Trump’s 2024 run could complicate Walker’s Senate runoff bid

Donald Trump’s third campaign for the White House shifts attention from Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker’s runoff bid in Georgia at a time when Republicans aim to make the race a referendum on President Joe Biden.

The former president’s decision to wage a comeback came despite appeals from Republicans in Georgia and beyond urging him to wait until after the Dec. 6 runoff against U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock to avoid energizing Democrats who set turnout records in 2020 to oust Trump.

And it sharpened an ongoing divide in Georgia that deepened after the former president tried — and failed — to defeat Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Attorney General Chris Carr and Insurance Commissioner John King.

The four candidates each brushed aside Trump-backed challengers in May’s primary and handily defeated Democratic opponents in the November election. Key state Republicans frame their victories as evidence that Georgians are ready to move on from the former president.

But Walker and other Republicans remain stalwart allies of Trump — and determined to energize his “Make America Great Again” base after a midterm campaign that failed to match soaring turnout expectations in Georgia or meet the national projections of a “red wave.”

Nowhere was the GOP split more evident in Georgia than the eve of last week’s vote, when Kemp and Walker held separate events a short hop from each other with divergent messages. While Kemp focused on the economy, Walker leaned into culture war issues.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Though Walker hasn’t centered his message on Trump, who endorsed him before he entered the race, he also hasn’t flinched from questions about his allegiance to the former president. Without hesitating, Walker said during his October debate that “my friend” Trump should run again.

Trump returned the favor as he announced his new campaign on Tuesday, saying the former football player “deserves“ a Senate seat. He added: “He was an incredible athlete, he will be an even better senator.”

Even as Trump launches a new campaign, there’s evidence that Georgia Republicans are less enamored of him. An October Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed 52% of likely Georgia voters disapprove of Trump, including 15% of Republicans and 80% of independents.

In the AJC’s September poll, 57% of Republican voters described themselves as more aligned with the Republican Party, compared with 38% who said they were more supporters of Trump.

Top Republicans who long held their tongues are newly emboldened after weathering attacks from Trump and others fixated on his election fraud lies that triggered death threats.

Shortly after Kemp defeated Stacey Abrams to win a second term, he took a swipe at Trump for the first time, knocking the former president for criticizing his decision to lift economic restrictions in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

‘Not much time’

Trump’s decision also adds uncertainty for Democrats, who want to frame the race as a contrast between Warnock and Walker rather than a fight over national issues. They hope Warnock’s “remain the reverend” above-the-fray approach pays dividends.

State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a Smyrna Democrat, said Trump’s comeback is a can’t-miss reminder to left-leaning voters of the importance of the “continued stability” of Warnock and fellow Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff.

“If we are in store for two years of Trump’s mercurial and destabilizing political presence, it’s more important than ever that Georgia has stability in our Senate delegation,” she said.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

As for Warnock, he said Tuesday that Trump “is well practiced in the politics of division — and my opponent is his acolyte.” And on Thursday, he released a 30-second ad that featured Trump’s endorsement of his Republican rival. The spot ended with these words: “Stop Donald Trump. Stop Herschel Walker.”

Trump’s announcement is the second development in days to alter the contours of the runoff.

Over the weekend, Democratic incumbents in Arizona and Nevada clinched their races, sealing the party’s control of the Senate. Taken together, they could complicate Walker’s attempt to frame the race as a litmus test on Biden and his low approval ratings in Georgia.

“It’s best for the 2024 cycle to begin after the 2022 cycle, which isn’t over until Georgia says it is,” said Brian Robinson, a GOP strategist. “The Republicans’ best chance is to keep this a referendum on Joe Biden’s record — a message that Herschel has stuck to with discipline.”

It’s not immediately clear whether Trump would hold a rally in Georgia — or whether Walker’s campaign advisers want him to do so. Republicans persuaded Trump to steer clear of Georgia ahead of the midterm, wielding polls that showed he could do more harm than good.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the former football player has also distinguished himself from Trump on the campaign trail.

Credit: Rebecca Blackwell

Credit: Rebecca Blackwell

“The race is about Herschel. We all anticipated that President Trump would announce at some point,” Scott said in an interview. “We all believed he was going to run. But I think this race is about who you want to represent Georgia.”

Some of Walker’s backers are wary of Trump’s return to the campaign trail. Fran Morgan is a dedicated Republican voter who was among hundreds who attended Walker’s weekend rally in Peachtree City. But she’d rather see Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mount a White House run.

And she said she believes another Republican would more effectively woo skeptical voters to Walker’s camp.

“If Gov. Kemp helps Walker out, those swing voters will come back,” Morgan said. “Kemp is an effective spokesman because he’s well-liked. And there’s not much time left.”