Republicans are feeling a surge of optimism in the tight race for the Georgia Senate amid signs that their candidate, former football star Herschel Walker, is closing the gap on Sen. Raphael Warnock (D).
After a series of early stumbles that sparked intense bickering among top Senate Republicans, party officials say they’re starting to see more professionalism emerging from Walker’s campaign.
And despite a surge of Democratic Senate candidates in other states over the past two months, polls in Georgia have shown the race to be largely tightening. An InsiderAdvantage-Fox 5 Atlanta poll released earlier this month showed Walker ahead of Warnock by 3 points, a change from July, when the Democratic incumbent led by the same margin.
“I think you’re seeing a professionalization of Herschel as a candidate,” said Chuck Clay, a former state senator and chairman of the Georgia Republican Party. “He is what he is. His first statements, which were kind of stupid or obscene – but never malicious or mean – were kind of brought under control.”
Another Republican strategist said Walker’s more disciplined approach to the race was no fluke.
As the campaign faced a difficult summer, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback moved to revamp his political activities, bringing in a team of veteran Republicans, including longtime strategist Chip Lake and Gail Gitch, who served as communications director for Sen. Mitt’s presidential campaign. Romney (R-Utah) in 2012.
“They’ve focused him and he’s also trained himself to be more focused, to be less chatty, and I think it shows,” the strategist said.
The result was a more focused campaign; Walker has frequently taken jabs at Warnock on issues such as inflation, crime and border security, while advocating for a united force. In one ad from Walker and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) earlier this month, he accused Warnock and Democrats of using “race to divide” Americans, adding that he wants to “bring us together.”
Unseating Warnock would be one of the GOP’s biggest wins this year, if the party can pull it off. Republicans need just one Senate seat to regain their majority, and given President Biden’s very narrow victory in Georgia in 2020, the state remains one of their top targets.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the NRSC, said he was confident in Walker’s chances in November and predicted that Republicans would end up with “52+” seats in the Senate. Next year.
“I think we’re going to get 52,” Scott said. “I think Herschel Walker will win.”
In one sign that Washington Republicans are more enthusiastic about the Georgia Senate race, Punchbowl News reported Tuesday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will hold a fundraiser for Walker this week, his second event at benefit of the former NFL star in less than a month.
Another GOP heavyweight, Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), also traveled to Georgia last month to campaign for Walker. One Republican consultant described the flurry of activity by national GOP figures as a sign that party leaders are “closing ranks” ahead of Election Day.
But Warnock, an affable Atlanta pastor who narrowly won a Senate seat last year in a high-stakes runoff election, will not be easily unseated.
He has both the incumbency advantage and more campaign money than Walker. And while some polls show Walker closing in on him, others — including a Marist College poll released Tuesday — still show Warnock with a solid lead.
And Walker isn’t immune to the same problems facing Republicans nationally. Former President Trump’s re-emergence as a headline-grabbing figure could reignite questions about Walker’s ties to him, especially given that the former president endorsed him early in his campaign.
Trump has not been to Georgia in months, despite recently campaigning for Republican candidates in other Senate battlegrounds, although he is said to be weighing possible rallies in the state in the coming weeks, according to the person , familiar with the question.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported that the former president may be considering an upcoming campaign event for Walker.
Also continuing is the fight over abortion rights, which has put Republicans in a politically precarious position since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade over the summer. After Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.C.) introduced legislation last week that would ban abortions nationally after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Walker said he would support the policy.
Still, many aspects of the race between Warnock and Walker are personal.
Warnock sought to highlight Walker’s faults and his troubled past, including allegations of domestic violence and exaggerations about his business and academic achievements. Meanwhile, Walker answered questions about Warnock’s finances, including the $7,400 monthly housing allowance he receives as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Warnock’s campaign has defended the senator’s financial arrangements, saying they comply with Senate rules.
But perhaps the most terrifying reality for Warnock — or any Democrat for that matter — is this year’s political environment. The party of power almost always loses ground in Congress in midterm elections, and despite recent momentum from Democrats, the party still faces a tough challenge.
“People are very disappointed in Biden; they’re really frustrated with the economy,” said Jay Williams, a strategist for the Georgia Republican Party. “It’s a much more nationalized election, and I think people in Georgia are going to go Republican.”
Republicans also said they were not surprised that the Senate race in Georgia has become tighter in recent weeks. He continues to be one of the most competitive picks this year, and the oddsmakers have him in the draw column.
“The race was always close,” said Clay, a former Georgia state senator. “Herschel became a much better candidate in the process. And now it’s down to the last 1-2 percent who will make that call.”
“Can Herschel Win? Yes,” he added. “Can I say that Warnock has a slight advantage? So far.”
Al Weaver contributed.