Warnock’s gloves come off against Walker in Georgia
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) is signaling that he’s ready to ditch his typically restrained persona in favor of more direct attacks on his Republican opponent Herschel Walker as the Georgia Senate race enters its final stretch.
In recent days, Warnock, who has built his campaign around his work in the Senate and a record of bipartisanship, has shifted toward more open confrontation with Walker. He used a Sunday debate that Walker did not attend to hammer the former football star over his history of domestic violence and leveled another series of attacks on Monday, accusing Walker of lying about everything from his academic credentials to his claim that he has worked in law enforcement.
“I guess he expects the people of Georgia now to hallucinate and imagine that he is also a United States senator,” Warnock told reporters after casting his ballot on the first day of early voting on Monday. “He’s clearly not ready.”
The more pugilistic approach is likely to come as a relief to some Democrats, who have privately complained about Warnock’s tendency to play nice and argue that the incumbent senator needs to do more to highlight Walker’s liabilities in an ever-tightening race.
“I think a lot of what voters appreciate about Raphael Warnock is that he’s a good man; he doesn’t play into the shit show,” one Democratic strategist who has worked on Senate campaigns said. “But at some point, there’s no payoff for being nice, especially when Republicans are going to do everything they can to bring you down.”
“You’ve got to let people know what they’re going to get from Herschel Walker,” the strategist added.
For his part, Walker, who has dealt with his fair share of controversies since launching his Senate bid, has run a campaign almost singularly focused on casting Warnock as an out-of-touch politician who has stood in lockstep with President Biden amid towering inflation and rising crime.
While Warnock has largely ignored Walker’s attacks, preferring to run as a steady hand for Georgians in Washington, the potential shortcomings of that strategy became apparent Friday, when he met an aggressive Walker for their first and only face-to-face debate.
That showdown saw Walker frequently interrupt and fiercely criticize a cautious Warnock, who seldom went on the attack and focused more on touting Democratic policy achievements, like the passage of a sweeping tax and climate bill over the summer.
While Walker hit the occasional snag — at one point, he was scolded by the moderator for brandishing an honorary sheriff’s badge in violation of a rule against using props — his debate performance was seen by Republicans as one that could help him quiet doubts about his ability to serve in the Senate.
“I think it gave some comfort to people who had some angst about his ability simply to stand up and articulate and look like he’s fundamentally in charge of both himself and the key issues in a way that matches Georgia,” said Chuck Clay, a former state senator and Georgia GOP chair.
“He overperformed in a way that assured people he’s a competent candidate and can go to the Senate and provide leadership on things that traditionally a majority of Georgians have cared about — the economy, jobs and job security,” Clay said.
Most polling in the race shows Warnock with only a narrow lead over Walker, and few surveys show either candidate receiving the majority support they’ll need to win the election outright in November and avoid what would likely be a chaotic and expensive runoff.
What’s more, early voting is already underway in Georgia and Election Day is fewer than three weeks out, meaning that the window for either candidate to expand his base of support is rapidly closing.
Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said that Warnock’s primary mission in the closing weeks of the campaign should be to remind voters of Walker’s personal and political baggage, arguing that a policy-focused closing argument alone may not be enough to bring the race to a close.
“Warnock is a singular figure. He’s a pastor, he’s a person of faith, he’s a man of principles,” Reinish said. “But you have to fight, and you have to score knockout punches, and you have to make sure you’re consistently defining your opponent as part of your closing argument, and Warnock finally seems to be doing that now.”
To be sure, Walker’s turbulent personal life hasn’t gone untouched. Warnock’s campaign has aired ads attacking Walker, while Democratic-aligned groups are spending $36 million hammering the GOP candidate.
Republicans, meanwhile, have countered with personal attacks of their own. 34N22, a PAC aligned with Walker, dropped $1.5 million on an ad last week featuring police body camera footage of a March 2020 altercation between Warnock and his ex-wife.
Some Democrats say that the attacks on Walker will be more powerful coming directly from Warnock in the final weeks of the campaign, believing that the outcome of the race could come down to a handful of moderates and swing voters, who may have reservations about both candidates.
“I think the strategy is: We’re going to go hard, we’re going to be more aggressive at the candidate level; we’ve got to turn the heat up to show we’re emotionally invested in this, and it needs to come from the candidate himself,” one Democratic consultant said.
Still, Republicans have stood behind Walker in the face of negative headlines and campaign-trail gaffes. After a report from The Daily Beast earlier this month detailed allegations that Walker had paid for his then-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009, top Republican groups put out statements of support for Walker, accusing Democrats and the media of trying to smear him.
Clay, the former Georgia state senator, noted that Walker has “been hit with just about every torpedo you can toss at him, and it hasn’t brought him down.” He cautioned that Warnock should be careful not to go too negative against Walker, warning that doing so could damage his bipartisan appeal.
“I think it’s a little more difficult to turn him into a raging bull without losing a little bit of credibility, losing who he is and who he wants to be portrayed as,” Clay said. “If you go too far, people will see it as desperation.”
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