The fact that Georgia holds runoff elections turned out to be rather cruel for Herschel Walker.
Not only had he underperformed every other statewide Republican candidate in Georgia in the November general election — all but Walker won with relative ease — he then faced four weeks of increased national media glare that only reinforced the severe shortcomings of his candidacy. And he ultimately lost by an even larger margin the second time around.
Indeed, even in a cycle full of Trump-backed GOP candidates who clearly cost their party votes (and probably important seats), Walker stood out.
As things stand, the former football star trails Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) by nearly three points (up from a one-point deficit on Election Day). That’s in stark contrast to the eight other statewide Georgia Republicans candidates who all won last month. Each won by at least five points, and their average margin of victory was more than seven points.
So it was a very good election for Georgia Republicans — just not for Herschel Walker.
The reasons for his growing margin of defeat are pretty evident. Walker benefited on Election Day from being on the same ballot as those other Republicans, especially Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who turned out enough Republicans who were willing to check the box for Walker to keep it close.
But when they weren’t on the ballot, Walker suffered — particularly among conservatives in the Atlanta area. Of the 15 counties where Walker’s raw number of votes dropped the most between Nov. 8 and Tuesday, 12 of them were either Atlanta-based counties or in the Atlanta suburbs and exurbs.
It’s no coincidence that this is the part of the state where Walker most underperformed Kemp on Election Day. Georgians were reluctant to vote for both; then they were reluctant to turn out for Walker when it was only him on the ballot. And he bled those votes.
Turnout for the GA runoff was 90% of November’s level. Notably, 5 of the 6 counties where it lagged the most relative to November are among the largest GOP plurality-producing counties in the state — places where Walker had run significantly behind Gov. Brian Kemp in November: pic.twitter.com/eA0CMDKsPz
— Steve Kornacki (@SteveKornacki) December 7, 2022
In the end, the 10 points between Walker’s margin and those of fellow Georgia Republicans like Kemp was perhaps the most pronounced gap between a Trump-backed candidate’s performance and their ticket-mates. GOP Senate candidates in Arizona and Nevada and gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin all underperformed their fellow statewide Republican candidates — but none by as much as Walker.
Some states did feature bigger gaps. But none of them had slates that could serve as such a robust measuring stick against which to judge the flawed candidate and more standard-issue Republicans.
Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance underperformed the eight other Republicans on the statewide ballot by more than 11 points. But he still won relatively easily, because Ohio was a GOP route led by Gov. Mike DeWine’s (R) 26-point win.
New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc lagged Gov. Chris Sununu’s (R) margin by the largest amount: nearly 25 points. But Sununu isn’t exactly a generic Republican — he’s highly popular in New Hampshire — and there were no other statewide contests on the ballot to measure against.
The GOP did sweep four of five state executive council seats in New Hampshire, but it lost the state’s two congressional districts by an average of 10 points — very similar to Bolduc’s nine-point loss. So it was a very mixed bag, even as Bolduc clearly struggled.
There is a credible argument to be made that Walker wasn’t the worst candidate, or the most costly one, imposed by Trump on his party.
Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters and Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon didn’t underperform their fellow Republicans by as much, for example. But that owes in large part to the fact that their state GOP’s nominated slates full of other similarly flawed, Trump-backed candidates. And both Dixon and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano managed to lose by double digits in swing states — compared to Walker’s apparent three-point loss in his swing state — which is quite the feat.
That’s also kind of the point: Georgia provided perhaps the most telling juxtaposition between a flawed, Trump-backed candidate and a bunch of more generic, establishment-oriented Republicans. Many of those Republicans, like Kemp, defeated Trump-backed primary challengers with ease earlier this year. And Georgia now shows, in stark relief, the electoral wisdom of nominating that kind of candidate, rather than political novices whom Trump happens to like personally.
Georgia was happy to vote for Republicans this year. That just didn’t extend to Walker. And given Walker’s demonstrated failure to turn out Kemp voter and his relatively small margin of defeat, he provides perhaps the most compelling case of the 2022 election that Trump cost Republicans a seat.