Herschel Walker Stresses Georgia Roots on Campaign As Many Top Republicans Shift Away

For weeks during the general election, Herschel Walker was joined on the campaign trail by top Republican senators, party leaders and conservative activists eager to help the former football star’s Senate bid in Georgia. Now, with certain exceptions, he’s often been the only draw at his events.

The shift reflects fresh doubts at the top of the Republican Party, where disappointing midterm election results last month have triggered an identity crisis among conservatives reeling from losses in a third consecutive campaign cycle.

The uncertainty has affected Mr. Walker’s campaign, where his team has avoided appearances with former President Donald J. Trump, who had endorsed him and whose divisiveness has been particularly acute among Georgia voters.

According to a recent private poll of likely runoff voters in Georgia, conducted for a pro-Walker super PAC, just 36 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of Mr. Trump, compared to 59 percent who said they had an unfavorable view of him. The same survey showed that Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a Republican re-elected to a second term last month despite Mr. Trump’s attempts to unseat him, was viewed favorably by 60 percent of voters and unfavorably by 33 percent.

But containing Mr. Trump has become something of a chess match for Mr. Walker’s team.

Fears about the former president’s penchant for prioritizing his own grievances — as he did during a disastrous runoff for Republicans in the state just two years ago — convinced some Walker advisers not to seek help from some of Mr. Trump’s potential White House rivals in 2024. The benefit of campaigning with rising stars in the party, like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida or Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, wasn’t worth the risk of provoking the former president, these advisers said.

It’s unclear whether Mr. DeSantis or Mr. Youngkin was particularly interested in helping Mr. Walker, who was slightly behind incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock in a CNN/SSRS poll released Thursday. While Mr. DeSantis recently signed an online fund-raising plea for the Walker campaign, both men campaigned almost exclusively this year with candidates for governor.

Few other Republicans have appeared with Mr. Walker during the runoff. Senators Tom Cotton of Oklahoma and Tim Scott of South Carolina stumped with him during the general election, but not during the runoff.

Two years ago, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Marco Rubio of Florida were among a contingent of Republican senators who campaigned during the Georgia runoff, when control of the Senate hung in the balance. This year, as Democrats have secured control of the chamber, they have not returned to help Mr. Walker. Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, canceled an appearance this week after his mother-in-law died.

Mr. Walker has campaigned in recent weeks mostly with Republicans from Georgia or nearby states, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition; and Ginger Howard, one of the state’s representatives on the Republican National Committee.

“There’s not an overwhelming urgency to bring in surrogates, and that speaks to the bigger picture on both sides,” said Stephen Lawson, a Republican strategist with 34n22, a pro-Walker super PAC.

On the Democratic side, Mr. Warnock was joined on the campaign trail on Thursday by former President Barack Obama. But Mr. Warnock has not campaigned for the runoff with President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams, the Democratic Party’s candidate for governor in 2022 and 2018.

Mr. Walker’s campaign has adjusted by focusing on his local roots while portraying Mr. Warnock as an ally of Hollywood liberals and the Democratic establishment. The advertising blitz from Mr. Walker and his allies in recent weeks has attempted to frame Tuesday’s election as a choice between an out-of-touch incumbent or a Republican challenger whose “values have been formed in small-town Wrightsville, Ga.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Walker boasted that “anyone in Georgia would know Herschel Walker is more Georgia than Raphael Warnock,” adding: “Anyone in Georgia know that I’m Georgia born, Georgia bred and when I die, I’ll be Georgia dead.”

Both candidates were born and raised in the state. Mr. Walker, however, lived in Dallas until he decided to run for the Senate in Georgia.

Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker from Georgia, said the lack of clarity at the top of the party complicated Mr. Walker’s campaign, but he praised his fellow Republican for leaning on Mr. Kemp for help.

“This has to be a straightforward, Brian Kemp-versus-Warnock fight, because that’s the strongest possible contrast Walker can have,” Mr. Gingrich said.

Mr. Kemp received 203,000 more votes on Nov. 8 than Mr. Walker, out of about 4 million ballots cast in each race. Mr. Walker was outperformed by every other statewide Republican candidate on the Georgia ballot this year: Out of the eight statewide contests, Republicans won seven with more than 50 percent of the vote.

Mr. Walker finished second to Mr. Warnock. The two men are in an overtime contest because state election laws require a candidate to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the general election.

Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, who has campaigned twice with Mr. Walker during the runoff and is scheduled to join him on the trail again on Monday, said her team had focused on reminding voters about the runoff election date, which is a month earlier this year.

The R.N.C. has 400 staffers and 85,000 volunteers in Georgia, many of them focused on turning out voters who supported Mr. Kemp but not Mr. Walker in November.

“The big factor is how many of the Kemp-Warnock voters turn out,” Ms. McDaniel said. “We’re trying to convince those voters to come vote for Herschel instead.”

She said there was “a lot of energy on the ground for both sides” but didn’t sense that national dynamics would impact the outcome.

“Georgia is very focused on Georgia,” Ms. McDaniel said.

Mr. Walker’s ties to the former president did appear to be an issue in November. According to the AP VoteCast survey, just three-quarters of Republicans who opposed what it described as Mr. Trump’s “Make America Great Again Movement” said they voted for Mr. Walker, compared to 90 percent who said they voted for Mr. Kemp.

Mr. Lawson, of the pro-Walker super PAC, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Mr. Kemp’s support for Mr. Walker. The governor has helped Mr. Walker raise money and appeared in a television ad in which he urged Georgians to support the first-time candidate. The super PAC has also sent mailers to voters with a quote from Mr. Kemp asking Georgians to “join me in voting for my friend.”

“If Herschel ends up winning somehow,” Mr. Lawson said, “a lot of the credit is going to have to go to Brian Kemp.”

Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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