Republican operatives raised concerns about spending shortfalls, strategy on the ground, and the party’s ability to appeal beyond its base. But the wringing of hands repeatedly came back to their nominee, one of many inexperienced and polarizing nominees who lost battlefield races this year.
Brian Robinson, a GOP operative in Georgia, said that despite all the hurdles, Walker “almost got this done,” noting that he still garnered more than 48 percent of the vote. But to earn those extra few percentage points to win in Georgia, the Republicans need candidates who can convince whom he called “comparison buyers,” not “tribal voters.” Other Republicans who won the state on Nov. 8 ran as “determined, level-headed, competent leaders without fireworks,” he said.
Walker’s campaign staff grew gloomy in the latest piece, according to an aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. The candidate’s five-day absence from the campaign trail around Thanksgiving — for in-person events and rest, the person said — didn’t help.
“It felt like, you know, we ran out of air in our tires after that,” the staffer said. “Morale was rock bottom.”
Walker’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“We put up a great fight,” Walker said in his concession speech on Tuesday night. He fell behind Warnock by 2.8 percentage points, struggled in urban and suburban areas, and performed worse than in November, when neither candidate got the 50 percent needed in Georgia to avoid a runoff.
Walker was the only statewide Republican candidate to lose in Georgia this year. The GOP had hoped that the Democrats’ success in Peach state in 2020 was a bad year rather than a new normal — and many operatives from both parties still call Georgia a state leaning on the red.
The GOP didn’t immediately unite behind Walker, even after he easily won the nomination this spring. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp (R) campaigned separately from him for most of the general election cycle, and some Republicans were openly critical of Walker’s qualifications and questioned his eligibility. And even as Kemp became Walker’s most valuable surrogate during the second round, GOP divisions hung over the race.
Walker’s campaign openly criticized some Republican calls to raise money for the candidate who sent most of the money to other Republicans. Meanwhile allies from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate National Republican Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who last month unsuccessfully challenged McConnell to lead the GOP caucus, in public sparring during the second round, describing tensions between different factions of the party.
The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund — the GOP’s largest spender in the meantime — and its affiliates invested $18 million during the second round, on top of the $39 million the SLF spent leading up to the Nov. 8 election, the report said. organization. But outside spending wasn’t enough for Walker to overtake Warnock, who broke fundraising records this cycle. Democrats increased their spending advantage during the second round, firing twice as much as Republicans on ads alone.
SLF President Steven Law “got a bad hand with Trump, a weak NRSC and a lack of enthusiasm for underpowered candidates” this election cycle, said GOP strategist Scott Reed.
An SLF spokesperson declined to comment, while an NRSC spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry on Wednesday. The NRSC spent more than half a million dollars on the second round, according to AdImpact, and has defended its overall medium-term strategy.
“While Herschel came up short last night, I know he will continue to be a leader in our party for years to come,” said Scott, who campaigned in Georgia with the candidate through the general election and runoff. said in a statement Wednesday.
Walker’s campaign has been dogged by repeated allegations of past misconduct: Walker’s former partners accused him of domestic violence, saying he was a largely absent father and paid for their abortions, despite being a strict nominee. ban on the procedure. Walker denied many of the claims while saying he did not remember certain incidents.
Democrats also worked to highlight Walker’s blunders on the trail, scrapping ads that consisted of voters reacting to sound bites with laughter and disbelief. The Warnock campaign has been credited with building a coalition that encouraged the Democrats’ liberal base, but also appealed to moderates and independents.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) — whose retirement this year opened a place in a key battlefield the Democrats turned — argued that the problem is not the Republican brand, but Trump’s. In an interview, he echoed other Republicans who noted that candidates close to Trump underperformed in the interim, while “more conventional Republicans” — including those who clashed with Trump — fared well.
“We had a flawed candidate – to put it mildly – and [that’s ] entirely the creation of Donald Trump. And we see how that ended,” Toomey said.
In an interview on Wednesday, the Walker campaign staffer said Trump’s decision to announce a third White House bid during the second round — against the urging of many Republicans — was the final stretch of the campaign. complicated and took some of the attention away from Georgia.
“The need to be held accountable for everything Trump did or said was frustrating,” the staffer said, pointing to Trump’s widely condemned dinner with rapper Ye and white supremacist Nick Fuentes, both of whom have made blatantly anti-Semitic remarks. Walker’s campaign did not comment on a statement of support from Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, earlier in the fall. Trump and Walker’s team finally settled on a tele-rally ahead of the second round, which Walker did not advertise on his social media.
The Walker staffer also complained about what they called a constant battle over Walker’s ear between veteran campaign operatives and those close to Walker who had no political experience.
GOP donors have expressed their displeasure with the results of the midterm elections and have called for a shift in strategy. Some frustrated donors are talking about setting up their own super-PACs, according to a person familiar with their mindset who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Even before Walker’s loss, some Republicans complained that their party had developed an early voting problem — with many GOP voters holding on to their ballots until the final day, when weather and other unforeseen factors could affect voter turnout, while Democrats held on to it. did everything. to get the ballots in early.
Seth Weathers, a Georgia state executive for Trump’s 2016 campaign — who was openly critical of Walker and said better candidates would have won outright in November — argued that Republicans have a lot of work ahead of them to improve the formidable infrastructure. of the turnout of the Democrats.
“We need to start building and facilitating the ground game for 2024… to a much greater extent than we are,” he said last week.
Adding to that challenge, Republicans said, are the additional resources needed to mobilize rural voters who voted for Walker. “The Warnock campaign can just focus on metro Atlanta and pull it off,” lamented Fulton County Republican Party Chairman Trey Kelly. “Our people have to go all over the state to get people out.”
The Republican National Committee said it had 400 staffers and more than 85,000 volunteers on the ground in Georgia working on the turnout; the SLF also invested about $2 million to repurpose Kemp’s get-out-the-vote operation.
Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters rejected allegations that Trump was responsible for Republican losses. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) responded to a tweet from former National Security Adviser John Bolton calling Trump “a huge liability and the Democrat’s best asset.”
“This has to be the dumbest estimate of our loss in the Senate. His campaign told Trump to stay out, so don’t blame Trump. Blame whoever held him all over the state, among many other reasons,” Greene said. It is unclear whether she was referring to one person or the GOP party organization.
Others in the GOP suggested that Georgia accelerate the shift of the former president’s party. Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) won re-election this fall after easily defeating Trump-backed challengers in the primary. Republicans specifically pointed to Kemp, who beat Democrat Stacey Abrams by more than 7 percentage points, as evidence that voters outside their base are still receptive to Republican policies and messages but have soured Trump as the standard bearer.
Scott Jennings, a longtime Republican operative with ties to McConnell, summed it up in a tweet Wednesday morning: “Georgia can be remembered as the state Trump broke once and for all.”
Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.