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Herschel Walker’s loss in Senate race spurs new GOP calls for a shift in strategy


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Herschel Walker’s loss in a key Georgia Senate race on Tuesday renewed calls for Republicans to break with former President Donald Trump and rethink the party’s strategy ahead of 2024, as lawmakers and officials braced for the latest blow in a deeply disappointing midterm cycle.

Recriminations were swift as Republicans began an autopsy of Walker’s race Wednesday, arguing over who and what cost them the seat. Many accused Trump of calling on Walker, a former football star with no political experience and a multiple allegations about his personal life, to run for Senate against Democrat Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, betting on his celebrity in a high-stakes midterm elections in which Republicans needed to win just one seat to take the majority.

Republican operatives have raised concerns about deficit spending, on-the-ground strategy and the party’s ability to appeal beyond its base. But the arm-wringing repeatedly returned to their candidate, one of many inexperienced and polarizing nominees who lost battleground races this year.

Brian Robinson, the Georgia Republican Party’s operations representative, said that despite all the obstacles, Walker “almost pulled it off,” noting that he still won more than 48 percent of the vote. But to gain those extra few percentage points to win in Georgia, Republicans need candidates they can convince, who he called “comparison shoppers” rather than “tribal voters.” Other Republicans who won statewide on Nov. 8 ran as “steady, level-headed, competent leaders without fireworks,” he said.

Walker’s campaign headquarters turned dark in the final stretch, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity to share private conversations. The candidate’s five-day absence from the campaign trail around Thanksgiving — for personal events and vacation, the person said — didn’t help.

“We felt like we didn’t have air in our tires after that,” the official said. “Morale was rock bottom.”

Walker’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“We put up a great fight,” Walker said in his concession speech Tuesday night. He came in 2.8 percentage points behind Warnock, struggling urban areas and suburbs and fared worse than that in November, when neither candidate received the 50 percent needed in Georgia to avoid a runoff.

Walker was the only statewide Republican candidate to lose this year in Georgia. The GOP had hoped that the Democratic success in the Peach State in 2020 was a bad year rather than a new normal — and many operatives in both parties still call Georgia a red-leaning state.

The GOP did not immediately rally behind Walker, even after he easily won the nomination this spring. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has campaigned separately from him for most of the general election cycle, and some Republicans have openly criticized Walker’s qualifications and doubted his electability. And even as Kemp emerged as Walker’s most valuable surrogate during the runoff, GOP division loomed over the race.

Walker’s campaign has openly criticized some Republican fundraisers for the candidate, which funnel most of the money to other Republicans. Meanwhile, allies Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who unsuccessfully challenged McConnell last month to lead the GOP caucus, sparred publicly during the runoff , highlighting the tensions between different factions of the party.

The McConnell-backed Senate Leadership Fund — the largest GOP spender in the midterm exams — and affiliated groups invested $18 million during the runoff, on top of the $39 million SLF spent before the Nov. 8 election, according to the organization. But outside spending wasn’t enough for Walker to catch up with Warnock, who broke fundraising records that cycle. Democrats increased their spending advantage during the runoff, spending twice as much as Republicans on ads alone.

SLF President Stephen Lowe “suffered a bad hand with Trump, a weak NRSC and a lack of enthusiasm for worse candidates” this election cycle, said GOP strategist Scott Reid.

An SLF spokesman declined to comment until an NRSC spokesman responded to an inquiry on Wednesday. The NRSC spent more than half a million dollars on the runoff, according to AdImpact, and defended its overall midterm strategy.

“Even though Herschel fell short last night, I know he will continue to be a leader in our party for years to come,” Scott, who campaigned in Georgia with the candidate during the general election and runoff, it said in a statement on Wednesday.

Walker’s campaign has been dogged by repeated allegations of past misconduct: Walker’s former partners have accused him of domestic abuse and said he was largely an absentee father and that he paid for their abortions despite accepting strict bans on the procedure as a candidate. Walker denied many of the claims, saying he did not remember certain incidents.

Democrats also worked to highlight Walker’s gaffes on the trail by cutting ads that consisted of voters reacting to audio clips with laughter and disbelief. Warnock’s campaign is credited with building a coalition that emboldened the Democrats’ liberal base but also attracted moderates and independents.

Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) — whose retirement this year opened a seat in a key battleground that Democrats flipped — argued that the problem is not the Republican brand, but Trump. In an interview, he echoed other Republicans who noted that candidates close to Trump have underperformed in the midterms, while “more conventional Republicans” — including those who have been at odds with Trump — have fared. good.

“We had the wrong candidate — to put it mildly — and [that’s ] entirely the creation of Donald Trump. And we’re seeing how that ends up,” Toomey said.

In an interview Wednesday, a Walker campaign official said Trump’s decision to announce a third White House bid during the runoff period — against the urging of many Republicans — has complicated the final stretch of the campaign and taken some of the focus away from Georgia.

“Having to answer for everything Trump did or said was frustrating,” the official said, referring to Trump’s widely condemned dinner with rapper Ye and white racist Nick Fuentes, who both made openly anti-Semitic comments. Walker’s campaign has not commented on the show of support from Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, earlier in the fall. The Trump-Walker team eventually settled on a televised pre-runoff rally that Walker did not promote on his social media.

Walker’s staff also bemoaned what they called a constant battle for Walker’s ear between experienced campaign staffers and those close to Walker who lack political experience.

GOP donors expressed dismay at the midterm results and called for a change in strategy. Some frustrated donors are talking about starting their own super PACs, according to a person familiar with their thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Even before Walker’s loss, some Republicans complained that their party had developed a problem with early voting — with many GOP voters holding onto their ballots until the last day, when weather and other unforeseen factors could affect turnout, while Democrats went all out to get ballots early.

Seth Weathers, the Georgia state director for Trump’s 2016 campaign — who was openly critical of Walker and said better candidates would win outright in November — argued that Republicans have a lot of work to do to deal with the formidable democrat infrastructure in place.

“We need to start building and facilitating the ground game for 2024 … to a much greater extent than we have,” he said last week.

Adding to that challenge, Republicans said, are the additional resources needed to mobilize rural voters who support Walker. “The Warnock campaign could just focus on metro Atlanta and pretty much do it,” lamented Fulton County Republican Party Chairman Trey Kelly. “Our people have to go all over the state to get people out.”

The Republican National Committee said it has 400 staffers and more than 85,000 volunteers on the ground in Georgia working on voter turnout; SLF also invested about $2 million to retool Kemp’s voting operation.

Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters rejected accusations that Trump was responsible for the Republican losses. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) responded to a tweet by former national security adviser John Bolton, who called Trump “a huge liability and the Democrat’s best asset.”

“That has to be the dumbest assessment of our loss in the Senate, his campaign told Trump to stay out, so don’t blame Trump. Blame whoever held his hand across the state, among many other reasons,” Green said. It’s not clear if she was referring to one person or the GOP administration.

Others in the Republican Party suggest that Georgia will accelerate the party’s shift away from the former president. Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) won re-election this fall after easily defeating Trump-backed challengers in the primary. Republicans pointed in particular to Kemp, who defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by more than 7 percentage points, as evidence that voters outside their base are still receptive to Republican policies and messages but have become enraged by Trump as the standard-bearer.

Scott Jennings, a longtime Republican operative with ties to McConnell, summed it up in a tweet Wednesday morning: “Georgia may be remembered as the state that broke Trump once and for all.”

Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.


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