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Will Republicans Who Have Soured on Trump Turn Out for Herschel Walker?

UniqueThis 19 December 4, 2022

“We had a really good night here in Georgia,” the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, said recently, on CNN, referring to the 2022 midterms. “We won every statewide race, and then we’ve got an incumbent U.S. senator in a runoff.” That senator, the Democrat Raphael Warnock, received more votes than his opponent, Herschel Walker, but did not exceed the fifty-per-cent threshold required in Georgia to win elections outright. If Republicans had a good night, Walker was an exception: his vote total trailed that of every other Georgia Republican running for statewide office. He received some two hundred thousand fewer votes than Kemp, who defeated the Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams by eight points.

To explain this, many pundits pointed to Walker’s scandal-filled campaign, which was harried by questions about his alleged payment for abortions (which he denies), about children he had fathered and not mentioned publicly, about the actual extent of his charitable work, and about his supposed law-enforcement background, among other things. “If Walker had held office before, could give a coherent policy statement, didn’t have all the personal baggage that he had, then there’s a decent chance—given party polarization in voting—that he would have won along with the other Republicans,” Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, told me. “But his personal issues beset his campaign.” Now many Republicans are hoping that party polarization will come to his rescue. In Kemp’s appearance on CNN, he was asked by the anchor whether Walker shared his values. “Well, listen,” Kemp began, on his way to avoiding a direct answer. “When I’m talking about going to Washington, D.C., and fighting for what Georgians need, I’m talking about the border, forty-year-high inflation, astronomical gas prices since Joe Biden took office, and the agenda that Raphael Warnock has supported up there.” He added, “That’s why I’m voting for Herschel Walker.”

A few hours after that interview, I called up a conservative in northwest Georgia, who has worked to elect Republicans in that part of the state for decades, to ask how he was voting. He told me that he left his Senate vote blank in November, and he’s skipping the runoff. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” he said. Beyond his historically unwavering support of the Republican Party, he’s also a diehard fan of the University of Georgia football team, for which Walker was once a star. “I grew up worshipping Herschel Walker as a kid,” he said. He had travelled to New Orleans to see Walker compete, as a freshman, in the Sugar Bowl—Walker won the game’s M.V.P. award, and the University of Georgia was named the national champion. The conservative got Walker’s autograph while he was there, and still has it. He still has U.G.A. season tickets, too. “So that’s where I come from,” he said. “My heart wanted one thing and my head the other.”

Among the things that gave him pause about Walker, he said, were the nonsensical comments that the candidate had made on the campaign trail—several of which are currently featured in Warnock’s TV ads. In one, we see a clip of Walker speaking in front of a crowd in McDonough, Georgia, on November 16th. “Vampires are some cool people,” he says. “A werewolf can kill a vampire—did you know that? I never knew that. So I didn’t want to be a vampire anymore. I wanted to be a werewolf.” Warnock has also cut ads featuring Republicans who, like the northwest Georgia conservative, voted for Kemp but not Walker. “I was proud to support Brian Kemp,” a middle-aged white woman says, in one of the ads. “The more I heard about Herschel Walker, I became concerned about his honesty, his hypocrisy, but also just his ability to lead.”

Other Republicans are less conflicted. Mickey Tuck, who works in facilities management, in Rome, also in the northwest part of the state, calls himself a “hardcore conservative.” He voted for Donald Trump twice, but couldn’t bring himself to vote for Marjorie Taylor Greene, his district’s congresswoman, because he doesn’t trust her. (He didn’t vote for the Democrat, either.) Still, he voted for Walker—although not in the primary, because he thought one of the other candidates would have a better shot in the general election, given the fact that Walker’s past had “skeletons in it.” He added, “Me being a Christian, I’m a person that believes in redemption and forgiveness. We all have things in our pasts.” He happily voted for Walker, early, in the runoff. “Between their border policy and economic policies,” Tuck said, referring to the Democrats, “it was a no-brainer for me.”

Like Tuck, the northwest Georgia conservative I spoke to had voted for Trump twice. He also blamed Trump for Walker’s nomination. “I think Trump forced this on Georgia, and I think it’s backfiring,” he told me. The Party, he added, had to find more candidates like Kemp, whose campaign, he said, “attracted the suburban independents we need.” He fears that turnout on the Republican side won’t be strong. Tuck and others assured me that they’ve seen unusually long lines in the deeply red Fourteenth District, but, so far, turnout in that district’s Floyd County, where Rome is situated, is below the numbers elsewhere in the state. This election has broken state records for early voting in a runoff election—and those numbers are, unsurprisingly, highest in counties with a lot of Democrats, who tend, these days, to vote early in higher numbers than Republicans do. The Democrats also have a money advantage: about two-thirds of nearly eighty million dollars spent on TV ads have been in support of Warnock. Tuck told me that he hadn’t heard “any Republicans say they aren’t voting for Herschel. But some independent voters I’ve talked to—especially females—the Democrat ads have affected their votes. Some of them, they said they couldn’t vote for Herschel.”

Gillespie, at Emory, studies Black participation in the political process, and she noted that early turnout among Black voters has been particularly high. “But,” she added, “Warnock needs a multiracial coalition. He’s still going to need liberal whites to vote for him, too.” One suspects that Warnock’s campaign had this in mind when it organized a recent event in Atlanta with the singer-songwriter Dave Matthews. Warnock also brought along Alvin the beagle, a dog who has starred in ads that seem targeted at liberal and moderate white voters. “Not sure who got a bigger applause—Warnock or Alvin the Beagle, who got a loud ovation when he was introduced before the Dave Matthews concert,” Greg Bluestein, a longtime political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, tweeted.

The Walker campaign, meanwhile, is heading into the final stretch in attack mode: one of its most used slogans is “Evict Warnock,” a reference to a mini-scandal involving a for-profit apartment complex connected to Warnock’s church that evicted some residents two years ago. (The company that filed the eviction actions has said that Warnock and his church were not involved.) But a Walker-campaign e-mail blast to members of the media, a few days ago, seemed to suggest a diminished sense of confidence. “Herschel Walker to host election night party,” it read. A month earlier, before the general, the same invitation had been to a “victory celebration.”

Regardless of the outcome, the Democrats will have narrow control of the upper house of the United States Congress. “If the Senate were in play, it’d be a totally different ballgame,” the conservative in northwest Georgia told me. “I think a lot of people’s consciences will allow them to, like me, stay home.” He sees an upside to a Walker loss. “Maybe it’s the nail in Trump’s coffin,” he said. “He’s clearly sinking nationally in the Republican Party, and there are viable alternatives to him.” Like who? He named a trio of current and past Southern governors, in order of his preference: Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, and Florida’s Ron DeSantis. “That’s the bright side for those of us who think Trump is bringing the Party down,” he said. “Maybe Herschel Walker will finally do it.” ♦