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Why Herschel Walker might be the most embarrassing 2022 loss for Trump

Georgia GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker arrives to give his concession speech at the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday night. (Audra Melton for The Washington Post)

The fact that Georgia holds runoff elections turned out to be rather cruel for Herschel Walker.

Not only had he underperformed every other statewide Republican candidate in Georgia in the November general election — all but Walker won with relative ease — he then faced four weeks of increased national media glare that only reinforced the severe shortcomings of his candidacy. And he ultimately lost by an even larger margin the second time around.

Indeed, even in a cycle full of Trump-backed GOP candidates who clearly cost their party votes (and probably important seats), Walker stood out.

As things stand, the former football star trails Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) by nearly three points (up from a one-point deficit on Election Day). That’s in stark contrast to the eight other statewide Georgia Republicans candidates who all won last month. Each won by at least five points, and their average margin of victory was more than seven points.

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Georgia Senate runoff
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Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) has officially defeated Republican challenger Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate runoff, giving Democrats a 51-49 majority in the Senate. Read our takeaways from the runoff election.

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So it was a very good election for Georgia Republicans — just not for Herschel Walker.

The reasons for his growing margin of defeat are pretty evident. Walker benefited on Election Day from being on the same ballot as those other Republicans, especially Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who turned out enough Republicans who were willing to check the box for Walker to keep it close.

How voter turnout impacted Georgia Senate runoff results, Warnock's win

But when they weren’t on the ballot, Walker suffered — particularly among conservatives in the Atlanta area. Of the 15 counties where Walker’s raw number of votes dropped the most between Nov. 8 and Tuesday, 12 of them were either Atlanta-based counties or in the Atlanta suburbs and exurbs.

It’s no coincidence that this is the part of the state where Walker most underperformed Kemp on Election Day. Georgians were reluctant to vote for both; then they were reluctant to turn out for Walker when it was only him on the ballot. And he bled those votes.

In the end, the 10 points between Walker’s margin and those of fellow Georgia Republicans like Kemp was perhaps the most pronounced gap between a Trump-backed candidate’s performance and their ticket-mates. GOP Senate candidates in Arizona and Nevada and gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin all underperformed their fellow statewide Republican candidates — but none by as much as Walker.

While at a Marietta, Ga., diner on Dec. 6, Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker did not answer questions about whether he would concede if defeated. (Video: Reuters)

Some states did feature bigger gaps. But none of them had slates that could serve as such a robust measuring stick against which to judge the flawed candidate and more standard-issue Republicans.

Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance underperformed the eight other Republicans on the statewide ballot by more than 11 points. But he still won relatively easily, because Ohio was a GOP rout led by Gov. Mike DeWine’s (R) 26-point win.

New Hampshire Senate candidate Don Bolduc lagged Gov. Chris Sununu’s (R) margin by the largest amount: nearly 25 points. But Sununu isn’t exactly a generic Republican — he’s highly popular in New Hampshire — and there were no other statewide contests on the ballot to measure against.

The GOP did sweep 4 of 5 state executive council seats in New Hampshire, but it lost the state’s two congressional districts by an average of 10 points — very similar to Bolduc’s nine-point loss. So it was a very mixed bag, even as Bolduc clearly struggled.

There is a credible argument to be made that Walker wasn’t the worst candidate, or the most costly one, imposed by Trump on his party.

Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters and Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon didn’t underperform their fellow Republicans by as much, for example. But that owes in large part to the fact that their state GOPs nominated slates full of other similarly flawed, Trump-backed candidates. And both Dixon and Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano managed to lose by double digits in swing states — compared to Walker’s apparent three-point loss in his swing state — which is quite the feat.

That’s also kind of the point: Georgia provided perhaps the most telling juxtaposition between a flawed, Trump-backed candidate and a bunch of more generic, establishment-oriented Republicans. Many of those Republicans, like Kemp, defeated Trump-backed primary challengers with ease earlier this year. And Georgia now shows, in stark relief, the electoral wisdom of nominating that kind of candidate, rather than political novices whom Trump happens to like personally.

Georgia was happy to vote for Republicans this year. That just didn’t extend to Walker. And given Walker’s demonstrated failure to turn out Kemp voters and his relatively small margin of defeat, he provides perhaps the most compelling case of the 2022 election that Trump cost Republicans a seat.

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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