Herschel Walker’s defeat in the Georgia Senate runoff completes the state’s rejection of former President Donald Trump, but not the Republican Party.
Republicans hoping to move on from Trump in 2024 may look to Georgia for lessons.
The GOP otherwise won every statewide office in November, including the reelection of Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) in a highly anticipated rematch with Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams.
REPUBLICANS HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY AND SHOULDN’T WASTE IT
Republicans control both houses of the Georgia state legislature and will hold nine of the 14 House seats when the next Congress is sworn in come January.
Trump narrowly lost Georgia to President Joe Biden in 2020. Trump claimed voter fraud cost him the Peach State’s electoral votes, but Kemp, who had served as secretary of state before winning the governorship two years earlier, and incumbent Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refused to go along with his “stop the steal” gambit.
This led Trump to break with Kemp and Raffensperger, eventually endorsing primary challengers to both men. But Trump’s complaints fell on deaf ears among Georgia Republicans for reasons specific to the state.
Abrams had been claiming voter suppression cost her the governorship in an act of Republican theft since 2018, becoming a major national Democratic figure in the process. Democrats later attacked the state’s voting laws. Biden compared their voter integrity measures to Jim Crow and did not back down when they proved compatible with high turnout, including in black precincts.
Secondly, Republicans lost both Georgia Senate runoffs early last year as Trump was depressing conservative voter turnout with his assertions of corruption and stolen elections. Without those losses, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) would not hold his seat in the first place. This in turn cost the GOP control of the Senate nationally.
Trump-endorsed candidates fared poorly in Georgia’s Republican primaries this year. Kemp and Raffensperger beat their Trump-backed challengers by landslide margins, even though the former faced a candidate who had previously won statewide in former Sen. David Perdue (R-GA).
The one exception was Walker, the Trump-picked candidate for Senate. Walker did force another runoff. But on Tuesday night, he also became the only Republican statewide candidate to lose to a Democrat this year.
Walker, a former football star both in Georgia and nationally, had baggage. He also ran a flawed campaign. But his association with Trump did him no favors with suburban swing voters. And without Trump’s intervention in the Georgia Senate primary, another Republican might have been the nominee — and won.
Now the Senate, previously deadlocked 50-50 but for Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, will be 51-49 Democratic. That’s a net gain of one seat for the Democrats in an election where Republicans needed just one net pickup to win back control of the chamber. This would have given the GOP unified control of Congress starting next year.
Trump’s endorsed candidate won the Republican nomination in seven of the closest Senate races. Democrats and Republicans split the first six evenly on Election Day. Tuesday’s runoff gave Democrats the advantage, with Warnock winning a tick above 51% of the vote.
Now Republicans who do not want Trump to be the party’s presidential nominee again in 2024 — the former president formally announced his third bid for the White House last month — look to Georgia for clues on how to woo the base away from him.
Georgia gave an early indication that some suburban Republican voters would be resistant to Trump in a 2017 special election to replace Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) after he became secretary of health and human services. The seat had been held by Republicans since Newt Gingrich was first elected in 1978.
Price won his last reelection bid in 2016 with 62% of the vote. But Trump only carried the district by 1.5 points against Hillary Clinton, underperforming among college-educated, affluent voters in the Atlanta suburbs. Democrats were able to force that race into a runoff, though they came up short in the second round of voting.
Their candidate in that contest? Jon Ossoff, who is currently serving as Georgia’s other Democratic senator.
Without Ossoff or Warnock, Republicans would control the Senate.
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Republicans who would like to make a clean break from Trump hope they can convince their party that losses in states like Georgia and Arizona are specific to the former president and his election-disputing brand of politics, not to the GOP as a whole.
Walker notably conceded the election promptly on Tuesday night, saying he would not make “excuses” for coming up short.