SMYRNA, Ga. (AP) — Fresh from his commanding re-election, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp played the role of the dutiful Republican soldier Saturday as he fought alongside Senate hopeful Herschel Walker for the first time after spending months doing so to stay away from his fellow tickets .
The joint appearance reflects how important Kemp’s broad coalition will be in deciding whether Walker can unseat Senator Raphael Warnock in a December 6 runoff. The fact that this has only happened now underscores the challenges Walker, a famous athlete-turned-politician, has had to address to many independents and moderate Republicans while intensely focusing on his rocky past.
“None of us can rest on our laurels,” Kemp told a few hundred supporters standing in the parking lot of a gun store in suburban Atlanta, urging them in a mid-election year that has been underwhelming for Republicans nationwide to cast another ballot.
Kemp was the front-runner in the Georgia general election, receiving 200,000 more votes in his duel with Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams than Walker did in his challenge against Warnock. The result: Kemp defeated Abrams by 7.5 percentage points, while Walker trailed Warnock by around 36,000 votes, or nearly 1 percentage point. However, Warnock fell just short of the majority, triggering the four-week runoff blitz.
The governor fought mostly for his own re-election throughout the fall, though he ran with several GOP candidates for lower state offices. All won without a runoff. The notable absence was always Walker, and Kemp sometimes even avoided saying his name when reporters asked about the distance between the two campaigns. Kemp often said only that he represented the “entire ticket”.
Since securing a second term, Kemp has become more vocal in his support, albeit still calculated. He has underwritten his turnout operation to a Republican political action committee allied with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, and has once again backed Walker in recent interviews. On Saturday, he introduced Walker as a fiscal and cultural conservative who would support tax cuts and support law enforcement and the military, and he reiterated Republicans’ main attack on Warnock: That he coordinates “96% of the time” with President Joe Biden.
“I know Herschel Walker will fight for us,” said Kemp. “He will go and fight for the values that we believe in here in our state.”
But Kemp also used his short time on stage as a personal victory lap, nodding to his upcoming second term and mentioning Abrams before saying anything about Walker or Warnock. “I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of our state and we will make sure our state moves in the right direction because we stopped Stacey and saved Georgia,” he said.
Republicans see Kemp as a critical validator for Walker, especially as the Georgia runoff is more local now that Democrats have already secured 50 seats and hold Vice President Kamala Harris’ casting vote.
For much of the year, Walker and Republicans attempted to nationalize the race because it was among the battlegrounds that would decide Senate control, as Georgia did two years ago when Democrats Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff were running the runoff at the same time won in the Senate.
Part of the strategy was to tie Warnock to Biden because of the president’s lagging approval ratings and generational high inflation. But it was also seen as a necessity because of some of Walker’s liabilities.
Walker has exaggerated his academic achievements, business success, and philanthropic activities on numerous occasions. He is accused of violence against his first wife. During the campaign, he admitted to several children he had not previously spoken about publicly, only doing so after media reports of their existence. In October, two women Walker once dated claimed that despite his stance as a candidate for a national anti-abortion ban, he encouraged and paid for their abortions without exception.
Walker denies ever paying for an abortion and has responded with a scathing attack on Warnock, focusing in recent weeks on the poor living conditions in an Atlanta apartment building owned by a foundation of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the Warnock serves as senior pastor. Walker has used apparent eviction orders to some tenants and complaints from its residents to portray Warnock as a “hypocrite” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
Still, the cumulative effect has fueled Warnock’s efforts to label Walker as “unready” and “unfit” for the Senate, making Walker much less popular than Kemp, especially among independents and moderate Republicans. That’s more concerning in an environment where the GOP can’t use Senate control as an incentive for cautious, GOP-leaning voters to back Walker.
Walker’s electoral shortcomings were particularly acute in suburban Atlanta. While Walker ran about 5 points behind Kemp statewide, in Cobb County, where Saturday’s rally was held, that gap was nearly 7 points, with similar gaps in several other metro-area counties vital to the statewide Republican coalition.
In fact, an AP VoteCast poll of general voters found that 7 out of 10 voters who supported Kemp said they enthusiastically did so, but only about half of Walker’s voters said the same. Among Walker supporters, about 4 in 10 said they had reservations about supporting him, and about 1 in 10 said they opposed the other candidates.
Additionally, Kemp appears to have benefited from opposing former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 Georgia and national election results. According to AP VoteCast, just 29% of Georgia voters said Kemp was too supportive of former President Trump, while 43% said Walker, who is a friend of Trump and is running with his support.
“Brian Kemp is clearly the most popular Republican in Georgia, and he clearly has the most significant organization,” said Josh Holmes, an influential Republican strategist in Washington and former McConnell chief of staff.
Even Democrats are conceding the point, holding a news conference earlier Saturday with voters saying they voted for Kemp and Warnock.
Associated Press reporter Hannah Fingerhut contributed from Washington.
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