While the ex-president won the Peach State six years ago en route to the White House, it’s been a disastrous playing field for him ever since, rejecting his first reelection bid and his midterm revenge candidates. His former aides and allies, meanwhile, are being called before a special grand jury in the state investigating his efforts to overthrow President Joe Biden’s win there in 2020.
On Tuesday, Trump’s run of Georgia futility could continue unless Heisman Trophy-winning ex-Georgia running back Herschel Walker can drag the MAGA banner over the line.
The Georgia Senate runoff represents Trump’s final opportunity to recast a painful midterm season in which his election-denying candidates flopped in swing states, casting a shadow over his nascent 2024 presidential bid. A Walker win would be a rare victory for one of Trump’s recruits and potentially energize his lackluster campaign, while helping Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell limit Democratic power in Washington.
But a Walker loss would add to frustration in the GOP over Trump’s political meddling, after his obsession with false voter fraud claims was widely blamed for costing the party control of the Senate in a pair of Georgia runoffs in 2021.
The ex-president’s record in Georgia is so poor that he wasn’t wanted in the state as Walker has tried to topple Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in recent weeks. Most galling for Trump, his hand-picked candidate spent his time cozying up to newly reelected Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who far outpaced Walker’s vote totals in November. Kemp defeated a Trump-backed primary challenger earlier this year, defying the former president’s attempt to avenge his refusal to overturn Biden’s narrow in win in the state in 2020.
While he was persona non grata during the Senate runoff, Trump did call into a Georgia tele-rally on Monday night – only when it was probable that he could do no damage given that nearly 2 million Georgians voted early.
“A vote for Raphael Warnock is a vote to give Chuck Schumer and the unhinged far-left Democrats total control of the United States Senate. We can’t let this happen,” Trump said in the short appearance.
But if Walker loses on Tuesday, Trump’s poor record in many of the midterm election races that matter in 2022 will be complete and there will be a strong case that after embracing weak candidates in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, he once again cost the Republican Party control of the Senate.
Walker, for example, has denied several reports that he pressured or encouraged women into having abortions despite previously saying on the campaign trail that he supported a ban on the procedure with no exceptions. CNN’s KFile raised new doubts about Walker’s residency when it revealed he’s getting a tax break intended only for a primary residence this year on his home in the Dallas, Texas, area. KFile also reported that Walker described himself as living in Texas during a speech during the 2022 campaign. And Walker’s bizarre comments – like a recent discourse on whether it was better to be a werewolf or a vampire – raised questions about his fitness for office.
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, another GOP politician in the state who stood up to Trump, described Walker last week to CNN’s Erin Burnett as “probably the worst Republican candidate in the history of politics.”
But Trump really needs Walker to come through on Tuesday.
The ex-president’s recent lack of success – alongside his increasingly extreme rhetoric and associations, including with antisemites – is one reason why some Republicans and top donors say it’s now time to turn to a new presidential prospect: maybe Florida’s newly reelected Gov. Ron DeSantis. So Trump badly needs a win for Walker to reset impressions of his stuttering presidential bid following a low wattage roll-out.
But a loss would be further evidence to any Republicans who want to listen that the ex-president’s approach and reputation are poisonous among the swing-state and national electorates that will decide the presidency in 2024. And it would suggest that the way forward for the party might be being blazed by authentic conservatives like Kemp who keep their distance from Trump.
It’s far too early to write off Trump in 2024, given his magnetic hold on the Republican grassroots and strong influence on the incoming Republican House majority. But if the ex-president’s political career is on a downward spiral, it’s safe to say that it started in Georgia.
The Senate runoff in Georgia caps an extraordinary two years in which the state has emerged, somewhat unexpectedly, as the most competitive battleground in the nation.
If he wins, Warnock would greet a full six-year term with relief, after his fourth race – two general elections and two runoffs in two years – and he would give the Democrats a widened 51-49 majority in the Senate.
If Walker prevails, however, the Republican would restore the perilous 50-50 balance in the chamber that has for the past two years only tipped in Democrats’ favor because of tie-breaker votes by Vice President Kamala Harris.
Georgia’s political ascendancy epitomizes the multiple forces defining American politics. It is part of a racially diversifying nation that is scrambling the presidential map. It has witnessed a duel between a Republican legislature accused of suppressing voting rights and voters who repeatedly show up in massive numbers to make sure their voices are heard.
The state’s agonized racial history is a constant backdrop, especially in the fight between Warnock, a senior pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Walker, a hero to many in the state following his stellar college football career.
Georgia has also become the epicenter of rare Republican resistance toward Trump’s attempt to subvert American democracy.
In a call on January 2, 2021, Trump asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” sufficient votes to overturn Biden’s victory. A transcript of the call shows Raffensperger repeatedly pushing back against Trump’s wild conspiracies about fraud. “The numbers are the numbers, the numbers don’t lie,” Raffensperger later told the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
In December 2020, the then-president had also called Kemp to pressure him to convince state legislators to overturn Biden’s victory in the state. But the governor said he had no authority to do so, sources told CNN.
In revenge, Trump endorsed primary challengers against both men. He said that his pick for secretary of state, Georgia Rep. Jody Hice, would, unlike the incumbent, “stop the fraud.” The ex-president’s endorsed candidate for Kemp’s job – former Sen. David Perdue, who had lost to Democrat Jon Ossoff in a 2021 runoff – signed up to Trump’s election denialism, declaring at a debate that “the election in 2020 was rigged and stolen.”
But both Trump’s picks performed disastrously in the primary in a massive embarrassment for the former president. Kemp beat Perdue by 74% to 22% and Raffensperger dispatched Hice by 52% to 33%. Both incumbents were then reelected in November.
Trump’s humiliation was becoming a bit of a pattern in Georgia. In the general election in the Peach State in 2020, he became the first Republican to lose in the longtime southern Republican bastion since ex-president George H.W. Bush was outpaced by Bill Clinton in 1992 on his way to the White House.
On the eve of the Senate runoffs in January 2021, Trump returned to Georgia to campaign for then-Sens. Kelly Loeffler and Perdue. He slammed Kemp and made false claims of voter fraud, which came on top of the long-standing doubts he’d already sown about mail-in voting among GOP voters during the Covid-19 pandemic. Both GOP senators promptly lost.
All of this helps explain why many observers have concluded that during the current runoff election, Trump has actually been more of a help to Warnock than Walker.
In a CNN/SSRS poll released on Friday, Trump had a favorable rating of just 39% and an unfavorable rating of 54% among likely Georgia voters. (Biden’s approval rating was also underwater, which explains why he hasn’t set foot in Georgia either.)
Walker, however, is insisting that a strong turnout from Republicans on Tuesday can hand him victory.
“Before a big game, I don’t sleep, because I’m ready,” he said during a final campaign stop in the Georgia suburbs. “This is about turnout. Now we’ve got to get in the game. We can’t sit on the sideline anymore.”
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