It was one of the most unusual political events in recent Georgia history. After vilifying Gov. Brian Kemp for much of the past decade, the Democratic Party of Georgia held a suburban event featuring voters who sang the Republican’s praises while also vouching for U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.
The November event wasn’t some dramatic change of heart for state Democrats. Warnock and his allies recognized from the outset that winning reelection against Republican Herschel Walker, even with his troubling personal issues and blunders, would require a new strategy.
Doing so would mean veering from a 2020 approach that focused almost exclusively on Democratic priorities — and little about his opponent. Instead, Warnock set out to energize liberal Georgians and swing voters by emphasizing his sharp contrast with Walker.
The approach paid dividends in the midterm when the swing-ticket phenomenon transformed from a polling trend into hard numbers. Walker ended with 200,000 fewer votes than Kemp, significantly trailing the governor in Atlanta’s close-in suburbs and further-flung rural areas.
And Warnock’s triumph on Tuesday proved it worked again. He prevailed in the last election battle of 2022, emerging as the only Democrat in Georgia to win statewide just two years after the party flipped two U.S. Senate seats and helped Joe Biden win the presidency.
The Democrat was helped by Walker’s pile of personal issues, bizarre behavior and campaign blunders during the runoff. Warnock’s most effective ads, to many, consisted simply of footage of Walker’s confusing remarks on the campaign trail.
By the end of the four-week sprint, the Republican was increasingly isolated, holding only a handful of public appearances while his staff ignored most press inquiries.
Inside the Republican’s campaign, aides lurched from crisis to crisis so often it felt like a “death march,” said one staffer, one of a half-dozen Walker allies who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the inner workings of the operation.
Warnock, meanwhile, held dozens of events to mobilize voters when they most needed the push. A Democratic majority in the Senate, and the absence of other candidates on the ticket, changed the stakes. And a shrewd scheduling move by the Democrat caused chaos in Walker’s campaign.
‘Competence and character’
Long before Walker’s defeat, Republicans were sounding alarm bells about his history of violent behavior, pattern of lies and exaggerations, and tendency for bizarre and erratic statements that continued through the final hours of the runoff.
“Herschel was like a plane crash into a train wreck that rolled into a dumpster fire. And an orphanage. Then an animal shelter. You kind of had to watch it squinting through one eye between your fingers,” said Dan McLagan, an adviser to Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, one of Walker’s defeated rivals in the GOP primary.
But Warnock didn’t win simply because of Walker’s background. Many Georgia Republicans, and some others, continued to back Walker, looking past his vulnerabilities and seeing a man who called himself a redeemed “warrior of God” or one who, at the least, would be a reliable GOP vote.
To overcome the staunch support for his rival, Warnock had to motivate both liberal voters who form the Democratic Party’s base and middle-of-the-road Georgians who harbored concerns about both candidates.
He steered clear of Biden, saying talk of the president’s future should be left to pundits. He spoke more on the campaign trail about work he had done with Republicans in the U.S. Senate than allying with Biden, often to the shock of supporters. And he cast the race as a referendum on Walker.
“This race is about competence and character,” Warnock told Asian American voters in Midtown Atlanta days before the runoff. “And on that front my opponent, bless his heart, falls woefully short.”
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
His dual strategy was on display when he campaigned with former President Barack Obama to motivate the base and brought in the Dave Matthews Band for a concert in Cobb County to galvanize middle-age white suburbanites who epitomize the swing-voter base.
“I’m sure there’s some operative out there when tasked with running a race against Walker who might have said, ‘We’re just going to run as far left as we can.’ We didn’t do that,” said Quentin Fulks, Warnock’s campaign manager. “But we also didn’t take our base for granted.”
One of his final, and perhaps most effective, ads spoke directly to both blocs of voters. It featured a split screen of voters reacting to Walker’s bizarre statements on the stump. One senior Republican called it the “best I’ve ever seen.”
“Walker did not collapse,” said Jay Morgan, a former Georgia Republican Party executive director. “He simply failed to make an energetic or reassuring argument to the base to vote as they did for Kemp to lead the ticket in November.”
Warnock, meanwhile, laid claim to the political center despite a liberal voting record. Jason Shepherd, the former chair of the Cobb County GOP, marveled at Warnock’s “solid, focused and disciplined campaign” in contrast to Walker’s failure to woo swing voters.
“Even Brian Kemp going all out for Walker after he secured his own reelection wasn’t enough,” Shepherd said.
‘Here we go’
Walker headed into the midterm with a different outlook. Kemp’s rising poll numbers, and expectations of a national red wave, had the candidate and his strategists confident that he would notch an outright victory and avoid an unpredictable runoff.
They had reason for optimism. Walker had wielded his Heisman Trophy-winning past, along with his blessing from Donald Trump, to inoculate himself from controversies that would have doomed any other Republican contender.
He weathered coverage about allegations of abuse of his ex-wife and other women, lies about his academic record and law enforcement experience, exaggerations about his business background, erratic statements and the fact that he still lived in Texas shortly before he launched his bid.
Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC
Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC
He took advantage of low expectations in his sole debate against Warnock. Even October reports that Walker pressured two ex-girlfriends to get abortions despite his call to outlaw the procedure seemed to have little effect. He denied the claims, and many supporters saw it as a moment to circle the wagons.
But even as Kemp cleared 53% of the vote, and other Republicans scored solid victories, Walker lagged 4 percentage points behind the governor — and finished trailing Warnock by nearly 40,000 votes.
Georgia law required another round of voting if no one secured a majority, but the state’s new voting law cut the runoff period from nine weeks to four weeks.
While Warnock’s campaign spent weeks readying for the next round and lining up staffers, the prospect of competing without Kemp and other Republicans on the ballot terrified some Walker staffers.
“Here we go again,” sighed one aide.
A game-changing moment
It was clear that one of Walker’s biggest weaknesses was middle-of-the-road voters who had defected en masse to Warnock, voted for the third-party candidate or just skipped the race altogether. But no campaign reset was underway.
At one of Walker’s first runoff events in Peachtree City, he delivered the same stump speech he had for months. He railed against transgender athletes, mocked the use of gendered pronouns and shared anecdotes about his playing days.
And he continued a strategy of refusing to say where he stood on key policy issues — even ones that would stand to benefit his campaign. He was likewise silent on Trump’s dinner with a white supremacist, even after Kemp and other state Republicans denounced the meeting.
Instead, it was left to the governor and others to make the cases Walker wouldn’t. Kemp tried to shift the narrative to high inflation. Senate Republicans played up the need to control a 50th Senate seat after Democrats clinched a majority in the chamber.
Warnock, by contrast, sharpened his message and ramped up his campaign stops, including a visit that caused mayhem in his rival’s camp.
It was a late November stop in Wrightsville, the east Georgia town where Walker grew up. The Democrat was joined there by Curtis Dixon, a former high school football coach of Walker’s who declared the Republican “is not ready” to serve in the Senate.
While it hardly attracted media attention, the visit got under Walker’s skin. Soon, aides were instructed to attack Dixon as a fraud. One staffer wound up deleting a tweet that inaccurately claimed Dixon wasn’t Walker’s football coach. Staffers plunged into despair.
“It was the best decision the Warnock campaign ever made,” a Republican operative said. “That was when staff realized we weren’t going to get Walker to sharpen his message. We knew the trip was an attempt to distract us — and it worked.”
Meanwhile, Warnock continued to leverage his enormous fundraising advantage — he amassed more money than any other federal candidate this year — to find new ways to mobilize the base and persuade middle-of-the-road voters to back him.
One split-ticket voter, Josh Dukelow, was quoted in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story saying he voted for Kemp and Warnock in November and intended to back the Democrat again because he wanted “elected leaders who will get things done, not strut and squawk.”
Shortly after that, Dukelow received a call from a Warnock staffer who found his number and invited him to an upcoming event. When you have Warnock’s resources, he quipped, “there is no task too small to try.”
A blank ballot
Walker’s vulnerabilities were no mystery to Republicans.
His name surfaced as a potential Georgia candidate after he spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2020, but he wasn’t seriously seen as a rival to Warnock until former U.S. Sen. David Perdue announced he wouldn’t attempt a comeback.
A few weeks later, Trump declared that Walker would be “unstoppable” — effectively freezing the Republican field. As Walker took steps to run, other well-known Republicans announced one by one that they wouldn’t take him on.
That list included potentially formidable contenders with far less personal baggage — and more elected experience — such as Attorney General Chris Carr, U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter and former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.
Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC
Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC
The Republicans who did join the contest faced skepticism because they lacked Trump’s endorsement and the same soaring name recognition as the superstar athlete.
Latham Saddler, a former Navy SEAL, told concerned voters that Walker ran an “entitlement campaign” based on his celebrity appeal. Black, a three-term agriculture commissioner, aired ads warning that Walker’s past would doom him in a one-on-one race against Warnock.
At a barbecue in Alto that served as one of his campaign’s final gasps, Black stepped aside from the crowd of hundreds to tell the AJC that he wouldn’t vote for Walker in the general election because he “won’t come clean” about his violence against women.
A few weeks before the primary, McLagan and other state GOP operatives trekked to Washington to warn party officials about Walker’s weaknesses. They even played a mock ad to reflect how Warnock would attack the Republican. Many of the same themes wound up in the Democrat’s TV ads.
Mindful that Walker would indeed be “unstoppable” in a GOP primary, as Trump predicted, state Republicans tried to surround him with steady hands. Kemp aide Trey Kilpatrick was among those who vouched for Scott Paradise to run the campaign after pro-Trump operatives seeking the job were pushed aside.
But Walker confounded attempts to run a traditional campaign.
He wasn’t forthcoming with his staff about important elements of his background, including his business record, his personal finances and even his family situation. A series of reports in The Daily Beast that Walker had three unacknowledged children turned him into the butt of national jokes.
His campaign splurged on Walker-branded merchandise that was hardly marketed to supporters. One aide lamented about having nine surplus Walker hats and doesn’t know what to do with them.
Walker struggled on the stump, made frequent missteps during speeches and even had trouble with softball questions from friendly outlets. Efforts to persuade Walker to overhaul his message, respond more aggressively to attacks or make key personnel decisions often went nowhere, staffers said.
Often, aides would arrive at his house for hourslong meetings to work on stump speeches or chart out staffing changes only to find out the next day that Walker changed his mind. They sometimes discovered that his wife, Julie Blanchard, had preempted their guidance.
Credit: Jenni Girtman
Credit: Jenni Girtman
That wasn’t the only way they say Blanchard influenced his campaign. She controlled Walker’s social media account, chided staff for communicating with reporters and directed his press team to avoid interviews with the AJC after coverage she didn’t like.
One Walker ally said “campaign staff was literally scared to talk to reporters at events,” fearful of backlash from his wife, who routinely berated AJC reporters on the campaign trail. Two others said she was “singularly obsessed” with winning a majority of Black voters, despite being told that was unattainable.
Blanchard could not be reached for comment.
Walker’s inability to answer questions and shift his message raised increasing alarms. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan became the highest-ranking Republican to publicly withhold support from the Senate nominee last week when he said he went to a polling site with plans to vote only to leave in disgust.
“Like many conservatives across Georgia, I’ve been waiting for Herschel Walker to give me a reason to support him,” Duncan told the AJC. “Regrettably, he hasn’t, and that’s why I was forced to leave my ballot blank.”
Warnock’s campaign anticipated the backlash and tried to make his campaign a safe harbor for Republicans by steering clear of Biden and emphasizing bipartisanship. A focus group conducted shortly before the election that featured once-reliably GOP voters created a buzz among Walker’s allies.
“I am a Republican and I tend to go right down the ballot, Republican, Republican, Republican. That’s what I did the first time,” one voter said in a recording of the focus group. “Two days ago, I said, ‘I just can’t do it.’ I just don’t want that person making decisions for me.”
‘Remain the reverend’
The four-week runoff only heightened the Republican’s struggles. As Walker inexplicably went off the campaign trail for five days surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday, Warnock held more than a dozen events aimed at mobilizing voters.
One aide summed up the staffers’ morale after Walker’s extended break: “If he doesn’t care, why should we care?”
An off-the-cuff stump speech that Walker gave on the trade-offs of vampires and werewolves played directly into Warnock’s argument that the Republican wasn’t fit to serve. His silence to reporters on key issues allowed Warnock to fill the vacuum with specific policy stances.
State and national Republicans were responsible for one of the biggest boosts to Warnock’s campaign, however, when they challenged a judge’s ruling in an effort to ban Saturday voting 10 days before the election. The state’s highest court unanimously rejected the appeal.
Democratic strategist Fred Hicks predicted at the time that the ruling “very well might be the day when the runoff was decided.” Indeed, it seemed to turbocharge weekend voting — and became a staple of Warnock’s closing message.
Even Kemp, who stumped for Walker in the runoff after keeping him at arm’s length throughout the midterm campaign, appeared flabbergasted at the strategy.
“I don’t even know why there was discussion on that,” the governor told CNN. “Look, people have plenty of time to go vote in this election. Let them go vote.”
With Tuesday’s defeat, Republicans were left licking their wounds.
“The tragedy is that Georgia is a purple state only when we choose fame or wealth over values, record and ability,” McLagan said.
Others vented about Trump’s polarizing influence on the GOP brand. The former president tried and failed to oust Kemp in the May primary. His handpicked candidate for the U.S. Senate went down in flames in December.
“Kemp won. Trump loses,” said Morgan, the former state GOP executive director. “Again.”
As for Walker, he delivered a subdued speech thanking supporters for putting up “one heck of a fight.” He never called Warnock to concede the race, leaving it instead to a deputy to reach out to the Democrat’s staff to congratulate him for the win.
Warnock has twice found a formula to win in a state once solidly Republican, but it’s a strategy that is impossible to replicate. In 2020, he benefited from Trump’s constant warring with Georgia Republicans over his election defeat. In 2022, he faced a deeply flawed opponent.
Still, it took a disciplined and savvy candidate to exploit those openings. Warnock’s advisers reminded him throughout his first campaign to “remain the reverend” — a refrain he kept at the center of his reelection bid as Walker condemned him as a “fake pastor.”
As voters lined up to cast ballots Tuesday, both candidates were asked at separate suburban stops whether they had any regrets.
Walker quipped that he didn’t regret “anything Rev. Warnock has done.” The Democrat took the moment to reflect on the past two years. Warnock’s name was on the ballot five different times over that span. And he finished in first place in each one of the contests.
“You don’t really know for sure if you want a job until you’re actually doing it,” he said.
“But because of the work that I’m able to get done for ordinary folks, I love this job,” the Democrat added. “And I intend to make good use of the trust that people put in my hands.”
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution