- Brian Kemp has emerged as Herschel Walker’s most powerful surrogate in the Georgia Senate runoff.
- Kemp, who won re-election as governor, did not campaign with Walker during the general election race.
- Republicans are working hard to win over November voters who supported Kemp but not Walker.
Last Saturday, Republican Senate candidate from Georgia Herschel Walker hugged newly re-elected Governor Brian Kemp at a campaign rally outside a gun store in suburban Atlanta.
This wouldn’t normally be a notable act in GOP politics, but the Georgia Senate runoff is no ordinary contest.
Walker has not led a traditional general election race, having not appeared alongside Kemp — by far the most influential Republican in the state — on the campaign trail until last week.
The GOP won virtually every statewide election in Georgia earlier this month, with the exception of Walker, who received 48.5% of the vote in his race against Sen. Raphael Warnock, compared to the incumbent Democratic legislature’s 49.4%, forcing the runoff, since no candidate was met, the required 50% of the votes required for an overall victory.
And it wasn’t hard to see why Kemp and Walker fared so differently earlier this month.
Warnock won every age group under 45 and had an 11-point advantage in independents, according to CNN exit polls, fueled by outsized margins in the populous Atlanta suburbs, where Republicans have faltered in recent years.
But Kemp reversed the script in his second gubernatorial campaign against Democrat Stacey Abrams, cutting her margins with independents in the Atlanta suburbs while garnering strong support from both moderate and conservative Republicans — a feat Walker noted in his could not repeat competition with Warnock.
For that reason, Walker has openly embraced Kemp, who emerged from the general election as the biggest winner in Georgia politics.
The Senate race remains tight, but some major hurdles remain for Walker; the Republican trailed Kemp well in the general election, and polls continue to show Independents to be in Warnock’s corner.
With less than two weeks to go before the December 6 runoff, Kemp can certainly sway some voters to Walker, but will that be enough?
Split-ticket voters will be crucial in the runoff
In the general election, Kemp defeated Abrams 53.4% to 45.9%, winning nearly 300,000 votes, a huge improvement from his roughly 55,000-vote victory over the former state legislature four years ago.
The governor received 2,111,572 votes earlier this month, compared to 1,813,673 votes for Abrams.
But Warnock was the only Georgia state Democrat to lead the ballot this year, receiving nearly 1.95 million votes to Walker’s roughly 1.918 million votes — a margin of over 37,000 votes.
The results show Kemp won over 200,000 more votes than Walker, with some voters splitting their tickets by backing the governor while backing Warnock.
Republicans chose the site of last week’s rally for a reason; The gun shop is located in Smyrna, a Cobb County town, a former GOP bastion where Democrats have made notable gains over the past decade. Abrams defeated Kemp in the county, but she won him by just 5 points, while Warnock overtook Walker there by nearly 17 points, earning the Democratic senator over 50,000 votes — more than the statewide vote gap between the two runoff candidates.
Cobb, along with other metro Atlanta counties including DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Henry, provided Warnock with crucial margins earlier this month — again, providing a vivid contrast to Walker’s underperforming in those areas among temperate and college grads.
In GOP-heavy Fayette County, a suburb of Atlanta, Walker won by just 3 points compared to Kemp’s 14-point win over Abrams. So it came as no surprise that Walker held a rally last week in Peachtree City, the county’s largest city.
The suburban independents, who were on board with Kemp but remain wary of Walker, are a top target for the governor, who is now urging them to vote Republican in the runoff.
Walker and Kemp both have their own brand of republicanism
Throughout the election campaign, Kemp touted his early reopening of Georgia’s economy during the COVID-19 pandemic and his temporary suspension of the state’s gas tax to plead for his re-election bid, while also campaigning for the state’s voting overhaul and his support of Anti-abortion legislation in a way that appealed to a broad band of traditional conservatives.
And Kemp also rose to national prominence alongside GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in 2020 for dismissing then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to overthrow Joe Biden’s Georgia presidential victory. Kemp has been repeatedly berated by Trump for his defense of the state’s election results, with the former president even recruiting former Senator David Perdue to run against him in a GOP gubernatorial primary – only for the governor to defeat his former political ally in a landslide victory.
While Trump continued to harbor grievances against Kemp, the governor drew on his close ties with Georgia conservatives — from his time as a state senator to his tenure as secretary of state — which gave him a solid footing among grassroots campaigners for the general election.
But Walker, a first-time candidate enthusiastically backed by Trump, ran a general election campaign heavily tailored toward grassroots Republicans, including evangelical voters who have pushed GOP victories in the state. In his blunt speeches, he accuses the Democrats of racially dividing the country and rails against the use of “pronouns” in the military.
On Nov. 7, Kemp flew around Georgia with most of the statewide GOP candidates — including Raffensperger — but Walker wasn’t part of the mix.
When asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Walker’s absence, Kemp said that the GOP Senate nominee is “definitely part of the team” even though he’s not on tour.
Later that evening, Kemp held a rally in Kennesaw, Georgia, where he pumped up party allegiance alongside most GOP state cards by focusing on his economic message. But just minutes away, in the same Cobb County town, Walker, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, hosted a rally of his own at which the former NFL player described himself as ” Warriors for” denoted God.”
Kemp will not participate in the runoff
One of the biggest challenges Walker will face in the Senate runoff is the simple fact that Kemp will not be listed in December’s election; The general election was the best time for Walker to cash in on the governor’s coattails.
Walker remains competitive in the race even if Democrats will control the Senate as early as 2023, but the inability of some Kemp voters to pull the lever on the University of Georgia’s former football excellence means the governor will have to use some of his politics Capital to further strengthen his Republican compatriot in the runoff.
Kemp features prominently in a new ad from the Republican Super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, where the governor said Walker will “vote for Georgia” and “not be another stamp for Joe Biden.”
— Senate Leadership Fund (@Senate_Fund) November 23, 2022
“That’s why I stand behind Herschel,” the governor said. “And I hope you will join me in voting for him too.”
A big advantage for Walker? The Conservatives are firmly behind him.
They’ve embraced his underdog-focused campaign, which to them feels rooted in Georgia rather than Washington, DC.
And Republicans have by and large dismissed allegations that Walker paid for two women to have abortions, which the candidate has staunchly denied.
But Kemp won’t be able to carry Walker across the finish line if Independents break as hard for Warnock as they do for Democrats like Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Senator-elect John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.
As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed last summer, races for the upper chamber often come down to the individuality of the candidates.
“Senate races are just different — they’re nationwide, the quality of the candidates has a lot to do with the outcome,” the Kentucky Republican said at the time.
The Georgia runoff this year will be the last consistent test case of the veteran lawmaker’s theory.