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 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, where Warnock won a special election, 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 they 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.
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 expectations 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.
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…