Lee Morris doesn’t have to justify his Republican credentials. He is in his second four-year term as the Fulton County Commissioner representing District 3, which covers most of metropolitan Atlanta, and has held various public offices in the Georgia state capital for 30 years. But when asked if he supports Herschel Walker, his party’s candidate for the US Senate, Morris laughs and said, “Votes are secret.” He pauses for a moment and then confesses, “Not every candidate I voted for is a Republican.”
Neither Walker nor his Democratic opponent, incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock, won more than 50% of the vote on November 8, triggering state rules mandating a runoff election that will take place on December 6. The winner may determine which party will control the US Senate and drive the nation’s legislative agenda for the next two years.
After a result that disappointed both candidates and parties, everyone put on a brave face and publicly described the runoff as just a formality before certain victory. But in private, Republicans are not exactly closing ranks around Walker. It’s not hard to find Republican voters who acknowledge that the former NFL star, a candidate handpicked by former President Donald Trump, was a serious mistake that could cost their party control of the Senate.
It’s the same scenario in several other states. Trump-endorsed candidates were defeated by Democrats despite favorable circumstances for Republicans – a high inflation rate (8.2%) and an unpopular president (54% disapproval rating). It happened in Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman defeated celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz for a Senate seat, and in New York, where incumbent Governor Kathy Hochul bested Lee Zeldin.
But Walker’s candidacy was especially noteworthy because his own party sought to create some distance during the campaign. In one final barnstorming tour before election day, Republican Governor Brian Kemp flew around Georgia accompanied by every conservative candidate in the state, except for Walker. “Scheduling problems” were blamed for Walker’s absence.
On election day, a hefty number of Republican voters in the swing state appeared to have abandoned Walker, and either abstained from voting or cast their ballots for Warnock. The numbers say it all: Walker won 48.7% of the vote (1,927,419 votes) with 99% of the votes counted. Meanwhile, Governor Kemp, whose popularity surged after he resisted heavy pressure from Trump to invalidate Biden’s 2020 victory in Georgia, easily defeated his Democratic rival Stacey Abrams, with 2,109,122 votes (53.4%), almost 200,000 votes and five percentage points more than Walker.
“Walker has done much worse in the polls than any other Republican candidate in Georgia,” notes Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “He lagged three or four percentage points behind a generic Republican candidate. That’s what made the Senate race in Georgia so close in an election that is generally leaning Republican.”
Walker suffers from campaign mistakes
The 60-year-old Republican nominee ran a disastrous campaign, even though he appeared to be an ideal candidate. He’s African American, which is appealing to Republican strategists in a state where the black minority is 30% larger than the national average, and consistently votes Democratic. He was not an ordinary candidate, but a celebrity millionaire with a thriving chicken business. His conservative, anti-abortion, religious ideology was a dream for the party’s conservative wing. And he was handpicked by Trump, the Pied Piper of the radical right.
Walker’s campaign started going off the rails early on. The candidate sometimes seems to have difficulty concentrating and speaking, which he partially attributes to concussions suffered during his football career. He downplayed himself during his campaign, saying, “I’m not that smart,” compared to Senator Raphael Warnock, an erudite Baptist pastor. Years ago, Walker acknowledged having mental health problems, including a multiple personality disorder.
There was more – allegations of a violent personality and abuse of his ex-wife surfaced during the campaign. Two women accused Walker of pressuring them to abort their children, all while he campaigned as an ardent pro-lifer. His son, a conservative influencer, publicly lashed out at his father’s hypocrisy.
At campaign rallies, Walker frequently described absent fathers as a “big problem” for African American families. “If you have a child… even if you leave the mother, you can’t leave that child,” he said. But the mother of one of Walker’s own children had to take him to court for unpaid child support.
He has lied about his academic record, about a non-existent military career, and about volunteer work in hospitals. Republican leaders were wrong to think he would attract African American votes. Bernard Fraga says that this constituency has not shifted significantly in Walker’s favor. Reverend Arundel Hope, a Protestant pastor at a church in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta where Martin Luther King once lived, said, “He [Walker] does not represent the African American community, nor is he qualified to represent Georgia in the US Senate.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens (D) agrees with Hope. “Having him on the ballot lets Republicans say they have an African American candidate, but Walker doesn’t represent the black community. He doesn’t know anything about urban communities and small businesses, and he has shown no signs of leadership,” Dickens told international journalists on the eve of the elections.
As the polls closed on election day, Walker stood before a mostly white audience of supporters and said he had “a pretty good vibe” about going to Washington as their senator. But this will take another four weeks of campaigning, and more money and support from the Republican Party. At stake is control of the national legislative agenda and the balance of political power for the next two years.
Voters who want a Republican win at all costs will cast their ballots for Walker, even if they have to hold their noses in the voting booths. Others will happily vote for their party’s candidate in this increasingly polarized country. Lee Morris boasts of having supporters from both sides of the aisle and from diverse communities. “Some Democrats tell me I’m the only Republican they vote for,” he laughed. “These days, voting is tribal. People ask, ‘Are you from my tribe or the other tribe?’ and that’s all they care about.”