Why Kemp-Warnock voters will be decisive in Georgia runoff

Voters who split their tickets on Nov. 8 to cast ballots for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock helped deny GOP Senate  hopeful Herschel Walker about 200,000 votes. AJC file photos.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Voters who split their tickets on Nov. 8 to cast ballots for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock helped deny GOP Senate hopeful Herschel Walker about 200,000 votes. AJC file photos.

Ed Cordell considers himself a moderate Republican with a Libertarian bent. In the November midterm, he voted for Gov. Brian Kemp but couldn’t bring himself to back GOP U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker. As the Dec. 6 runoff nears, though, he has a different mindset.

“I will go to the polls, hold my nose and vote for Walker,” Cordell said.

Josh Dukelow split his ticket between Kemp and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock two weeks ago. He’s staying the course, especially now that Democrats have already clinched control of the Senate, depriving Walker of the case that a vote for him is a vote for a GOP majority in the chamber.

“I want elected leaders who will get things done, not strut and squawk to the delight of their base voters,” he said. “The stakes are too high for that.”

The two are among roughly 200,000 voters who backed Kemp in the November midterm but wouldn’t support Walker. Those split decisions were the single biggest reason the Senate race landed in a runoff while Republicans notched solid victories in every other statewide race.

Now one of the defining questions of the runoff is whether these voters will vouch for Warnock again, reluctantly vote for Walker — or avoid the post-Thanksgiving race altogether.

In the Nov. 8 midterms, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker was unable to draw votes from roughly 200,000 voters who had backed GOP Gov. Brian Kemp in his reelection bid. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

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Credit: Daniel Varnado

The answer will determine whether Warnock’s party gains a crucial one-vote cushion in the Senate, where the split is currently 50-49 in favor of Democrats, or whether Republicans enter the year on the cusp of a majority.

“Clearly, these are swing voters who are willing to ticket-split, but as we saw with the Donald Trump voters in 2020, how enthusiastically is this group for Warnock or opposed to Walker?” said Nathan Price, a University of North Georgia political scientist.

“If they are unenthusiastic,” Price said, “do they take the time to fit another visit to the polls in during the next few weeks — already a busy time of year for many people?”

‘Row the boat’

Normally, runoff elections are focused on turning out the base rather than appealing to swing voters.

But the rare split-ticket dynamic in Georgia, fueled by voter concerns about Walker’s history of violent behavior and other personal baggage, has led to a more innovative approach.

On the campaign trail, Warnock has continued to emphasize his bipartisan record by promoting his work on modest proposals with GOP lawmakers such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

And Warnock’s campaign this week launched a statewide ad featuring Lynn Whittenburg, a North Georgia voter who said in the 30-second spot that she’s voted Republican for most of her life and was “proud” to back Kemp.

“The more I heard about Herschel Walker, I became concerned about his honesty, his hypocrisy, but also just his ability to lead,” she said in the ad. “I just can’t get past Herschel Walker’s lack of character.”

Republicans are trying to focus Georgia's runoff campaign for the U.S. Senate on the connection between incumbent Raphael Warnock, left, and Democratic President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings in the state are low. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

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Credit: TNS

Walker also hasn’t veered far from his strategy, which involves hammering Warnock on his ties to President Joe Biden and revving up conservative voters by bringing up transgender policies, crackdowns on illegal immigration and culture war issues. His campaign calls it the “last fight of ‘22.”

But he also will spotlight a powerful weapon intended to blunt the split-ticket trend: a full-throated endorsement from Kemp, who plans to join him on the campaign trail.

The governor and Walker have run sharply separate campaigns throughout the election cycle, even holding dueling events on the eve of the election a few miles away from each other in Cobb County.

But after his victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams, Kemp pledged his get-out-the-vote machine to a super PAC aligned with U.S. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and said he would “do what they want us to do” to help Walker cross the finish line.

And Walker has added remarks to his stump speech that promise to “row the boat with the governor,” who is now arguably the most popular GOP figure in the state.

‘Rubber stamp’

Republicans hope Kemp can help Walker in areas where the drop-off in votes between the two GOP candidates was particularly sharp: the vote-rich Atlanta suburbs and a ribbon of counties along the state line with Tennessee.

In eight of Georgia’s 159 counties, Walker ran at least 6 percentage points behind Kemp. And in 47 others, his totals were 4 points to 6 points lower than Kemp’s tally. If Walker had matched Kemp’s vote total just in Fulton County, he would have won the election.

Avery Chappell is among the split-ticket voters who aren’t surprised by Walker’s struggles. Like many others who swung across party lines, Chappell was critical of the former president’s intervention, saying just because Walker is “hand-picked by Trump and played football does not give him a rubber stamp for my vote.”

Now, though, he’s struggling to find the motivation to return to the polls.

“I was excited to go the first time for Kemp and other down ballot races, but this race just is not exciting for the type of Republican I am,” he said. “If I go at all then I will cast my vote to make sure that Hershel Walker remains a football legend and nothing more.”

Others brought up Walker’s violent history and allegations that he pressured two ex-girlfriends into getting abortions. The Republican, who has denied the accusations, has called for a total ban on abortions even in cases of rape or incest, although he has said recently he supports federal legislation and a state law that would allow them in the early weeks of pregnancy.

For Bruce Morris, a 64-year-old split-ticket voter, Warnock represented a “man of character” while Walker “makes me shake my head every time he opens his mouth.”

“My hope now is that Sen. Warnock succeeds in the runoff and Herschel goes back to whatever he was doing before being persuaded to run for office,” Morris said.

While many of the two dozen swing voters interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicated they were sticking with Warnock, some are still up for grabs.

Cordell said he cast his ballot for Kemp in part because he stood up to “Trump’s attempt to bully the state” into overturning the election. He considered backing Walker in the midterm, but he “didn’t want to vote for a candidate that I wouldn’t trust in my home.”

Now, however, Cordell is swallowing his concerns about Walker. So what changed? To him, conservative measures are still paramount — and he sees Walker as a reliable vote for them.

“In the Senate,” Cordell said, “he will vote for what the party leadership puts in front of him — just like most of the other politicians.”