‘Astounding’: Big-name Republicans are skipping a matchup against Warnock

201229-Atlanta-The Rev. Raphael Warnock speaks during a Unite Here union meeting at the Starlight Drive In in Atlanta on Tuesday morning, Dec. 29, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
201229-Atlanta-The Rev. Raphael Warnock speaks during a Unite Here union meeting at the Starlight Drive In in Atlanta on Tuesday morning, Dec. 29, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Fresh off a narrow January victory, Raphael Warnock is arguably one of the most vulnerable U.S. Senate Democratic incumbents on the 2022 ballot. But instead of a superstar Republican quickly joining the race, so far only lesser-known challengers are lining up for the seat.

While competitive U.S. Senate races are already taking shape in other states, the slow-to-develop race to face Warnock is more notable for who is staying on the sidelines rather than who is already maneuvering to take a shot at the freshman Democrat.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue would have been the clear front-runner, but he quickly decided against launching a bid. Attorney General Chris Carr, a protégé of Johnny Isakson, considered a Senate bid but is gearing up to run for reelection instead.

And former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a favorite of former President Donald Trump who many Republicans saw as the strongest remaining candidate, opted out of a race this week to instead focus on his newfound radio show and growing law practice.

There are other potentially formidable candidates eyeing a run, though many are waiting to see whether University of Georgia football great Herschel Walker will jump into the race with Trump’s support. Two military veterans — Kelvin King and Latham Saddler — have announced bids.

But after devastating defeats in November’s presidential election and January’s Senate runoffs, alarm bells are ringing as Republicans grow antsy about their chances next year when Warnock could share the top of the Democratic ticket with Stacey Abrams, who is expected to launch a rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp.

“While I respect those who have raised their hands thus far, the fact that there’s not a household name announced yet in the Republican race is nothing short of astounding,” said John Watson, a longtime Republican operative and former chair of the Georgia GOP.

He chalked it up to two reasons. The first is that increasing scrutiny and attention on political races in Georgia, one of the nation’s premier political battlegrounds, has made it more forbidding for potential candidates to seek high-profile office. The second one is just as important: Trump’s influence still reigns supreme in the state GOP.

“There are basically two primaries: One in Georgia and one in Mar-a-Lago,” Watson said of Trump’s Florida estate. “And until the primary in Mar-a-Lago settles itself, you won’t see the field in Georgia settled either.”

Will Herschel run?

Indeed, ambitious politicians wouldn’t normally wait patiently on an out-of-state newcomer to make up his mind. But Walker, who lives in Texas, boasts a potential endorsement from Trump, who has encouraged his old friend to run and claimed he would be as “unstoppable” on the campaign trail as he was on the football field.

The support University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker has received from former President Donald Trump appears to have frozen the field of potential big-name candidates in the GOP for 2022 U.S. Senate race in Georgia. “There are basically two primaries: One in Georgia and one in Mar-a-Lago,” John Watson, a former state GOP chair, said of Trump’s Florida estate. “And until the primary in Mar-a-Lago settles itself, you won’t see the field in Georgia settled either.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
The support University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker has received from former President Donald Trump appears to have frozen the field of potential big-name candidates in the GOP for 2022 U.S. Senate race in Georgia. “There are basically two primaries: One in Georgia and one in Mar-a-Lago,” John Watson, a former state GOP chair, said of Trump’s Florida estate. “And until the primary in Mar-a-Lago settles itself, you won’t see the field in Georgia settled either.” (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

What’s complicated matters for Republicans is that Walker has seemed in no rush about making up his mind. He’s only offered broad statements about a bid, telling Fox News he would be “running to win.” And he recently told CNN he’s still “thinking about it.”

Beyond moving to Georgia, Walker would face other hurdles. The first-time candidate already enjoys soaring name recognition in the state, but he’d have to win over grassroots activists, court donors and hone policies under a harsh spotlight in one of the nation’s most closely watched contests.

And though he’s also been open about his diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, he’d confront questions about violent episodes of his past as he struggled with the condition.

Some senior Republican officials are quietly encouraging Walker to stay out. Cole Muzio, a prominent anti-abortion activist, said Walker would be the wrong candidate to make the case that Republicans need to “reclaim our state from out-of-state interests” that he claimed fueled Warnock’s win.

“A Herschel Walker candidacy may provide temporary excitement,” he said, “but is this the right time to drag somebody out of Texas with serious baggage, seemingly no eagerness for what will be a brutal race and no history of campaign experience or taking serious policy positions?”

Purple state politics

Republicans aren’t sleeping on the race. The national party will likely pour in a tremendous amount of cash through November 2022 to flip the seat, key to GOP ambitions to retake control of the chamber.

January 5, 20201 Atlanta - Senator Kelly Loeffler leaves after she spoke to her supporters during an Election Night Party for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler at Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
January 5, 20201 Atlanta - Senator Kelly Loeffler leaves after she spoke to her supporters during an Election Night Party for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler at Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A host of other contenders is waiting in the wings, though some are more seriously weighing a race than others. They include former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, and U.S. Reps. Buddy Carter and Drew Ferguson.

“I’m really focused on Greater Georgia,” Loeffler said recently at a kickoff party, referring to her new voter mobilization group. “This is my sole focus, and I’ll turn to that thought process potentially later.”

Antsy Republicans also need look no further than the slow start of last year’s contest, when Abrams froze the Democratic field for months before deciding not to run.

Jon Ossoff didn’t announce his Senate run against Perdue until September 2019, and Warnock launched his special election campaign in January 2020 to fill the remaining two years of Iskason’s term. Their runoff victories over GOP incumbents flipped control of the chamber.

“Whoever comes out of the primary, I’m confident they’ll be a good, well-funded candidate,” said Chip Lake, a Republican strategist and former top aide to Collins.

“But this race is going to be tight, and I have no reason to believe they won’t be as close — if not closer — than they were in 2020,” Lake said. “We’re a purple state now, and there’s a lot of voters up for grabs.”

‘Not surprised’

As Republicans jockey for position, Warnock is busy consolidating his party’s support. The pastor of Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock has stuck to his campaign pledge to back President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, including the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.

And he’s endorsed efforts to gut the Senate’s filibuster rules to pass an expansive voting rights measure that would override some of Georgia’s new election rules, while using his perch on the Agriculture Committee to push a $5 billion effort to help disadvantaged farmers.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, raised nearly $6 million between Jan. 6 and March 31, amounting to what political analysts say is the highest off-year fundraising quarter in Georgia history. He's shown campaigning with Stacey Abrams, who will likely share the top of the state's Democratic ticket with him in November 2022, and Jon Ossoff. Warnock and Ossoff's victories in January's Senate runoffs gave Democrats control of the chamber.
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, left, raised nearly $6 million between Jan. 6 and March 31, amounting to what political analysts say is the highest off-year fundraising quarter in Georgia history. He's shown campaigning with Stacey Abrams, who will likely share the top of the state's Democratic ticket with him in November 2022, and Jon Ossoff. Warnock and Ossoff's victories in January's Senate runoffs gave Democrats control of the chamber.

His prodigious fundraising haul has also unnerved Republicans. Warnock raised nearly $6 million between Jan. 6 and March 31, amounting to what political analysts say is the highest off-year fundraising quarter in Georgia history.

“I’m not surprised at all that no big-name Republicans want to run against him,” said Dasheika Ruffin, a Democratic strategist and key Warnock campaign aide. “He’s sending a strong message for his reelection bid, and he’s in a great position. He’s got a massive war chest. Everyone knows he’s going to be really hard to beat.”

Republicans say they’ll have plenty of time to unite, even if its not behind a heavyweight candidate.

“We might have a handful of lesser-known names, but whoever emerges will go almost overnight to universally known,” Lake said. “And I have a feeling we’ll be on offense, not defense.”

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