US Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker expressed regret as farmers in northern Georgia lamented environmental regulations and rising costs of doing business. Minutes earlier, the former soccer star and political newcomer had exchanged views with journalists on topics such as petrol prices or abortion.
In both audiences, Walker tried in every possible way to steer the conversation back to Senator Raphael Warnock and a Democratic administration whose popularity is lagging in this battlefield state that President Joe Biden won by a narrow margin.
“We need to talk about what people are concerned about that my opponent seems to vote more with Joe Biden than with the people of Georgia,” Walker said at a food market in north Georgia. “That’s what we need to make headlines about what Herschel Walker is saying … because the people of Georgia are hurting.”
Given high generational inflation and Biden’s low popularity, Republican candidates in the US are similarly spending this election year focusing on Democrats. But for Walker, the wide-ranging partisan thrusts displayed at several campaign halts this week offered a chance to stabilize an otherwise haphazard campaign.
Some Republicans tacitly concede that such a distraction may be the only way Walker can win this midterm contest that will help determine control of a Senate now split 50-50 between the two major parties .
“Look, it’s not how many times you get knocked down that matters, it’s how many times you get back up,” Senator Butch Miller said while fighting with Walker in north Georgia.
Walker, 60, drove to the GOP nomination in May largely due to his celebrity status as a star running back on the University of Georgia national soccer team in 1980 and his personal friendship with former President Donald Trump.
But along the way, Walker faced fresh revelations about previous violent threats against his first wife. He has exaggerated his academic and business records, alternately denying ever making such statements. He admitted to fathering several children that he had not previously mentioned publicly, despite spending decades blasting absent fathers. And Walker was recently caught on video at a closed campaign rally offering a nonsensical explanation of the climate crisis, as China sent its “bad air” to the US while stealing “our good air.”
Warnock’s campaign and allied Democratic campaign armies responded with a publicity attack that cast Walker as unqualified.
“All of Walker’s tastes, scandals and bizarre statements prove that he is not ready to represent the people of Georgia and cannot be trusted to serve in the US Senate,” said Dan Gottlieb, a spokesman for the Georgia Democratic Party.
All of this played out as Warnock brought in campaign funds — more than $17 million in Q2 2020 and more than $70 million for the cycle. This has allowed the senator to develop a personal brand that positions him well ahead of Biden among Georgia voters and puts a damper on any Republican claim that 2020 was an aberration in the state.
Just a few cycles ago, any Republican nominee in a mid-term Senate election here would have been an unaffordable favorite, regardless of economic conditions or the White House occupation. Instead, decades of growth centered in the greater Atlanta area has resulted in a politically, racially, and ethnically diverse population that is more open to voting for Democrats. Trump’s poor performance among college-educated whites accelerated change, as did Democrats’ organizing efforts.
That resulted in Biden outpacing Trump by about 12,000 out of 5 million votes cast — a record November turnout for Georgia. Warnock followed by a larger margin in a special election runoff in January: 94,000 votes out of nearly 4.5 million votes cast, a record runoff turnout.
Republicans have responded to Walker’s stumble with an influx of experienced advisers to the first-time candidate and visits to the state by national Republican activists. Walker aides said the coming weeks would revolve around various political issues, with targeted attacks on Warnock.
It’s not so much a campaign reset, aides said, as mid to late summer is almost always when general campaigning picks up steam. But it’s an effort clearly aimed at changing the narrative surrounding the matchup. The opening salvo was farming. Next comes public safety and crime. The economy will follow.
Walker himself spoke this week of “listening sessions” that revolved around political issues. He showed some evidence of these sessions, returning almost every topic to Warnock, Biden and the economy.
“Terrible, terrible leadership,” he called it, adding that working-class Georgians “know it’s not right.”
He demonstrated an increasing familiarity with the details of Warnock’s records as he blasted the idea of suspending the state gas tax, something the senator was proposing. Walker called this “the hero effect… I create the problem and then you call me to erase it.”
Yet there have been hints of tangents and untruths that have already drawn negative attention.
At a cattle auction outside of Athens, Walker again denied ever saying he graduated from the University of Georgia and accused his questioner of being a “Raphael Warnock guy”. Walker has made such claims on video; he never graduated. Walker later essentially committed to debating Warnock in October, only to continue his campaign with a string of conditions.
In a discussion on immigration, Walker suggested that the US needed “legal immigration” just to have Miller step in to talk about certain visa programs. In a roundtable on agriculture, Miller and Terry Rogers, a former state official, filled out many more details.
When farmers complained about the Biden administration’s endorsement of electric vehicles, Walker not only focused on the cost, but questioned the technology itself. “It will only run for a certain amount of time,” he said. “You have to charge it for eight hours. You will never get any work done.”
Miller downplayed any cumulative damage to Walker’s prospects, but said it was crucial for the Republican nominee to flesh out his case against Warnock and incorporate his own bio more effectively.
“One of his strongest virtues is his connection with people, and he goes out and does that,” Miller said. As for broader attacks on inflation and the economy, Miller added, Walker has a convenient ally: “It’s all true.”