OPINION: It doesn’t matter if Trump campaigns for Walker. The damage is already done

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Donald Trump may not be crossing the Florida line to campaign for Herschel Walker this week, but that’s beside the point now. The damage that Trump has inflicted on the GOP’s hopes to retake the Senate seat in Georgia has already been done.

The trouble started for Republicans in March of 2021, when Trump put out a statement suggesting that Walker run for the seat that Kelly Loeffler lost to Raphael Warnock just two months before.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the legendary Herschel Walker ran for the United States Senate in Georgia?” Trump wrote. “He would be unstoppable.”

Remember for a moment that Loeffler and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue lost just two months earlier largely because of Trump.

An election-eve rally in North Georgia, ostensibly to get GOP voters out to the polls, became a one-man therapy session. Instead of praising Perdue and Loeffler, Trump whined about his own loss in Georgia weeks earlier and convinced GOP voters that their votes might not be properly counted even if they went to the polls. Predictably, many GOP voters stayed home and handed the races to Democrats.

Despite the losses, plenty of qualified Georgia Republicans were already considering challenging U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock when Trump’s called for Walker, a longtime Texan, to “Run, Herschel, run!”

With that, Trump kept the biggest GOP names out of the field, while also handicapping the three other Republicans who did run for the seat. All three, a former Navy SEAL, a three-time agriculture commissioner, and an Air Force veteran, were highly qualified but quickly relegated to being the not-Trump candidates in a very-Trump GOP.

Trump, for his part, picked Walker, despite the fact that he lived in Texas, because the two have been close friends for nearly 40 years.

Walker played for Trump in the USFL and appeared on the “Celebrity Apprentice.” They vacationed together with their families and Walker served with Trump’s Pennsylvania Senate pick, Dr. Oz, on Trump’s Council on Sports, Nutrition and Fitness when Trump was in the White House.

He defended Trump during the “Access Hollywood” scandal, when Trump was caught on tape bragging about assaulting women. “Okay, Donald says stupid stuff. He do stupid things. I’ve done stupid things. Everybody’s done stupid things,” Walker said at the time.

When Walker spoke during the Republican National Convention for Trump in 2020, he talked about their “deep, personal friendship” and said, “I pray every night that God gives him more time.”

Although Trump has stayed away from Georgia lately, he and Walker went to the 2021 World Series together in Atlanta in October of 2021.

At Trump’s Georgia rally that fall, he called Walker “a legend” and predicted, “He will go down as one of the greatest senators in America.”

Walker returned the praise. “I want to be a leader like him when I get to that Senate seat to show everyone I love America,” Walker said.

In March of 2022, he was back on a Trump rally stage ahead of the GOP primary and called Trump “no doubt, the greatest president ever, ever to hold office.”

He held fundraisers at Mar-A-Lago and spoke “regularly” to Trump, his staff said.

Walker never debated his primary opponents and spoke mostly with Fox News and other friendly outlets. Still, he won the GOP primary with 69% support.

With Trump’s support and his own celebrity, Walker was literally unbeatable. But Republicans now openly worry that he may be the only Republican who couldn’t win the general election outright.

Walker has never tried to broaden his appeal during the general election contest against Warnock and it shows.

Many of the ideas in his stump speech seem lifted from Trump rallies of days gone by, including Walker’s promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, to deliver “peace through strength” overseas, and keep China from advancing its interests around the globe.

Walker also takes a Trump-esque approach to the mainstream press, with whom he engages sparingly, and has surrounded himself with Trump-aligned senators like Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz.

But being a Trump candidate in Georgia hasn’t been a winning formula lately. Along with the senators who lost in 2021, nearly every other Trump-backed GOP challenger was clobbered in May, most by more than 50 points. Gov. Brian Kemp has soared to new heights in the state, not despite his willingness to stand up to Trump, but because of it.

An AJC poll earlier this year found that only about 20% of registered Georgia voters said they’d be more likely to support a candidate endorsed by Trump, while 49% said they would be less likely to vote for someone with Trump’s blessing.

On Election Day, every statewide Republican except Walker won with more than 50%. Only Walker needed to go to a runoff.

Walker’s team has accurately made the calculation that campaigning in plain sight with Trump would only hurt Walker’s chances.

But there’s a profound dishonesty to keeping Trump out of the state when the entire situation was his idea in the first place. It’s also likely that Trump would be a significant voice Walker would listen to if he does win the race next Tuesday.

Asked this week why Trump isn’t planning to campaign for him in Georgia, Walker told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, “President Trump has always been in my corner, he still is my corner.”

Even if Trump stays away, that’s just geography. Herschel Walker has been Donald Trump’s candidate in Georgia from the beginning of the race until the end.

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