A week before the Georgia Senate runoff, former President Donald Trump has no plans to appear on stage with his handpicked candidate, Herschel Walker. In fact, it’s not even under discussion.
The retired football star is traveling the state this week with a rotating cast of national GOP surrogates. But unlike Georgia’s January 2021 Senate runoff, when the former president held two rallies including an election-eve event, this time Trump has been conspicuously out of the picture.
Both national and state Republicans say it would be best for Trump to, quite literally, just phone it in for the runoff.
“I think he’d be more effective if he did it by phone,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, suggesting Trump participate in an election-eve automated call to GOP voters.
Gingrich compared the hypothetical get-out-the-vote call to what Trump did for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2021, when Youngkin kept a healthy distance from Trump throughout the campaign, but benefitted from his 11th-hour appeal to GOP base voters.
Trump, who launched his own presidential campaign on Nov. 15, did not hold a rally for Walker during the general election, doing so only ahead of the state’s May primary. But people close to Trump say he has found other ways to be helpful to Walker, by continuing online fundraising and possibly holding a tele-rally in the coming week. And Trump also reiterated support for the candidate during his own presidential announcement at Mar-a-Lago.
But even that has been turned on its head; Walker's opponent, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock is running an ad featuring a video clip of Trump praising Walker and the words “Stop Donald Trump” and “Stop Herschel Walker.”
A person close to the Walker campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity about Georgia’s “complicated dynamic” with Trump, said the campaign has not asked Trump to visit the state — and Trump hasn’t asked to come, either.
“We’re just trying to not rock the boat with any and all sides,” said the person close to Walker’s campaign. “We’re holding together a fragile coalition.”
The campaign is up against Warnock’s fundraising machine, which brought in more cash than any other candidate this cycle. Democrats have outspent Republicans the last three weeks by more than double, so far running $34 million in runoff ads, compared to $13.8 million from the GOP, according to ad tracking firm AdImpact.
The Republican effort to flip Georgia's Senate seat has also featured intraparty bickering between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The two top GOP senators clashed at times throughout the midterm elections, though their feud came to a head just after Nov. 8, when Scott unsuccessfully challenged McConnell for caucus leader.
Gov. Brian Kemp, meanwhile, has been Walker’s star surrogate in recent weeks. The popular Georgia Republican has cut ads, attended campaign events, appeared in mailers and loaned his field operation to McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund to support Walker in the runoff.
“The governor’s been the most important surrogate we could have asked for,” said the source from Walker’s camp, adding that Kemp has done everything the Walker campaign has asked of him.
Polling shared with POLITICO that was conducted Nov. 15 through 17 by a pro-Walker super PAC confirmed that Kemp — who outperformed Walker by nearly 5 percentage points — is the most effective Republican Walker could have by his side. Kemp’s favorability among likely runoff voters came in at 60 percent, with a 33 percent unfavorable rating. Trump’s numbers, the poll found, sit at 36 percent favorable and 59 percent unfavorable — a clear sign that the former president could do more harm than good in advance of the runoff.
“I can tell you, based on the numbers we're seeing, it would be far more advantageous to have Brian Kemp on stage with Herschel Walker” than Trump, said Stephen Lawson, a Georgia Republican strategist working on 34N22, the pro-Walker super PAC. The group has featured Kemp in multiple mailers sent during the runoff, including one with a first-person message from the governor urging voters to support his “friend,” Walker.
Also brewing is a power struggle between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom Walker aides initially feared would clash over any respective involvement in the runoff. But although top GOP officials believe DeSantis, in theory, would be more helpful than Trump in boosting Republican turnout for the runoff, the Florida governor has also limited his involvement in the race to fundraising appeals. It wouldn’t be out of the question for DeSantis, too, to put out a phone call to voters just before Election Day, though no such plans are currently underway, according to a person with knowledge.
Top Republicans, including Sens. Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, have campaigned for Walker in recent weeks, and others stars like Dr. Ben Carson and Nikki Haley have made fundraising pleas or held events in support. Sen. Tim Scott is expected to campaign with Walker in the coming days. And Mike Pompeo will be in Georgia to support Walker on Thursday, when former President Barack Obama is holding a rally with Warnock.
“Friend, I won't sugarcoat it,” Haley writes in a fundraising email sent Monday, “this Georgia runoff election is going to be an all-out DAWG FIGHT, and Herschel Walker needs us every step of the way.”
Erick Erickson, a conservative talk show host who lives in Georgia, said the Republican electorate has mostly shrugged at the race, in part because Democrats have already taken the Senate majority by winning 50 seats; Vice President Kamala Harris provides the tie-breaking vote.
“There’s a lack of enthusiasm about Walker as a candidate, and it’s kind of like, what’s the point if we’re not going to win the Senate? So why bother?” Erickson said. “There is a palpable sense of frustration with Georgia Republicans who saw their entire statewide slate win except the guy Trump convinced to get into the race, and there is a lingering sense of frustration that anyone else would have won, and Herschel's baggage weighed him down.”
The GOP’s loss in Nevada’s Senate race — a state the party saw as its top pickup opportunity as Election Day approached — “took the wind out of the sails across the board,” said the person close to Walker’s campaign. Had Georgia become determinative in the fight for Senate control, perhaps triple the amount of money would be flowing in for Walker during the runoff, the campaign believes.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Walker held multiple fundraisers, including both in-person events and over Zoom. Sunday night, Walker raised more than $250,000, according to a person with knowledge of the event.
Early voting began in many counties around the state over the weekend, and will continue through Friday.