OPINION: Herschel Walker and Brian Kemp’s drastically different campaigns

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Going to a Brian Kemp rally is almost like traveling in a GOP time machine back to 2014. There is no Donald Trump, no Marjorie Taylor Greene, and never any talk of a “stolen” election. Instead, the Georgia governor serves up Republicans’ traditional economic issues, with a side of public safety, and a sunny promise about more to come.

But get in your car and drive a few miles down the road to a Herschel Walker event, as I did Thursday, and you’ll see Walker’s MAGA-infused, pull-no-punches Senate campaign. The first-time candidate quotes the bible, mines social issues, predicts doomsday with Democrats in charge, and insults his opponent, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, like the MMA fighter he used to be.

Kemp and Walker are chasing the exact same universe of Georgia GOP voters, but they’re running radically different campaigns to get there. How they finish on Tuesday night will say a great deal about what Georgia Republican voters want and where the party is headed in the future.

Kemp and Walker have never shared a campaign stage up to now and, as of this weekend, won’t be together before Election Day. When Kemp’s been asked about Walker’s many scandals, he’s only said he’s working to get every Republican elected in the state. When Walker was asked in May if he voted for Kemp in the GOP primary, he wouldn’t say.

The gulf between the Kemp universe and Walker’s world was on vivid display last week as they barnstormed the state separately. Kemp’s Thursday event in Marietta was festooned with balloons, hay bales, and red, white, and blue flower arrangements.

Businessmen and young families enjoyed a picnic outside Williamson Bros. Bar-B-Q, as Kemp strode onto the stage in shirt sleeves, a tie and his favorite black cowboy boots.

As he does at each stop, the governor kept his message squarely on the economy, tax cuts, and funding public safety-- the same issues that most Georgians rank as their top concerns, too.

“We’ve had two record years in a row of investment to get record years of job growth in this state. And it’s literally happening all over the state,” he said.

Kemp credited his own controversial decision to open Georgia’s economy during COVID for putting the state on the road to a faster recovery and said that businesses, workers, students, and parents all fared better as a result.

“We’ve got the most people ever working in the history of this state. It’s incredible what we’ve been doing. But our fight is not over,” he said. “We’ve got to keep this going. I believe our best days are ahead.”

While Kemp could be mistaken for the president of any chamber of commerce, Walker has fashioned himself as a political brawler and a “warrior for God.”

Aggressive on the stump and loose with the crowd, he popped onto the stage at his Cobb County rally the same day as Kemp’s while “Bad to the Bone” played over the loudspeaker.

“I want to tell you guys I’m not that politician. I’m that warrior for God and God says we’re not going to put up with this,” he began.

Standing in front of his full-size “Herschel” bus in the parking lot of an indoor gun range, Walker launched into his speech calling Warnock a liar, a Marxist, a one-trick pony, and “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“I’m not sure what book my guy I’m running against is reading, because his bible says America need to apologize for its whiteness, but that’s not written in my Bible,” Walker said.

He went on to say that Warnock wants to abolish prisons, jails, the police, and the family unit, none of which Warnock has ever said. And Walker ominously warned that next, the senator is coming for their own children.

“He’s trying to tell your kid because he white, he’s an oppressor, and then if he is Black, he’s a victim,” he said. “Not in my book. He’s victorious.”

And as he always does at his events, Walker mocked transgender issues and general “wokeness,” to the delight of his conservative crowd. “What the heck is a pronoun?” he joked. “My pronoun is sick and tired of this pronoun stuff.”

The surrogates coming to Georgia tell a story of their own. For Kemp, it’s former executives on the outs with Trump like Mike Pence and Chris Christie. For Walker, it’s been top Mar-A-Lago allies like U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Trump Super PAC chairwoman Pam Bondi.

So far the different approaches appear to be yielding different results, too. Kemp has consistently polled at or over 50%, while Walker is locked in a dead heat with Warnock. Kemp’s camp is feeling so solid with Republicans that they’ve moved on to courting independents and even some Democrats.

Walker, as his events demonstrate, is still trying to lock up the GOP base. Months of attacks ads from Democrats about abusing his ex-wife and allegations of paying for other women’s abortions haven’t helped, but also haven’t made the impact Democrats had hoped.

The final days of the two Republicans’ campaigns will be as different as the operations they’ve run up to now. Kemp will make his final election push Monday night in Cobb County surrounded by his wife, daughters and nearly every GOP statewide candidate on the ticket.

And although Kemp said last week he’d be up for campaigning with the former football great, the most famous name on the Republican ticket won’t be at the governor’s unity rally. Walker will hold a rally of his own at a Kennesaw gun club. He and his supporters will be just down the street from Kemp and his supporters, but really a world away.