AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia on Tuesday in the U.S. Senate runoff election was expected by virtually everyone, from pollsters who almost bent over backwards to apologize that their models even showed a close race, to GOP donors and national groups who committed half-heartedly if at all to the race, allowing Warnock to outspend Herschel Walker by nearly 5-2, to leading GOP figures who seemed unsure whether a larger or smaller margin of defeat better served the interests of their respective factions in intraparty conflicts.
Election night jumbled a lot of talking points when for a brief period it appeared the race was too close to call. The final margin, 51.4% for Warnock and 48.6% for Walker, is causing equal confusion. It is not close enough to promote stories about a GOP comeback, or Democratic performances in November being a fluke, yet is not wide enough to fit the narrative of a hapless Walker campaign, saddled with a toxic candidate, in free-fall. This presents a bit of a problem for GOP strategists. If the result had been a blowout, they could have blamed the candidate, and implicitly Donald Trump, the man they insist forced Herschel Walker, a legend in Georgia, onto the 68% of GOP primary voters who backed him. In that case, their own actions or inaction would have been vindicated. “There was nothing we could do with such a candidate,” would be the common refrain. “No amount of money could have won this race… They tried their best. Kemp turned his entire operation, or at least its payroll, over to Mitch McConnell to support Walker and it was not enough!”
If, however, the race had been razor-thin, say 50.2% to 49.8%, then there would have been little doubt that despite the weakness of the candidate, being outspent nearly three to one probably made at least .2% of a difference. The decision of leading conservative and Republican media figures to write-off the race and move-onto recriminations before voting was over likely demoralized enough voters.
With the race ending somewhere in the middle of those two scenarios, there are some takeaways from Tuesday’s results that are important for the GOP moving forward.
Blaming Herschel Walker is an easy excuse
Was Herschel Walker a flawed candidate? Without a doubt. There is a reason, however, for the old saying, “victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Herschel Walker is being portrayed not as just a “flawed” candidate, but a hopelessly awful one who lacked any redeeming strengths, yet whose weaknesses were so apparent that only malice could explain overlooking them. This may help excuse other Republicans, in Georgia and nationally, of responsibility. But the myth that Donald Trump somehow forced Walker onto Georgia Republicans is nonsensical, as is the mythical strength of his leading mainstream primary rivals.
Walker, for all his flaws, was a living legend in Georgia, one of the most famous sports figures of his generation. That gave him appeal which could, if properly exploited, transcend partisan and ideological lines. Walker was not an unknown figure before Donald Trump endorsed him. He was by far the most famous of the potential candidates. His victory with nearly 70% of the primary vote was a testament to that. To suggest that 68% of GOP primary voters who cast ballots for Walker were simply demonstrating blind loyalty to Donald Trump is absurd. 73% of those same voters cast their ballots for Brian Kemp over Trump-endorsed former Senator David Perdue, while a majority also voted for Brad Raffensperger. Walker did have wide appeal, including to seemingly many non-Trump supporters at the time of the primary.
Walker’s current critics are revisionist in ignoring that a key reason for his easy victory was that while some reservations, albeit well-founded ones, were made about Walker’s inexperience and other flaws as a candidate, no real effort was made to sell any of the mainstream alternatives. Congressman Doug Collins had, like Mo Brooks in Alabama, a poor electoral record, and lost badly to Raffensperger, as did Perdue in the Governor’s race. While both would have been better advised to run for Senate, it is unclear how an inability to appeal to much more than a third of Republican primary voters would have translated into a winning general election message.
Perhaps if Brian Kemp had decided to run for Senate things may have been different, but he had no intention of doing so, and it is likely that Raffensperger or another state officeholder would have made the primary into a divisive battle over 2020 if they had tried to run.
For structural reasons, there was a choice between boring, generic Republican politicians with many of Walker’s issues, and Walker, who at least potentially countered them with celebrity. Endorsing Walker was not an impulsive decision by the former president; it was, rather, the most logical choice given the options available.
The GOP allowed the narrative of a flawed candidate to become entrenched
By the time of the runoff, a narrative had taken root that not only was Walker a flawed candidate, but his opponent, Raphael Warnock, was some sort of political juggernaut who was charismatic, and had wide crossover appeal. There was even discussion of Warnock as part of a future national Democratic ticket.
How, precisely, this narrative took root is a tale of the utmost negligence on the party of the GOP at all levels. Warnock has a highly problematic history, with many of the same issues with alleged domestic violence that were used with such effect to discredit Walker. Warnock allegedly ran over his ex-wife’s foot with his car after an argument over whether Warnock would allow his wife to apply for a passport – an incident that occurred not in the past but while he was running for Senate in 2020. Warnock was also arrested in 2002 for allegedly obstructing a child abuse probe into a summer camp. No wonder his wife called him a “great actor” in police footage.
This leaves aside that Warnock has largely been a down-the-line liberal vote, even voting to abolish the filibuster. Yet despite efforts by Walker to promote these stories in ads, they failed to resonate or influence the narrative.
A large part of the reason for this is that it was Walker who was left pushing these stories in his own campaign ads. This made them suspect in the same way that if Warnock’s campaign had been the one bringing forward accusations of Walker soliciting abortions in attack ads, the effect would have been to cast doubt on the charges and the man whose campaign was making them.
The most effective framing of Walker was done not by Warnock, but by the media and insiders on both sides. When it was not just MSNBC or the mainstream media which was pushing a narrative that the race was between a “scandal plagued, mentally ill” Republican and a charismatic Democratic pastor, but also Republican strategists and aides, then it became the narrative. The race became a “test” of whether Republicans would vote for Walker “despite all his problems” and not whether Democrats would vote for Warnock despite his. Take as an example the New York Times story entitled “A Pastor and Politician Who Sees Voting as a Form of Prayer.” Real credit is due to Warnock’s press team for this type of coverage. Celebrities pay millions for this sort of image management.
As much as the lack of financial support hurt Walker, the lack of narrative support played the decisive role in the contest. Unlike Blake Masters in Arizona or J.D. Vance in Ohio, Walker had no history of extreme political positions, or really any positions at all. Nor did he adopt any during the campaign.
Georgia is trending left, but more slowly than assumed
While it is hard to account fully for uncontested races, as of this moment, Republicans lead the popular vote for the U.S. House 50.6% to 47.8% or a margin of 2.8%. In November, Republicans won the aggregated vote for U.S. House in Georgia 52.3% to 47.7%, or about 4.6%. None of the 14 districts was seriously contested by the other party in the general election, so it can function as a reasonable floor for both. What is striking is how similar that total was to the results in 2018.
|Year||Georgia House Vote||National House Vote||Difference|
|2018||52.27%-47.73% R||53.4%-44.8% D||R+6.2%|
|2020||51%-49% R||50.8%-47.7% D||R+2.6%|
|2022||52.31%-47.69% R||50.6%-47.8% R||R+1.6%|
Three things stand out. First, the 2018 and 2022 results in Georgia are almost identical. Second, the GOP won the popular vote in all three years, which does indicate the Senate race was an outlier, albeit not a huge one. Thirdly, Georgia is moving leftward such that even a better GOP year in 2022 could barely keep up.
There was a lot of talk after 2016 that the confident predictions about “demographics being destiny” made after the 2012 election, whether by Democrats or the GOP in its autopsy, were proven wrong. The idea that those specific trends were static was indeed proven incorrect. However, the general movement of U.S. politics towards polarization is real. Georgia provided a microcosm of that phenomenon this year.
Even with several factors trending against the GOP, however, Georgia still did not shift it that much. Walker still received 48.6% of the vote. However, if that is a floor, Democrats are likely to have a similar floor in future statewide contests.
The problem in Georgia is that the groups and areas Walker won are casting less votes relative to the rest of the state than they did a few years ago, while those that voted for Warnock cast more. Georgia is not quite at the level where it leans Democratic by any means. The above chart still shows the state voting around 1.6% more Republican than the nation at large on average in House races. But that trend has also slowed somewhat in recent years. Georgia is not likely to be a “blue state” in terms of voting to the left of the nation in 2024, but it may well only vote 1% to the right of the nation, which would have been enough for Hillary Clinton to win it in 2016.
We are still stuck with 2016 coalitions
The Georgia runoff is interesting in respect to what didn’t happen. Warnock did not make inroads with rural whites, especially in North Georgia where Marjorie Taylor Greene had underperformed in November. He did not reverse trends in rural African American counties, where there has been a steady erosion of Democratic support. He won the places and people he won in November, and in those areas slightly more voters turned out. The major trends of the global realignment, in which education and age are key drivers of voter preference, are supported by this result.
In short, the country is on the same trajectory it has been on since 2016. We have now had four elections in which great expectations were instilled. In 2018, Democrats failed to win Florida, Iowa, and Ohio “back.” In 2022 a “red wave” did not reach Oregon and Washington. Instead, we have had four versions of the 2016 election, each with candidates, events, and issue patterns which favored one party or another. While these affected turnouts, it was ultimately the same dynamics at play in each election.
This does not mean that one party cannot have a better year than another. Democrats had a better year in 2018 than they did 2020, and the GOP had a better 2016 than 2022 (or 2018), but ultimately 2018 was a much better version of 2016 for Democrats. The shock in 2022 came from how similar it was to 2020 outside of a few large states such as California, Florida, and New York. Even in those states, the outcomes did not change, merely the margins.
This has implications for discussion about 2024. The discourse about whether Donald Trump should run again, and if not, who should replace him, contains a universe of possibilities that does not seem supported by data. Some candidates are likely to perform better than others, some will have much greater funding, and run more disciplined operations. Ultimately, it is likely that whatever Republican is running is going to have to try to win with the 2020 coalition. No Democrat, Biden or otherwise, is likely to try and win the 2012 election a second time by focusing on Iowa and Ohio.
The GOP can win in 2024. But the party must first figure out how to win the 2020 and 2022 elections, on those maps, and with those coalitions. That is the message Georgia reinforced.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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