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Walker Goes Down to Warnock
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Walker Goes Down to Warnock

Why Georgia’s Senate runoff felt like a post-Trump election.

Sen. Raphael Warnock arrives to deliver a victory speech at his election night party in Atlanta Tuesday after defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

So that’s that; the midterms are over. On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock dashed Republicans’ hopes of maintaining a 50-50 Senate by defeating Republican Herschel Walker. By early Wednesday morning and with 95 percent of ballots counted, Warnock had 51.4 percent of the vote to Walker’s 48.6 percent.

“After a hard-fought campaign—or should I say campaigns—it is my honor to utter the four most powerful words ever spoken in a democracy,” Warnock told the crowd at his election party after the race was called. “The people have spoken.

Warnock’s victory put an exclamation point on one of the central storylines of the 2022 midterms: the underperformance of former President Donald Trump’s handpicked Senate candidates in swing states. These candidates were supposed to help Trump reassert his grip over the party ahead of his third presidential bid in 2024. Instead, the slate floundered. One candidate, North Carolina’s Ted Budd, notched a respectable win; another, J.D. Vance, limped to a modest victory in red Ohio (while polling nearly 10 points behind Republican governor Mike DeWine). The rest were losses ranging from close to embarrassing, in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona, New Hampshire, and—now—Georgia.

But this narrative, which drove much media coverage ahead of the runoff, doesn’t fully capture what happened in Georgia, which in some ways felt more like a post-Trump election.

It didn’t begin that way, of course. Walker, Trump’s handpicked candidate, had done his share of MAGA firebreathing, particularly in amplifying Trump’s stolen-election conspiracy theories. “Instead of us fighting and going to court, why don’t we have Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Michigan vote again?” he tweeted on November 6, 2020. “We can have it done within a week, and maintain our democracy.”

But that was before last May’s Georgia primary, which showed Trump’s grip over state Republican voters was far less powerful than he’d supposed. The former president, enraged that GOP Gov. Brian Kemp had failed to meddle with Biden’s 2020 victory in the state at his behest, had made it his personal mission to sweep Kemp from office, recruiting former Sen. David Perdue to challenge him in the primary. Instead, voters rebuked Trump, renominating Kemp by a stunning 52-point margin.

After that, Walker’s campaign was best described as Trump-agnostic. He rarely mentioned the former president at events, even when discussing how Americans were better off prior to Biden. (“We’ve got to get back to being energy independent again.”) He stopped questioning whether Biden was rightfully elected. And he quietly said “thanks but no thanks” to Trump holding more rallies in Georgia. (Trump did hold a conference call, billed as a “tele-rally,” with Walker supporters Monday night.)

Instead, Walker hitched his runoff horse to Trump’s hated foe Kemp, who romped to a 7.5-point win over Democrat Stacey Abrams last month. Kemp kept Walker at arm’s length during the general election, rarely appearing alongside him at events and frequently talking about supporting “the whole ticket” when asked about him directly. “I’ve got to win my race too,” Kemp told The Dispatch in October. “And I know if I do a good job and win my race and we turn our people out, it’s gonna be good for everybody on the ticket.”

Kemp threw himself behind Walker in the runoff, though, when it was clear Walker would need some of the 200,000 voters who backed Kemp but not Walker in the general. He appeared alongside him at campaign events and fundraisers, cut ads supporting him, and even mobilized his formidable leadership committee to do boots-on-the-ground turnout work. 

In the end, it just wasn’t enough to pull Walker and the burden of his personal scandals across the finish line. But it’s worth emphasizing that this was the key dynamic of the runoff, which was something even more remarkable than a Trump rebuke: a race in which the former president, his loyalty demands, and his obsessions just didn’t play a definitive role in the outcome.

As Tuesday neared, plenty of Walker’s own supporters seemed to feel the same way. At a Walker rally in Columbus last week, I talked to Jimmi McCarty, who runs the Republican Women of Muscogee and Harris Counties group. How much did Trump’s involvement matter? “He’d matter more if he could vote here,” she laughed.

“Right now we need to focus on Herschel,” she added. “Maybe another day we can focus on Donald Trump, but right now we need to focus on Herschel Walker.”

Others in Columbus struck a more indignant note about Trump. “He raised all these funds, and I’d like to know how much he gave to Herschel’s campaign,” said Linda Patton, another supporter. Trump had been soliciting her for donations plenty, anyway: “I got an email 10 times every day—you know, ‘Where are you! I haven’t heard from you yet!’”

The Walker campaign last month indirectly called out Trump’s Save America PAC for soliciting donations supposedly on Walker’s behalf. The emails defaulted to giving 90 percent of every dollar to Save America itself, with only 10 percent going to the Walker campaign. After the complaint, the PAC changed the default donation to a 50-50 split.

Georgia Republicans aren’t turning against Trump en masse. Mentions of the former president by Walker surrogates drew plenty of cheers from the crowd late in the runoff campaign. And yet many seemed ready to move on.

“Personally, I’d love to see somebody else at this point,” said Matt Whitney, an attendee of a rally in Woodstock who works in tech sales. “You know, not that I hate him, I just think the country’s burned out on him. … Somebody who’s a fighter but less divisive in some ways would be better.”

“I wish that Trump wasn’t running again,” said Beth Tower, who works for a Georgia Caterpillar dealer and repair business. “Because I feel like it’s gonna be more divisive—I feel like they dislike him so much that they will fight even harder just to keep him out versus if we found another candidate. I think he’ll have people that are Republicans and Democrats trying to not have people vote Republican just because of that.”

Asked whether he was leaning toward supporting anyone else in the 2024 Republican primary, Whitney mentioned Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “What he did in Florida—I remember Florida being a swing state, and it’s no longer a swing state as it stands. It’s insane, right? And he’s effective. … He can punch back, but he doesn’t need to make himself always the story.”

Others brought up DeSantis too—though not always by name. “I like the Florida governor myself,” Jennifer Stevenson, a teacher, told me. Or here’s Beth Tower again, asked who she sees as the GOP standard-bearer now: “Who’s the Florida dude?”

Another surprise name floated by one voter in Columbus: former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had been slated to appear alongside Walker at several rallies. (He had to cancel at the last minute, Walker’s campaign said, due to a family emergency.)

“I was really hoping Pompeo was gonna be here,” said Linda Patton’s husband, Bob. “Cause he’s one of my favorites if he should run for president. I liked his performance in the administration with Trump—his whole performance from day one, and the military and the CIA and secretary of state—he has been through the ringer and has performed well in all of his adventures. I’m a real Pompeo kind of supporter.”              

Nearly everyone hastened to say they’d support anyone who ended up the 2024 Republican nominee. But one post-Trump election makes it a lot easier to imagine the next one.

Correction, Dec. 7: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Walker supporter Jimmi McCarty.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.