The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Walker’s loss in Ga. spurs new GOP hand-wringing, calls for new strategy

Supporters of Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) attend an election night party after polls closed for the midterm runoff election between Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, in Atlanta on Tuesday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Herschel Walker’s loss in a pivotal Georgia Senate race Tuesday has renewed Republican calls to break with former president Donald Trump and rethink the party’s strategy ahead of 2024, as lawmakers and operatives reckoned with the final blow in a profoundly disappointing midterm cycle.

The recriminations were swift as Republicans began the autopsy of Walker’s race on Wednesday, sparring over who and what cost them the seat. Many blamed Trump for urging Walker, a former football star with no political experience and a slew of allegations about his personal life, to run for the Senate against Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, betting on his celebrity in a high-stakes midterm election in which Republicans needed to net just one seat to take the majority.

Republican operatives raised concerns about spending deficits, on-the-ground strategy and the party’s ability to appeal beyond its base. But the hand-wringing repeatedly came back to their candidate, one of many inexperienced and polarizing nominees who lost battleground races this year.

Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker on Dec. 6 said his campaign was the “best thing” he had done after losing to Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.). (Video: The Washington Post)

Brian Robinson, a GOP operative in Georgia, said that despite all the hurdles, Walker “almost pulled this off,” noting that he still captured more than 48 percent of the vote. But to earn those extra few percentage points to win in Georgia, Republicans need candidates who can persuade whom he called “comparison shoppers,” not “tribal voters.” Other Republicans who won across the state on Nov. 8 ran as “steadyhanded, levelheaded, competent, no-fireworks leaders,” he said.

Walker’s campaign staff grew gloomy in the final stretch, according to a staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. The candidate’s five-day absence from the campaign trail around Thanksgiving — for personal events and rest, the person said — didn’t help.

“It felt like we had, you know, we had no air in our tires anymore after that,” the staffer said. “Morale was rock bottom.”

Walker’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“We put out one heck of a fight,” Walker said in his Tuesday night concession speech. He came in 2.8 percentage points behind Warnock, struggling in urban areas and suburbs and performing worse than he did in November, when neither candidate got the 50 percent required in Georgia to avert a runoff.

Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff election against Republican challenger Herschel Walker. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Walker was the only statewide Republican candidate who lost this year in Georgia. The GOP had hoped that Democrats’ success in the Peach State in 2020 marked a bad year rather than a new norm — and many operatives of both parties still call Georgia a red-leaning state.

The GOP did not immediately unify behind Walker, even after he easily won the nomination this spring. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) campaigned apart from him for most of the general election cycle, and some Republicans were openly critical of Walker’s qualifications and doubted his electability. And even as Kemp became Walker’s most valuable surrogate during the runoff, GOP divisions hung over the race.

Walker’s campaign openly criticized some Republican fundraising appeals for the candidate that routed most of the money to other Republicans. Meanwhile, allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who unsuccessfully challenged McConnell last month to lead the GOP caucus, sparred publicly during the runoff, highlighting the tensions between different factions of the party.

The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund — the GOP’s biggest spender in the midterms — and its affiliated groups invested $18 million during the runoff, on top of the $39 million the SLF spent leading up to the Nov. 8 election, according to the organization. But outside spending was not enough for Walker to catch up to Warnock, who broke fundraising records this cycle. Democrats widened their spending advantage during the runoff, shelling out twice as much as Republicans on ads alone.

SLF President Steven Law “was dealt a bad hand with Trump, a weak NRSC and a lack of enthusiasm for subpar candidates” this election cycle, said GOP strategist Scott Reed.

A spokesman for the SLF declined to comment, while a spokesman for the NRSC did not respond to an inquiry Wednesday. The NRSC spent more than half a million dollars in the runoff, according to AdImpact, and has defended its overall midterm strategy.

“While Herschel came up short last night, I know he will continue to be a leader in our party for years to come,” Scott, who campaigned in Georgia with the candidate during the general election and the runoff, said in a statement Wednesday.

Walker’s campaign was dogged by repeated accusations of past misconduct: Former partners of Walker’s accused him of domestic violence and said that he was a largely absent father and that he paid for their abortions despite embracing strict bans on the procedure as a candidate. Walker denied many of the claims while saying he did not remember certain incidents.

Democrats also worked to highlight Walker’s gaffes on the trail, cutting ads that consisted of voters reacting to sound bites with laughter and disbelief. The Warnock campaign has been credited with building a coalition that encouraged the Democrats’ liberal base but also appealed to moderates and independents.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) — whose retirement this year opened up a seat in a key battleground that Democrats flipped — argued that the problem is not the Republican brand, but Trump’s. In an interview, he echoed other Republicans who noted that candidates closely aligned with Trump underperformed in the midterms while “more conventional Republicans” — including those who clashed with Trump — did well.

“We had a flawed candidate — that’s to put it mildly — and [that’s ] completely the creation of Donald Trump. And we see how that ended,” Toomey said.

In an interview Wednesday, the Walker campaign staffer said Trump’s decision to announce a third White House bid during the runoff period — against many Republicans’ urgings — complicated the campaign’s final stretch and took some of the focus away from Georgia.

“The need to answer for everything that Trump did or said was frustrating,” the staffer said, pointing to Trump’s widely condemned dinner with the rapper Ye and white supremacist Nick Fuentes, who have both made blatantly antisemitic comments. Walker’s campaign did not comment on a show of support from Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, earlier in the fall. Trump and Walker’s team’s ultimately settled on a tele-rally ahead of the runoff, which Walker did not advertise on his social media.

The Walker staffer also lamented what they called a constant battle for Walker’s ear between experienced campaign operatives and those close to Walker who had no political experience.

GOP donors have expressed dismay at the midterms’ results and called for a shift in strategy. Some frustrated donors are talking about setting up their own super PACs, according to a person familiar with their thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Even before Walker’s loss, some Republicans were lamenting that their party had developed an early-voting problem — with many GOP voters holding on to their ballots until the last day, when weather and other unforeseen factors could affect turnout, while Democrats went all-out to get ballots in early.

Seth Weathers, a Georgia state director for Trump’s 2016 campaign — who was openly critical of Walker and said better candidates would have won outright in November — argued that Republicans have lots of work ahead to match Democrats’ formidable on-the-ground turnout infrastructure.

“We’ve got to start building and facilitating the ground game for 2024 … to a much greater degree than we are,” he said last week.

Adding to that challenge, Republicans said, are the extra resources required to mobilize voters in the rural areas that came out for Walker. “The Warnock campaign can just focus on metro Atlanta just about and get it done,” lamented Fulton County Republican Party Chairman Trey Kelly. “Our people have to go around the whole state to get people out.”

The Republican National Committee said it had 400 staffers and more than 85,000 volunteers on the ground in Georgia working on turnout; the SLF also invested about $2 million to repurpose Kemp’s get-out-the-vote operation.

Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters dismissed accusations that Trump was responsible for Republican losses. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) responded to a tweet by former national security adviser John Bolton calling Trump “a huge liability and the Democrat’sbest asset.”

“This has to be the dumbest assessment of our Senate loss, His campaign told Trump to stay out, so don’t blame Trump. Blame the one who was hand holding him all over the state, among many other reasons,” Greene said. It’s unclear whether she was referring to one person or the GOP party establishment.

Others in the GOP suggested Georgia would accelerate the party’s shift away from the former president. Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) won reelection this fall after easily defeating Trump-backed challengers in the primary. Republicans pointed to Kemp in particular, who defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by more than 7 percentage points, as evidence that voters outside their base are still receptive to Republican policies and messaging but have soured on Trump as the standard-bearer.

Scott Jennings, a longtime Republican operative associated with McConnell, summed it up in a tweet Wednesday morning: “Georgia may be remembered as the state that broke Trump once and for all.”

Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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