Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker has a Kemp problem: Gov. Brian Kemp, a fellow Republican who rolled to a big victory in Tuesday’s midterms, won’t be on the ballot in next month’s Senate runoff election.
That’s a big issue for Walker, who should have been helped by Kemp’s presence on the ballot on Tuesday.
Kemp easily topped the 50 percent threshold in his reelection effort against Stacey Abrams, while Walker finished a little more than 48,000 votes behind Sen. Raphael Warnock (D), with neither getting above 50 percent.
Kemp outran Walker by 210,000 votes, putting the GOP Senate candidate behind the eight ball heading into the runoff.
“Given the events of this week, he starts as an underdog,” said one GOP operative involved in the midterms, who listed Kemp’s absence as a big problem for Walker.
While Kemp is not on the ticket, he is by no means sitting the race out.
Last week, the governor loaned his formidable political apparatus to the Senate Leadership Fund, a group run by allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Under the deal struck between the two sides, the governor will temporarily hand over his door-knocking, data analytics, phone-banking and microtargeting program to the McConnell group, which will bankroll the operation at a cost north of $2 million.
“Governor Kemp wrote the playbook for how to win big in Georgia, and we are thrilled to partner with his top-notch team to elect Herschel Walker to the Senate,” Steven Law, the Senate Leadership Fund’s president, said in a statement.
Kemp launched the operation following the 2020 election in part because he believed some of the loyalties at the state party sided with former Sen. David Perdue (R), who Kemp eventually handily defeated in a primary battle.
For years, runoffs — which are common in the South — had tended to give the upper hand to Republicans in Georgia.
But that changed in 2020, when Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D) defeated former Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R) and Perdue, respectively. Both Warnock and Ossoff were buoyed by Abrams’s turnout operation.
Heading into the runoff, Republicans are preaching relentlessly that this race is about turnout more than anything.
“Runoffs are all about ruthless and effective targeting and then turning out your voters,” said Chuck Clay, a former GOP state senator in Georgia. “Republicans always had an advantage in runoffs, but Ossoff and Warnock turned the tables. … I don’t know that that’s changed the rules.”
The big issue facing Walker, according to Clay, is turning out the base once again in rural counties and attempting to cut into the vote tallies in suburban Atlanta that gave the incumbent Democrat the advantage on Tuesday.
“It’s more about the machinery than it is about the issues,” Clay said. “Getting your universe right. That’s the key.”
A second national GOP operative said the Republican’s biggest challenge will be winning over suburbanites.
In garnering 210,000 fewer votes than Kemp, Walker clearly lost some suburban voters who voted for a Republican governor but a Democratic senator in Warnock.
A Walker spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Kemp’s impact.
Another question looming in the race is whether Trump or other high-wattage Republicans will appear on the trail for Walker in the coming weeks.
The former president is expected to announce a third bid for the presidency on Tuesday, which some think could hurt Walker’s chances.
“I don’t know,” Clay said when asked if Trump would be helpful to Walker at this stage. “Georgia’s been the outlier going back to the primary. Trump did everything he could to take out Brian Kemp and Perdue got annihilated.”
“I don’t want to say amongst GOP faithful that he can’t be effective,” Clay continued. “I’d find that universe very much galvanized by the former president, I’d target them a bit under the radar.”
Clay added that he wasn’t sure whether an appearance by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) would be beneficial at this stage for Walker.
Trump has launched a series of verbal attacks on DeSantis, who has not responded in kind. It’s possible a DeSantis appearance could anger Trump voters who Walker needs to turn out.