Walker, who in his race against Sen. Raphael Warnock captured 48.5% of the vote compared to the incumbent Democratic lawmaker's 49.4%, which forced the runoff election as no candidate hit the requisite 50% of the vote needed for an outright victory.
And it wasn't difficult to see why Kemp and Walker fared so differently earlier this month.
Warnock won every age group under 45 and had an 11-point advantage with Independents, according to CNN exit polling, fueled by outsized margins in Atlanta's populous suburbs, where Republicans have faltered in recent years.
But Kemp flipped the script in his second gubernatorial campaign against Democrat Stacey Abrams, cutting into her margins with Independents in Atlanta's suburbs while earning strong support from both moderate and conservative Republicans — a feat that Walker was unable to replicate in his contest with Warnock.
For that reason, Walker has found himself openly embracing Kemp, who came out of the general election as the biggest winner in Georgia politics.
The Senate race remains close, but some major hurdles remain for Walker; the Republican significantly underperformed Kemp in the general election and polling continues to show Independents in Warnock's corner.
With less than two weeks before the December 6 runoff, Kemp can surely move some voters over to Walker, but will it be enough?
Split-ticket voters will be key in the runoff
In the general election, Kemp defeated Abrams 53.4%-45.9%, coming out ahead by nearly 300,000 votes, a vast improvement over his roughly 55,000-vote victory over the former state lawmaker four years ago.
The governor earlier this month earned 2,111,572 votes, compared to 1,813,673 votes for Abrams.
But Warnock was the only statewide Georgia Democrat to come out ahead in the vote count this year, earning nearly 1.95 million votes to Walker's roughly 1.918 million votes — a lead of over 37,000 votes.
The results show that Kemp won over 200,000 more votes than Walker, with some voters splitting their tickets by backing the governor while also supporting Warnock.
Republicans picked the site of last week's rally for a reason; the firearms store is in Smyrna, a city in Cobb County, a former GOP bastion where Democrats have made notable gains over the past decade. Abrams defeated Kemp in the county, but she only won it by 5 points, while Warnock outpaced Walker there by nearly 17 points, which netted the Democratic senator over 50,000 votes — greater than the statewide vote difference between the two runoff candidates.
Cobb, along with other metropolitan Atlanta counties including DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Henry, delivered decisive margins to Warnock earlier this month — again creating a vivid contrast with Walker's weaker performance in those localities among moderates and college-educated voters.
In GOP-leaning Fayette County, an Atlanta exurb, Walker only won by 3 points compared to Kemp's 14-point victory over Abrams. So it was no surprise that last week, Walker held a rally in Peachtree City, the largest city in the county.
The suburban Independents who were onboard with Kemp but remain wary of Walker are a top target for the governor, who is now appealing to them to vote Republican in the runoff.
Walker and Kemp both have their own brand of Republicanism
Throughout the general election campaign, Kemp pointed to his early reopening of Georgia's economy during the COVID-19 pandemic and his temporary suspension of the state gas tax to make the case for his reelection bid, while also touting the state's voting overhaul and his support of anti-abortion legislation in a way that appealed to a wide swath of traditional conservatives.
And Kemp in 2020 also became nationally known, alongside GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, for rebuffing then-President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn Joe Biden's presidential win in Georgia. Kemp was repeatedly lambasted by Trump over his defense of the state's election results, with the former president even recruiting former Sen. David Perdue to run against him in a GOP gubernatorial primary — only for the governor to defeat his former political ally in a landslide.
While Trump continued to nurse grievances against Kemp, the governor leaned into his strong ties with Georgia conservatives — from his days as a state senator to his tenure as secretary of state — which gave him solid footing among grassroots activists for the general election.
But Walker, a first-time candidate who was enthusiastically endorsed by Trump, ran a general election campaign heavily tailored to base Republicans, including evangelical voters who have powered GOP wins in the state. In his stump speeches, he accuses Democrats of dividing the country by race and rails against the use of "pronouns" in the military.
On November 7, Kemp flew around Georgia with most of the statewide GOP candidates — including Raffensperger — but Walker wasn't part of the mix.
When asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Walker's absence, Kemp said that the GOP Senate nominee was "definitely part of the team" even if he wasn't present on the tour.
Later that evening, Kemp held a rally in Kennesaw, Ga., where he pumped up the party faithful alongside most of the GOP statewide ticket by focusing on his economic message. But just a few minutes away, in the same Cobb County city, Walker held a rally of his own alongside Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson, where the former NFL player called himself a "warrior for God."
Kemp won't be on the runoff ballot
One of the biggest challenges that Walker will face in the Senate runoff is the simple fact that Kemp won't be listed on the December ballot; the general election was the most optimal time for Walker to have benefited from the governor's coattails.
Walker remains competitive in the race, even with Democrats already set to control the Senate in 2023, but the inability of some Kemp voters to pull the lever for the former University of Georgia football standout means that the governor will have to use some of his political capital to continue boosting his fellow Republican in the runoff.
Kemp is featured prominently in a new ad from the Republican super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, where the governor said that Walker would "vote for Georgia" and "not be another rubber stamp for Joe Biden."
"That's why I'm backing Herschel," the governor continued to say. "And I hope you'll join me in voting for him too."
A huge benefit for Walker? Conservatives are solidly behind him.
They've taken to his outsider-centric campaign, which to them feels rooted in Georgia and not Washington, DC.
And Republicans by and large have waved off allegations that Walker paid for two women to have abortions, which the candidate has firmly denied.
But Kemp won't be able to help carry Walker over the finish line if Independents break for Warnock as heavily as they did for Democrats like Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Sen.-elect John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.
As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed this past summer, races for the upper chamber often come down to the individuality of candidates.
"Senate races are just different — they're statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome," the Kentucky Republican said at the time.
The Georgia runoff will be this year's last consequential test case of the veteran lawmaker's theory.
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