Walker tries to avoid missteps in final days before Georgia runoff

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DALTON, Ga. — Herschel Walker’s final play in Georgia’s Senate runoff is to, at all costs, avoid any more controversy. That, and let trusted Republican voices do most of the talking.

Dodging drama isn't easy for the former football star who spent his primary and general election campaigns dogged by allegations of abuse and lying, while regularly making national headlines for outlandish comments. But Walker forcing his incumbent Democratic rival into a runoff despite a barrage of unflattering coverage has given him another shot at appealing to voters.

Inside a city recreation center Wednesday, Walker went on his usual stemwinders about pronouns and IRS agents. But there was nothing this time about werewolves and vampires, a recent rant that his opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock, mocks in a new ad.

Largely avoiding media questions except from conservative outlets, Walker has sidestepped commenting on Donald Trump’s recent dinner with a white nationalist, or about continuing to list a Texas residence as his primary home for tax purposes. He has reached an understanding with Trump, who endorsed Walker early on, that Trump will stay on the sidelines ahead of the Dec. 6 runoff election.

Walker is trying to strengthen his image by having at his side Gov. Brian Kemp, the state’s most popular Republican official who has stepped up to support Walker much more visibly during the runoff campaign than he did during the general election.

“Kemp voters provide the winning path, and we are working to get those voters,” Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, wrote in a memo Wednesday on the state of the race. Kemp received 200,000 more votes than Walker in this year’s general election.

While Warnock finished narrowly ahead of Walker in the Nov. 8 race, state law requires a runoff because the Democratic senator did not receive more than 50 percent of the vote.

In the memo, Scott referenced a poll conducted by Moore Information Group on Monday and Tuesday that found the race tied at 48 percent. Other public polling has shown Warnock with a slight lead.

Warnock is also making a play for Kemp voters who withheld support from Walker, including featuring them in television advertisements.

“He spent $100 million against me already. Can you believe that?” Walker said to a crowd of several dozen supporters gathered in Dalton. “A hundred million dollars against me already, in a race that’s tied. With me. He don't know how to spend his money, so why is he spending your money?”

Walker went on to criticize Warnock for his ministry and public service professions, saying the Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor and senator has only taken jobs “in the church” or from “taxpayers.”

Warnock’s campaign is indeed on track to have spent nearly $100 million on advertising over the course of the election cycle, though that includes the period before Walker was the GOP nominee and the focus of attacks. On Thursday, Warnock will campaign with former President Barack Obama, who is returning to Atlanta in a final get-out-the-vote push.

Ralph Reed, founder of the evangelical Christian Faith and Freedom Coalition and a past chair of the Georgia GOP, has spoken at multiple Walker rallies in recent days, part of a rotating slate of Republican surrogates backing Walker. Walker on Thursday is scheduled to appear with Mike Pompeo, former Trump Secretary of State, as well as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), former Trump administration official Morgan Ortagus and others.

“Two years ago, we had a circular firing squad,” Reed said in an interview, recalling the period before Georgia’s January 2021 runoff when some of Donald Trump’s top allies were instructing Republicans not to vote as they held “stop the steal” rallies.

But despite lingering disagreements over strategy and loyalties, dueling GOP factions have agreed to help Walker win in whatever ways they best can.

“If you can get Mitch McConnell, Trump, Rick Scott and Brian Kemp on the same team, that’s called unity,” Reed said.

A super PAC aligned with McConnell, who unlike Scott has avoided public appearances in Georgia, is spending roughly $14 million on runoff advertisements. Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC, is spending another $2 million on voter mobilization, using Kemp’s existing voter outreach operation.

Walker’s event Wednesday in Dalton was set in the same region of Northwest Georgia where rural white turnout dropped significantly in the January 2021 runoff, a trend widely attributed to Trump-aligned leaders casting doubt on the integrity of the state’s election system.

Susan Newton, a resident of Whitfield County, came to the lunchtime rally in her dental hygienist uniform, on a break from work. She said she votes in every election, including the runoff two years ago. But Newton — noting her heavily GOP county’s 49 percent turnout in this year’s general election — isn’t convinced Republicans are coming out in droves for the runoff, either.

“They think everybody else is going do it for them, and unfortunately that's not what's happening,” Newton said.

As Election Day nears, the airwaves are full of ads and voters are inundated with calls, texts, mailers and visits to their doorsteps. Anecdotal evidence suggests both sides have made missteps when it comes to allocating resources.

Jason Shepherd, former Cobb County GOP chair, noted that a recent mail piece from the Georgia Republican Party included a QR code that went to a broken web link.

And Ginger Howard, Georgia’s Republican National Committeewoman, said in an interview that she has received three pro-Warnock mailers at her home during the runoff — pieces sent to a previous owner who hasn’t lived there in seven years.

“She lives in another state now,” Howard said of the long-gone voter that Democrats are still paying to target. “They’re mailing the phonebook.”

Both sides are highlighting their opponent’s history of domestic issues — allegations that were also put in front of voters during the general election. For Democrats, that’s an ad featuring an old news interview in which Walker’s ex-wife discussed the time he threatened to kill her. Walker, who wrote a book about his struggle with mental illness, has not denied the allegation, but said he does not recall it. Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC is putting nearly $6 million behind that television ad, the group announced Wednesday.

Georgia Democratic Party spokesman Dan Gottlieb said the state’s residents deserve someone who has demonstrated “the character and competence needed to represent them in the U.S. Senate.”

“Not Herschel Walker,” Gottlieb said in a statement, “who has consistently refused to take accountability for his pattern of lies and disturbing, violent conduct, or to answer Georgians’ questions.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are using ads to highlight police body camera footage from 2020, in which Warnock’s ex-wife, in tears, describes him as an “actor” when he is in public. At the time, the woman accused Warnock of running over her foot with his vehicle, though responding officers did not find her suffering from extensive injuries.

The GOP is also seeking to draw attention to a series of eviction notices filed against low-income tenants in a rental property owned by Warnock’s church, while Democrats are calling on Walker to answer for why he is still receiving a tax break for a home in Texas he has listed as his primary residence.

Through Tuesday's runoff, Democrats have spent or reserved $52 million in advertisements, compared to $24 million by Republicans, according to AdImpact.