A former colleague here in Washington, DC text me this morning with a very loaded question: “What’s your take on the run-off?” Obviously, I’ve been very open about my disdain and disgust for Donald Trump. Apart from occasional comments on the podcast, I’d tried not to be overly critical of Herschel Walker because of the simple fact that I would have to lobby his office if he won, and I didn’t want anything I said to keep me from getting in the door.
While I don’t want to pile on, the obvious start of the answer to the question is that Walker was, quite possibly, the worst candidate to run statewide in Georgia in my lifetime.
The primary is a chance to vet candidates for the general election. Republicans had a large field of candidates from which to choose—Gary Black, who had been elected statewide three times; Latham Saddler, a newcomer to electoral politics who’d shown strong fundraising ability; and Kelvin King, a successful businessman who was also a newcomer to electoral politics. Republican primary voters chose the celebrity who never once appeared in a primary debate, a lot history of personal baggage, and said some really weird things. Walker appeared in one debate with Sen. Raphael Warnock, and Republicans claimed victory because Walker didn’t embarrass himself and Warnock struggled at times.
As much as I’d love to lay this entirely at the feet of Trump, I don’t think that’s completely fair. Certainly, Trump encouraged Walker to run and endorsed him. Trump’s continued lies about the 2020 presidential election—most recently coming with a call for the “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution”—didn’t help Walker, much like it didn’t help other candidates who the ex-president had endorsed.
Of course, Walker wasn’t on the stump relitigating the 2020 election, as far as I remember. That said, Walker said he would support Trump if he runs in 2024. Still, had Walker decided to run without any prodding from Trump, he would’ve undoubtedly still won the primary simply because of who he is and what he means to Georgia football. Is there a Walker run without Trump, though? Probably not.
It’s easy for me to say that Republicans face some challenges, including the fact that Census data show that Metro Atlanta is only 44 percent white. I do firmly believe that the racial demographics in Georgia are a serious long-term problem for the Republican Party and that Georgia is trending purple, although it may not quite be purple yet, despite the result last night.
I say that because Republicans won every single statewide constitutional office. Gov. Brian Kemp earned only 9 percent of the Black vote, according to the CNN Exit Poll. Walker took 8 percent of the Black vote. Kemp won the suburbs by 7 points while Walker won them by only 1 point. Kemp won independents by 1 point, but Walker lost them by 11 points. Kemp scored 98 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats. Walker had 95 percent of Republicans and 2 percent of Democrats.
The Georgia Republican Party and rank-and-file party activists have a lot of soul-searching to do. In a just world, there would be resignations, beginning at the top of the state party apparatus. If there aren’t resignations, there needs to be accountability. The Republicans who Trump loathed won. In fact, Kemp may be the reason the runoff was as close as it was. Not only did Kemp campaign for Walker, but he also worked with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) Senate Leadership Fund to make this a close race. The Senate Leadership Fund spent nearly $54 million in Georgia, including the runoff. (In contrast, the National Republican Senatorial Committee spent a little more than $7 million, and it didn’t spend much in the runoff.)
I would caution Democrats not to get too cocky, though. Yes, Warnock won, but this was a runoff. Turnout is key, and Walker was a very flawed candidate. As flawed as Walker was, the race was closer than it should’ve been. Looking ahead, President Biden is very much underwater in Georgia. The state will be a battleground in 2024 if Trump is the nominee, but Democrats can’t assume he will be. It’s still early, but the sentiment toward Trump in the Republican Party is, thankfully, turning.
And, yes, Georgia needs to look into instant runoff voting.