McDONOUGH, Ga. — Connie Beal is still a fan of former president Donald Trump, but she’d rather he keep his distance from the Peach State during the runoff battle between Republican Herschel Walker and Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D).
Beal, a retired teacher from Jonesboro, and other supporters who attended a Walker rally Wednesday said they don’t think Trump, who on Tuesday announced his 2024 bid for president — and gave a shout-out to Walker — would help the Senate candidate, who was the only Republican on the statewide ticket who didn’t win in last week’s general election.
“I don’t think he has it in the bag,” she said, referring to Walker. “It’ll be close.”
Walker finished about 35,000 votes behind Warnock, who fell short of the 50 percent of the vote required to win outright under Georgia law. The two will face off once again on Dec. 6, setting off a frenzied round of rallies, attack ads and endorsements as both parties try to capture the last outstanding Senate seat from the 2022 midterms.
Both sides will work to persuade their base voters to head back to the polls just four weeks after the general election. Warnock again will look to pick up support from Republican and independent voters who were turned off by allegations about Walker’s personal life that surfaced during his general election campaign.
This weekend, Walker will continue his “Evict Warnock” bus tour across the state, while Warnock will travel around Georgia on his “One More Time” bus tour.
Warnock won his seat in a 2021 special runoff election, a victory that helped Democrats gain control of the Senate with 50 seats and the tie-breaking vote in Vice President Harris. This time, Democrats already have maintained their hold on the Senate because, with the exception of Warnock, all of their incumbents were reelected and they picked up a seat with John Fetterman’s victory in Pennsylvania.
A Warnock victory next month would not only give him a full, six-year term, but would deliver a 51st seat to Democrats, offering a cushion and more flexibility as they strive to pass Biden’s remaining agenda during the next two years. Republicans, who won a narrow majority in the House, want the Senate seat to boost their political power and have more ability to block Democratic proposals as they look to 2024.
After fending off predictions of a red wave in the midterms, Democrats are feeling optimistic that Warnock can win the Georgia runoff. Some believe Trump’s campaign announcement will energize voters who want to see Warnock, 53, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, return to the Senate, as well as those who want to move beyond the former president’s polarizing brand of politics.
“For every person that likes Trump, there are two people that really hate Trump,” said Gabriel Delille, a student at Georgia State University who is voting for Warnock. He said he is “not glad” that Trump is planning another run for president, “but he’s a good tool for Democrats to use to motivate the base, because you can’t have that man in office.”
Warnock’s campaign released a new TV ad Thursday calling attention to Trump’s endorsement of Walker during his speech at Mar-a-Lago. It features a clip of the former president praising the GOP candidate and urging people to “Get out and vote for Herschel.” The ad ends with the words “Stop Donald Trump” and “Stop Herschel Walker.”
Walker, 60, is a football legend in the state, having won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 as a running back at the University of Georgia. His campaign has been rocked by allegations of domestic violence and that he paid for two former girlfriends to have abortions, even as he has campaigned as being in favor of a national ban on abortion.
National Republican leaders and politicians stood by Walker during the general election, arguing that the party needed to flip the seat to take control of the Senate.
Democrats have been encouraged by the discord among Republicans after they performed below expectations in the midterms.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, on Wednesday lost his challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during a closed-door GOP meeting. The two have long been at odds over messaging, strategy and the direction of the Republican Party.
Tensions between Scott and McConnell spilled over into the Georgia runoff on Tuesday as allies of Scott called out the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund for its lack of spending on ads supporting Walker.
The NRSC, which Scott chairs, was first last week to spend on ads for the runoff, according to the media tracking service AdImpact. The Senate Republicans’ campaign arm has an ad on air that calls Warnock a “great actor” and repeats one of the GOP’s biggest talking points against the senator, saying that he “votes with Joe Biden 96 percent of the time.”
The Senate Leadership Fund later on Tuesday announced it would invest $14.2 million in television, radio and digital ads for the runoff. It comes after the McConnell-aligned super PAC last week announced it was teaming up with Kemp to launch a $2 million ground operation on Walker’s behalf.
Although Kemp and Walker did not stump together ahead of the general election, the Georgia governor is scheduled to campaign with the former football star on the trail this weekend. Kemp won his reelection bid against Democrat Stacey Abrams last week by more than seven percentage points, garnering 2.1 million votes. Walker received 1.9 million votes. Exit polls showed Kemp won 98 percent of voters who identified as Republicans and 49 percent of independents. Walker won 95 percent of Republican voters and 42 percent of independents.
Greater Georgia, a conservative voter mobilization group founded by former senator Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), also is helping Walker. The organization says it contacted about 2.5 million voters in the run-up to the midterm election and anticipates it can reengage a significant portion of those largely conservative voters for the runoff election.
On the Democratic side, Georgia Honor, a group tied to Senate Majority PAC, which is aligned with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), last weekend started a $4.7 million ad campaign attacking Walker’s character, and announced on Wednesday it would spend an additional $8.8 million in TV and digital ads in the race.
Without control of the Senate on the line, both parties have worked to drum up enthusiasm for the runoff by emphasizing the stakes of capturing an additional seat.
By ensuring a win for Walker, “we will be able to block some bad legislation because it takes 51-plus to get this stuff done,” Scott said while stumping with Walker in Augusta on Monday. He added that with 50 Republicans, “we’re in a better position to stop something we think is crazy.”
Warnock has sought to keep the stakes of the race focused on Georgia, the same strategy he employed on the campaign trail ahead of the general election.
“To be a United States Senator representing the people of Georgia is to represent the concerns, the hopes, the dreams, the anxieties of 11 million people. That’s an important issue, no matter who controls the Senate,” Warnock told reporters this week when asked about this runoff versus the 2021 runoff.
Schumer this week said he was confident Senate Democrats’ will continue their winning streak in Georgia.
“Since I’ve been majority leader, every incumbent has won their race and we’re going to keep that record going with Raphael Warnock in Georgia,” Schumer said during a news conference on Tuesday hosted by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “He’s going to win because he’s much better for Georgia than his opponent, plain and simple.”
Liberal groups focused on educating and mobilizing voters ahead of the runoff have also gotten new cash infusions. American Bridge PAC has given $50,000 each to Fair Count, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and 1000 Women Strong. More groups, like Black Voters Matter and Care in Action, are expecting large donations from a reinvigorated donor network in the coming days.
“When neighbors bring more of their neighbors into the voting process, we can overwhelm the efforts to suppress their votes and achieve a result we can all be proud of,” said Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor who leads American Bridge PAC, in a statement to The Washington Post.
Bernard Fraga, a professor of political science at Emory University who studies demographics and turnout, noted that while overall turnout was lower in Georgia relative to 2018, he was surprised by dips among specific groups.
“We actually saw the gap in voter turnout between Whites and African Americans grow relative to 2018. Black voter turnout was down substantially, and White voter turnout rates ticked up a little bit,” Fraga said. “So, I think that that’s somewhat surprising, and indicates that for the Democrats there’s a lot of work to do in advance of the runoff and then for democracy, some implications as well.” He said it’s not clear whether the drop was related to people’s behavior or their access to voting.
Ron Lowe, a Democrat and retiree who lives in Flowery Branch, Ga, said he worries that turnout may be lower in the runoff than what Warnock needs. “And I’ll be very honest with you. I’m worried that the Black vote is not going to come out like it should. And it certainly could make a difference this election, I believe,” Lowe said.
But Lowe, who was shopping this week at the Mall of Georgia in Buford, said that he thinks the launch of Trump’s campaign will hurt Republicans in the state.
“While I wish him no harm, I hope Herschel Walker goes away forever,” Lowe said.
Republicans urged Trump to hold off on announcing his 2024 bid until after the Georgia runoff, warning it could divert attention from the race — and, worse, energize Democrats back to the polls.
But on Tuesday night, Trump went ahead and did it anyway. He also gave a shout-out to Walker, who he encouraged to challenge Warnock for the Senate seat. “We must all work very hard for a gentleman and a great person named Herschel Walker,” Trump said in his Mar-a-Lago speech. “Get out and vote for Herschel.”
In Georgia, Trump’s announcement was met with concern among some Walker supporters.
Anthony Leavell, a Walker backer from McDonough, said he thinks Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or Kemp could help Walker in the dwindling weeks before the runoff, but not Trump.
“To be honest with you, I think it would hurt him,” Leavell said of a possible Trump visit.
“There’s a lot of people that got turned off with the melee after the election who are still somewhat pissed at Trump,” he said.
As he left his Wednesday rally, Walker did not respond to shouted questions about if he wants Trump to campaign with him.
“I hope he doesn’t. I don’t think he would be helpful,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative radio host who previously worked for Kemp and former senator David Perdue. “As a Republican, I hope he doesn’t come because I don’t think he’s a positive influence right now. I think he’s a negative influence, and I think people are looking forward and wanting to be positive.”
Zoller noted that some of the counties where Walker most underperformed compared with Kemp’s vote share were among the highest pro-Trump areas. She added that Walker needs to be out campaigning with Georgia Republicans, like Kemp, who just won in their statewide races.
“It’s great to have all the people coming in from out of state … but the people that he needs to get behind him right now are the people that just won elections, and I think they all will be,” Zoller said.
Walker was joined this week on the trail by supporters, including Scott and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
No big-name Democrats have come to Georgia since former president Barack Obama held a rally ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.
“I wish that Ron DeSantis, President Trump and Brian Kemp would swallow their humility, figure out whatever beef they have together and be in Georgia on the same stage campaigning for Herschel Walker,” said Liam Gardo, a Walker supporter and student at Georgia State University.
“Is that going to happen?” Gardo added, “Probably not.”