Brian Kemp campaigned—and won—at a distance from Herschel Walker. What does that mean for Walker’s Senate runoff?

The Senate race between Walker and incumbent Raphael Warnock was the only statewide race Republicans did not win outright

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Brian Kemp campaigned—and won—at a distance from Herschel Walker. What does that mean for Walker’s Senate runoff?
Governor Brian Kemp speaks to supporters at the Coca-Cola Roxy theater at the Battery Atlanta on November 8.

Photograph by Megan Varner/Getty Images

It looks like Georgia will have to wait another month before the Senate is decided, but the governor’s race was over before midnight. Despite a high-profile challenge from Stacey Abrams, Brian Kemp won re-election by seven points, a wider margin than in 2018. The rest of the Republican ticket rode his coattails to victory—everyone but Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who’ll head to a runoff against incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock, in a race that could, once again, decide party control of the Senate.

It was precisely the outcome Republican strategists, hoping to retake the Senate, had feared. Herschel Walker, who’s never held political office, is a less-than-optimal candidate. He’s made eyebrow-raising statements about his (fake) experience as a cop and his campaign has been dogged consistently by scandals from his past, including allegations of domestic abuse and paying at least two women to have abortions.

Brian Kemp, whose carefully cultivated political persona evokes a hardworking, God-fearing, straight-shooting dad, could not seem further away. And indeed, Kemp has stayed away, campaigning almost entirely separately from the would-be Senator and dodging Walker’s scandals by saying he’s “laser focused” on winning re-election. The distance seems to have paid off for Kemp, who netted 200,000 more votes than Walker—votes Walker will need if he hopes to outflank Warnock on December 6.

At his campaign watch party last night, Kemp declared victory without mentioning Walker, or even referencing the Senate runoff that was already looking likely. He told the crowd, “This election proves that when Republicans stay focused on real-world solutions that put hard-working people first, we can win now, but also in the future,” which seemed a subtle rebuke to Walker’s nationalized, culture-war issue campaign. As Kemp’s supporters cheered, the question was already being raised: would they turn out to vote for such a campaign?

Celebrating Kemp’s victory at the Coca-Cola Roxy, party-goers insisted they were all in for Walker. Several blamed Democrats for attacking Walker unfairly: “Warnock is supposed to be a man of God,” said Tiffani Lee of Acworth, “Yet he likes to bring up the sins of Herschel Walker from his past.” Asked about the allegations Walker had paid for past partners to get abortion, she said it wasn’t her place to judge. “If it’s true, that’s between him and God. It shouldn’t be in politics.” She’s pro-life but says abortion isn’t a big issue for her—her primary motivation is getting Democrats out of office. “We’re sick and tired of the blue—the other blue,” Lee clarified, meaning Democrats, not police. Will they vote for Walker in the runoff? “Oh, hell yeah,” said Lee’s friend Ian Hathaway. “I’ll even volunteer!” Lee added.

Tammey Osburn, who came from Newnan with her husband to the watch party, said she adores Kemp—“he’s so copacetic with the people”—but supports Herschel Walker, too. “He’s a Dawg!” Like others at the party, she said didn’t know of anyone who’d split their ticket to vote for Warnock. And, she added, she’d gladly vote for Walker again in the runoff.

Around 11:30 p.m., Kemp and his family took the stage to raucous applause, where he thanked Georgia voters and his fellow statewide candidates without mentioning the Senate race. In fact, he went out of his way to pin this victory on Georgia alone: Georgia voters, who chose a Georgia-centric leader, unencumbered by the influence of outside national figures. “I didn’t listen to the pundits, the media, or presidents,” Kemp said in his speech, making a pointed reference to President Trump’s attempts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. “I listened to you.”

But Walker did listen to a president: it was largely President Trump’s endorsement that launched him into the race. And without a political record on which to campaign, Walker tacked harder into the culture war issues, like abortion and transgender rights, that have animated Republican races nationwide. His campaign also brought in Trump-endorsed national figures, including Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and Florida Senator Rick Scott, who stumped for him in the final days of the election. That approach won over plenty of staunch Republicans—88 percent of self-identified Evangelicals voted for him—but it may have softened his appeal amongst Georgians with less attachment to the Trump brand, especially as Walker’s various gaffes and scandals threatened to swamp his campaign.

As midterm results emerge nationwide, it appears that fidelity to President Trump may not have been the winningest strategy, especially where races were tight: Trump-backed candidates lost in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and likely in Arizona, where ballots are still being counted. In Florida, Ron DeSantis trounced Charlie Crist, winning reelection as governor without an endorsement from Trump at all.

Here in Georgia, Trump not only declined to endorse Kemp, he convinced David Perdue to primary him back in May (Kemp beat him handily). In the end, Kemp managed to turn Trump’s disdain into a campaign selling point, which made him harder to attack as a far-right stooge, even as he pandered to the far-right by delivering a strict abortion law and looser gun restrictions. Kemp’s straight-shooting, hardworking dad brand is both genuine and convincing—onstage at the victory party, his daughter Lucy hoisted the yellow diesel fuel can she used to tote as a kid during his early campaigns—but when it comes to political strategy, he’s as canny as they come. As Republicans assess the red wave that wasn’t, they’ll likely be looking at Kemp as an example of how to win without Trump.

But for now, all eyes turn to the runoff next month, which is poised, once again, to decide the political future. With Senate control hanging in the balance, it may simply be politics that sends voters out for Walker rather than any personal affinity. A gentleman in cowboy boots who declined to give his name remarked drily, “Look, he’s got an R behind his name —what else am I going to do?”

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