Herschel Walker’s stumbles complicate final stretch of his runoff bid

As a surge of Georgia voters streamed to the polls this weekend, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock headlined a half-dozen rallies across metro Atlanta. Herschel Walker, his Republican opponent, was nearly invisible, without a public event for five days.

The Republican’s campaign, once singularly focused on slamming Warnock’s ties to President Joe Biden, abruptly shifted to accuse Walker’s former football coach of not really being his former football coach after he endorsed Warnock.

And thanks to Warnock’s dominating fundraising advantage, the airwaves have been blanketed with Walker’s rambling stump speech gaffes, including a recent inexplicable analysis of horror movie villains: “A werewolf can kill a vampire, did you know that?”

In the final stretch of the four-week runoff, Warnock has maintained the relentless pitch to liberals and swing voters that helped him narrowly lead Walker in the November midterm. Walker’s ongoing stumbles, by contrast, have alarmed some Republicans.

“Herschel Walker was granted a mulligan in the form of a runoff — an extra four weeks to convince the 200,000 Georgians who pulled the lever for Gov. (Brian) Kemp and Sen. Warnock to change their minds,” said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, one of Walker’s leading GOP critics.

“It certainly doesn’t feel like he’s made enough progress on that mission,” Duncan added, “and he’s running out of time.”

ExploreWhy Kemp-Warnock voters will be decisive in Georgia runoff

Walker’s campaign is far from a spent force. Both candidates boast hundreds of staffers and thousands of volunteers who are flooding neighborhoods, lighting up phones and flooding voters with pleas to vote in the Dec. 6 contest.

The few polls of the overtime bout show a tight race. Early voting has soared in some Republican-leaning counties. And Walker’s events, including a Tuesday rally in Greensboro, routinely attract hundreds of boisterous supporters who pledge to marshal their friends and neighbors to his camp.

“We’ve got to protect this country, and the way we’ve got to do that is coming together,” said Walker, describing himself as “God’s champion” while denigrating Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. “We’re running against this slick preacher that talks so smooth.”

‘The only guy’ who could lose

But there are growing signs of disillusionment as missteps pile up and national developments complicate Walker’s case.

When Democrats clinched the 50th seat in the U.S. Senate, it deprived Walker of one of his core arguments to skeptical conservatives: that a vote for the Republican was a vote for a GOP-controlled chamber.

Newly emerged tax records that show Walker considers his home in Texas a primary residence led to fresh attacks framing the former Dallas Cowboys star as an out-of-state carpetbagger.

A failed GOP push to block Saturday voting in the runoff appears to have galvanized Democrats, leading to a weekend surge and record-breaking early voting turnout on Monday and Tuesday. Black voters, the cornerstone of the Democratic electorate, make up a disproportionately high share of early voters.

And Warnock’s huge fundraising advantage — he raised $52 million in a roughly three-week span — enabled him to test a variety of ways to connect with hard-to-reach voters while also hammering Walker with more traditional attacks.

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

Credit: Greg Nash/The Hill

One of his closing ads features a split-screen shot of voters reacting to Walker’s bizarre statements on the stump about werewolves and “bad air.” In the ad, one disgusted viewer harrumphs: “Let’s call it what it is. It is embarrassing.”

Ben Burnett, a GOP commentator and former Alpharetta city councilman, said Walker may have been lulled into a sense of complacency after a GOP primary he compared to a “homecoming queen race” because it hinged on Walker’s popularity as a football icon.

Burnett noted that Walker lost four once-reliably Republican precincts in Alpharetta that Kemp won. It was no anomaly. Walker significantly lagged behind Kemp elsewhere in the Atlanta suburbs — along with a ribbon of deeply conservative counties along Georgia’s northern boundaries.

“Herschel Walker can’t find a closing message because he doesn’t have the capacity,” Burnett said. “The Georgia Republican primary voter is to blame. We nominated the only guy who could possibly lose this race. I don’t fault Herschel for being who he is. Or, in this case, who he isn’t.”

‘Un-American’

Warnock, meanwhile, is flexing his organizational muscles as he appeals to liberals who form the backbone of his coalition along with swing voters who are nervous about Walker’s history of violence, erratic behavior and personal baggage.

He organized a Dave Matthews Band concert on Monday packed with middle-age suburban white voters who helped him win in 2020 and propelled him to a near miss in November, a three-way race that ended in a runoff after no candidate won a majority of the vote.

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

And he enlisted the help of former President Barack Obama, who is starring in a Thursday rally, and former first lady Michelle Obama, who recorded robocalls to urge likely voters to cast their ballots.

Meanwhile, Walker’s stumbles are compounded by his refusal to speak to reporters and outline policy views with any specificity. His stances on many of the issues that shape the race are a mystery, frustrating allies who wonder why he’s avoided red meat.

It was left to Kemp, for instance, to make a case that Warnock’s support for a federal climate change law could undermine the $5.5 billion Hyundai plant under construction near Savannah — a narrative that Walker hasn’t pushed despite pleading from GOP allies.

And Republicans were baffled by his refusal to condemn former President Donald Trump’s dinner meeting with Nick Fuentes, an avowed white supremacist. Walker remained silent about Fuentes even after Kemp and other GOP leaders blasted Fuentes as an “un-American” racist.

“Trump is flummoxing even some of the base with Nick Fuentes,” sighed John Wood, a South Georgia GOP activist.

Walker still ‘has a chance’

In the runoff’s closing days, Walker is increasingly relying on national Republican figures to make his case. U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Rick Scott have campaigned for him in recent weeks, and Mike Pompeo — a potential 2024 presidential candidate — plans to rally with him on Thursday.

But the most important surrogate for Walker may be Kemp — someone he avoided much of the year. Walker wouldn’t even say whether he voted for the governor in the May primary, and the two skirted each other during the general election campaign.

A poll conducted by the pro-Walker 34N22 group found that Kemp’s favorability rating among likely runoff voters was 60% while only one-third of voters see him in a negative light.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Now Walker is leaning on Kemp to win back split-ticket voters. The governor has filmed pro-Walker ads, held fundraisers, headlined a campaign event and directed his field operation to help the Republican. He’s eager to refocus the race on the economy, a strategy he employed to defeat Stacey Abrams.

“It matters what people think and what they’re dealing with in their everyday lives,” Kemp told CNN this week. “And I know people are dealing with 40-year-high inflation.”

Winning back those swing voters won’t be easy. Tyler Lahti is among the voters who split his ticket between Kemp and Warnock in November — and he plans to vote for Warnock again. He said he always resented comments from partisans on both sides of the aisle who wondered how voters like him could exist.

“Warnock is great — and he should also keep touting his relatively bipartisan record and ability to compromise,” Lahti said. “I wish we’d avoided a runoff. And I think Kemp has just done a great job the past four years.”

Anxious Republicans are hoping for a blunder-free homestretch. Martha Zoller, a former GOP U.S. House candidate and popular radio show host, said she was disappointed Walker cut back his campaign appearances and acknowledged many of her conservative listeners remain concerned about his candidacy.

“But the choice is clear: Either you vote for someone who’s going to vote with Joe Biden 96% of the time, or you vote for somebody who’s going to vote like a Republican,” Zoller said. “If that’s the choice, Herschel Walker has a chance.”