‘We cannot rest on our laurels’: Kemp aims to boost Walker in Senate runoff

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer/AJC

Governor campaigns for the first time with Republican U.S. Senate hopeful

Gov. Brian Kemp on Saturday campaigned for the first time with Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, the most significant effort yet to persuade voters who backed both the governor and Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock to return to the GOP fold for the runoff.

“We cannot rest on our laurels here, everyone,” Kemp said to a crowd of hundreds outside a Smyrna gun store that plays hosts to many GOP rallies. “We have got more wood to chop.”

Those split-ticket voters the governor is targeting played the most decisive role in this month’s election, and they could also determine the Dec. 6 runoff in the last U.S. Senate battle of the 2022 election cycle — and a final chance for Republicans to pick up a coveted seat after an underwhelming midterm.

About 200,000 Georgians voted for Kemp but not Walker, whose campaign has been plagued by controversy. While Kemp and other statewide Republicans easily prevailed, Walker trailed Warnock by 35,000 votes. A four-week runoff was required when neither won a majority of the vote.

Now both candidates are taking steps to woo those swing voters. Warnock launched TV ads that highlight a Republican who said she was “proud” to back both Kemp and Warnock. And Democrats held a nearby event Saturday featuring other wavering Republicans.

ExploreWhy Kemp-Warnock voters will be decisive in Georgia runoff

“Our governor and Sen. Warnock are good men who I can trust to represent Georgia and lead our state well. But I can’t say the same about Herschel Walker,” said Heidi Moriarty of Atlanta. “His well-documented pattern of lies and disturbing behavior make it clear that he’s wrong for our state.“

Republicans hope Kemp is a powerful closing messenger for Walker now that he can no longer make a case that Senate control is on the line, depriving the GOP of one of its most potent arguments to skeptical voters.

With victories in Arizona and Nevada last weekend, Democrats have already clinched 50 seats in the Senate. Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote guarantees them a majority.

”Kemp won in a big way and he’s got momentum now,” said Jackie Kidd, who was among the large crowd gathered in the parking lot of Adventure Outdoors. “Now it’s just about getting people back to vote in Christmas season. And Kemp might be the most popular Republican in Georgia.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The tag-team rally comes as Republicans fret about recent bizarre statements from Walker, including a rant about vampires that he inserted into his stump speech and his allegation that Warnock didn’t “keep” his children — leading to a sharp comeback from the Democrat.

Kemp steered the conversation back to the issue that helped him win his November rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams: an effort to cast the GOP as the party working to blunt the effect of decades-high inflation on President Joe Biden’s watch.

“He will go fight for those values that we believe in here in our state. And that’s why it’s time to retire Raphael Warnock,“ Kemp said, adding: “I know that Herschel Walker will do like we’ve done in Georgia and be fiscally conservative and cut runaway spending.”

ExploreFrom boos to a blowout: How Brian Kemp beat Stacey Abrams again

Walker, who until recently avoided mention of Kemp on the campaign trail, framed himself as a faithful political partner to the governor at Saturday’s rally.

“We need someone in Washington that’s going to row the boat with Gov. Kemp. And we’ve got to row in the same direction,” said Walker, pivoting to an attack on his Democratic opponent. “What he’s been doing is rowing against Gov. Kemp, so that’s the reason why on the federal level we’re not getting anything done.”

Speaking to canvassers in Sandy Springs, Warnock shrugged off the Kemp rally and talked of his work across party lines — and his rival’s appearances with polarizing GOP figures such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

”My opponent seems to be leaning in on the politics of division, which is why he has spent so much time campaigning with some of the most divisive members of Congress,” he said.

”I would like to fashion my tenure and my work in the order of two men that I admire greatly. One is John Lewis and the other is Johnny Isakson, and you never had any doubt about the depth of their commitment to the work and their love for Georgia. That’s the type of senator that I intend to be.”

There’s a strategic reason Republicans picked Atlanta’s suburbs for the rally, as Walker lagged far behind Kemp’s vote totals in the bedroom communities circling the city.

If the Republican had matched Kemp’s votes in Fulton County alone, he would have won the race outright. In Cobb County, Kemp trailed Abrams by 5 percentage points. Walker, by contrast, was walloped by Warnock in Cobb by 17 points.

Kemp had been reluctant to join the campaign trail with Walker through the November midterm, intent on focusing on his rematch against Abrams — and avoiding the controversies that dogged the former football star’s campaign.

They include Walker’s history of violence against his ex-wife and other women, a false claim that he worked in law enforcement, exaggerated boasts about his business record and allegations by two former girlfriends that he pressured them to get abortions despite his calls for a total ban on the procedure.

Kemp routinely described his arm’s-length approach not as an effort to distance himself from Walker but as a focus on the “entire Republican ticket” through his campaign’s get-out-the-vote machine.

Walker appeared to want little to do with Kemp, too. He confided he was “mad” that Kemp and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue had fought in a vicious primary battle, and he wouldn’t say which candidate he backed in that May vote.

Kemp and Walker planned dueling events through the campaign season. The eve of the midterm vote, they had separate rallies just a few miles apart in Kennesaw and delivered sharply different closing messages: Kemp focused on the economy, Walker on culture war divides.

But Kemp’s victory over Abrams — he easily cleared his rival by winning 53% of the vote — changed the dynamic.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The governor said he would “do what they want us to do” to help Walker, and he directed the vast grassroots network he built for his reelection campaign to boost the Senate hopeful. Walker’s aides welcomed the help.

“The governor is leading this party behind one common goal: beating Raphael Warnock,” Walker campaign manager Scott Paradise said.

“We’ve got just over two weeks to make it happen,” Paradise said, “and his support — along with the rest of the GOP ticket — has been invaluable.”

— Staff writer Anjali Huynh contributed to this article.