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How Raphael Warnock Played the Georgia GOP
A retrospective on the Walker Campaign
“I’m not that smart….(Warnock) is smart and wears these nice suits. So, he is going to show up and embarrass me at the debate on October 14th, and I’m just waiting to show up and I will do my best.”
-Herschel Walker to a group of reporters, Savannah, Georgia, September 19, 2022
I often think about this quote. Out of the many, many, many things to come out of this year’s senate election, it may even be the one thing I think about the most. I recognize that I am in the minority here. For many, I’d imagine that the most memorable moment was the October 4th Daily Beast article, where Walker, who calls himself pro-life, was revealed to have urged for and paid for his girlfriend’s abortion in 2009. For others, it may be the events that immediately followed that article, where Walker’s son, right-wing influencer Christian Walker, called his father a liar and accused him of attempted familicide. Of course, it could also be the moment in his singular debate with Warnock where he flashed what appeared to be a Fisher-Price toy police badge on stage. Or it could be his many statements on the campaign trail, which included his longing to be a werewolf, a tangent where he described air as sentient, or his oft-repeated story about a sexually frustrated bull.
All of these moments hold a special place in my heart. But when viewed within a complete picture of the race, I think that Walker’s quote on September 19th is still the most revealing. This is not just because of the novelty of hearing a candidate outright describe himself as dumb. It is because, unlike all of the scandals and crises that emanated from the flawed candidate himself, that moment represents the failures that occurred at the core of his campaign structure. Going into the future, I believe that this is the most valuable thing to focus on. Herschel’s scandals are irrelevant now. He is gone: he’ll never run for office in Georgia again. But the professional Republicans who managed his run will still be around. It’s worth understanding how they, too, failed in this race. And they failed massively.
From the outset, the Walker campaign faced intense contradictions about the very nature of the race they were in. In their favor was that, perhaps more than any other state with a Democratic incumbent senator, Georgia seemed primed to flip back towards Republicans. It had only barely voted for Democrats two years prior while Trump was in office: now, the president was both Democratic and deeply unpopular. Brian Kemp, at the top of the Republican ticket, held a massive lead over his opponent. Everything was in the making for a banner year for state Republicans, which, all else being equal, would entail a comfortable pickup of Georgia’s senate seat.
Working against the Walker campaign was that their candidate was Herschel Walker.
The moment after the primaries ended, Warnock’s campaign and his outside allies engaged in a two-step messaging strategy. It had two principal aims: keep the Senator’s favorable ratings as high as possible, and drive Walker’s favorable as low as possible. On their part, Warnock’s campaign made predominantly positive ads that followed a simple theme: they featured the Senator himself, usually in a rural part of the state, talking about almost completely apolitical topics while often empathizing his collaboration with Republicans. Outside Democratic groups, meanwhile, aired constant, brutal, and personal attacks on Walker, digging up every old and new scandal, lie and crime the candidate had ever been involved with, said or committed and broadcasting them across the airwaves.
For readers out of state, this may sound like something you know already, especially after the voter reaction video made in the runoff by the Warnock campaign went semi-viral. But for those who didn’t see these spots every time you turned on your TV during the latter half of the year, I recommend watching a few of them if just to understand how utterly brutal their approach was. The best I could find in a quick search was this ad made by the “Republican Accountability Project” that started airing around August:
Almost all of the ad was just clips from an old interview with one of Walker’s ex-wives, where she candidly describes instances of violence, threats and near-murder from their relationship. And this was relatively benign compared to what groups like Georgia Honor would put out during the late stages of the campaign. A DSCC front group, Georgia Honor ads were easily recognizable to me because they were always the ones that attacked Walker the most brutally. They would particularly make liberal use of the allegations made by Christian Walker against his father after the publication of the Daily Beast article in early October. Since the videos they used on YouTube are de-listed, full clips of their TV spots are surprisingly hard to find. But for those interested in their approach, Facebook generously provides an archive of all of the ads Georgia Honor posted on their platform from early August to December 6th. The full library can be found here.
This whole approach was remarkably risky. When campaigning in a newly competitive state, attacking your opponent always runs the risk of negatively polarizing new swing voters back to their old party. In the case of Georgia, that would be the GOP. So, all else being equal, you would rather avoid making voters ask tough questions about themselves and their past political decisions. A positive campaign is much safer.
But Warnock was not attacking Walker just for the sake of attacking him. His ultimate aim was shaping how voters understood the race itself. The Senator and his staff knew that if the election was going to be a choice between a Republican or a Democrat, he would almost certainly lose. Georgia’s electorate in 2022 was always going to be whiter, older, more anti-Biden than it was in 2020. That’s just the way midterms work, and it’s what ended up happening. But if his campaign could turn the race into a personality contest, Warnock wouldn’t just be in the running to win. He would be in a dominant position simply because he was so much more personally popular than Herschel Walker.
For their part, the Walker campaign took a low profile after the primary, seemingly hoping to coast on the overall popularity of the Republican ticket. But they quickly found themselves behind Warnock in the polls. As election day came closer, and their position failed to improve, the Walker campaign decided that it was time to make their move. They did so in a way that played entirely into Warnock’s hands. In response to the constant negative messaging against their candidate, Walker’s camp responded with a tit-for-tat negative ad campaign, re-using many of the same attacks they made in 2020 in an attempt to paint Warnock as an extremist radical. To manage the negative perceptions of their candidate, they decided that the best move was to lower the public expectations of Walker as much as possible.
This, by the way, is why he publicly admitted to being stupid.
Such an approach only makes sense if you do not understand how voters view elections. The Walker campaign was seemingly operating on the presumption that voters were interpreting the race as a partisan contest and a personality contest simultaneously. All they thought they had to do to fix their problem was improve the personality contest side of the equation by attacking Warnock. This was not how the election worked. Voters are not algorithms: they do not make decisions by weighing an extensive list of facts in their heads. Most of the time, they make decisions with their short term memory, relying on a small number of preconceived notions and basic perceptions about the candidates and races they’re voting on.
An effective campaign manages to put the considerations that are the most favorable to their candidate at the top of the minds of voters on election day. By devolving to personal attacks on Warnock, the Walker campaign did the exact opposite. While their ads may have changed voter perceptions of Warnock on the margins, any potential benefit that may have provided was completely outweighed by the fact that it crystallized the race into a straightforward personality contest. This was everything the Warnock campaign had dreamed of, and then some. The nightmare scenario for them had always been voters viewing the race along partisan lines. With the Walker campaign engaging with them entirely on their own terms, they had the race precisely where they wanted it.
After successfully defining the race, the Warnock campaign put up a result that seemed to come from an entirely different universe from the rest of the states contests. The Senator achieved an astounding overperformance, coming out ahead against Walker at the same time other Democrats in statewide races were losing by upwards of 300,000 votes. While not enough to win outright, Warnock still managed to outperform Biden’s margin of victory in the state, coming into the runoff as the clear favorite. With only their two names on the ballot, the runoff race became even more of a direct choice to voters. It was the kind of contest Warnock was always well positioned to win, and he did just that, beating Walker by a 3% margin that stands as the largest for any Georgia Democrat in a major statewide race this century.
What is striking—baffling, even—about Walker’s campaign is how so many of their mistakes came from what appears to be a gross misunderstanding of the basics of political psychology. That making the race as much as a partisan contest as possible was their best, and possibly only, path to victory. But they never even seemed to attempt this. Instead, they were completely content to let the Warnock campaign decide how voters understood the race, and even then only deciding to engage with them late, using attacks that were ineffective in the past!
It also does not appear that there will be any sort of reckoning with this coming from the Republican side anytime soon. As we all know, Republican leaders, and their backers, have been content to blame their poor performances entirely on Trump and the poor quality of his handpicked candidates. They are correct in that this made winning the Senate much more difficult than it might have been otherwise. But it was ultimately their responsibility to get these campaigns in a winnable position. In 2022, of all years, it should have been possible. It should have been easy.
They failed to do in Georgia, or practically anywhere else. That’s not something that just nominating Ron DeSantis can fix.