GOP feels better about Walker’s chances in Georgia

Republicans are seeing a surge of optimism in Georgia’s hotly contested Senate race amid signs their nominee, former soccer star Herschel Walker, is beginning to close the gap with Senator Raphael Warnock (D).

After a series of initial stumbling blocks that led to intense hand-wringing among top Senate Republicans, party officials say they are beginning to see a more professional operation emerging from Walker’s campaign.

And despite the surge that Democratic Senate candidates have seen in other states over the past two months, polls in Georgia have shown a race that is broadly tightening. An InsiderAdvantage-Fox 5 Atlanta poll released earlier this month found Walker has a 3-point lead over Warnock — a reversal from July, when the Democratic incumbent led by the same margin.

“I think you see the professionalization of Herschel as a candidate,” said Chuck Clay, a former Georgia state senator and GOP chairman. “He is who he is. His early comments, which were kind of silly or crazy — but never mean or mean — have somehow been brought under control.”

Walker’s more disciplined approach to the race isn’t just a fluke, said another Republican strategist.

Facing a bumpy campaign summer, the former Dallas Cowboys running back began to overhaul his political operation, bringing in a team of veteran Republican activists including longtime strategist Chip Lake and Gail Gitcho, who served as Senator Mitt’s communications director Romney’s (R-Utah) 2012 presidential campaign.

“They’ve got him focused, and he’s also trained himself to be more focused, to be less talkative, and I think it’s showing,” the strategist said.

The result was a more focused campaign; Walker has more regularly pounded Warnock on issues like inflation, crime and border security, while posing as a unifying force himself. In an ad by Walker and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) released earlier this month, he accused Warnock and the Democrats of “dividing Americans through race,” adding he wanted to “bring us together.”

Displacing Warnock would be one of the GOP’s biggest wins of the year if the party could pull it off. Republicans only need a Senate seat to regain their majority, and given President Biden’s extremely narrow victory in Georgia in 2020, the state is still one of their top targets.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the NRSC chairman, said he’s confident in Walker’s chances in November and predicted Republicans would ultimately get “52-plus” Senate seats next Year.

“I think we’re going to get 52,” Scott said. “I think Herschel Walker will win.”

In a sign that Washington Republicans are more enthusiastically eyeing the Georgia Senate race, Punchbowl News reported Tuesday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will host a fundraiser for Walker this week – his second event to benefit the former NFL star in less than a month.

Another GOP heavyweight, Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), also traveled to Georgia last month to fight for Walker. A Republican aide described the brisk activity of national GOP officials as a sign that party leaders were “closing ranks” ahead of Election Day.

But Warnock, an affable Atlanta pastor who narrowly won his Senate seat in a high-stakes runoff last year, will not be easy to overthrow.

He has both the advantage of tenure and more campaign money than Walker. And while some polls have indicated Walker is closing in on him, others – including a Marist College poll released Tuesday – still show Warnock by a solid lead.

And Walker isn’t immune to the same challenges Republicans face nationally. Former President Trump’s reemergence as a headline-grabbing figure could raise questions about Walker’s ties to him, especially given that the former president backed him early in his campaign.

Trump hasn’t been to Georgia in months, though he’s been stumbling around other Senate battlegrounds lately for Republican candidates, though he’s due to weigh a possible rally in the state in the coming weeks, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported that the former president may be considering an upcoming campaign event for Walker.

Add to this the ongoing fight over abortion rights that has put Republicans in a politically precarious position since the Supreme Court ruled Roe v. Wade picked up over the summer. After Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) introduced legislation last week that would ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Walker said he would support such a policy.

But many aspects of the race between Warnock and Walker are personal.

Warnock has sought to highlight Walker’s gaffes and messy past, including allegations of domestic violence and exaggerations about his business and academic accomplishments. Walker, meanwhile, has responded with questions about Warnock’s finances, including a $7,400 monthly housing benefit he receives as senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Warnock’s campaign has defended the senator’s financial arrangements, saying they comply with Senate rules.

But perhaps the most frightening reality for Warnock – or any Democrat – is the political environment this year. The ruling party almost always loses ground in midterm congressional elections, and despite recent Democrat momentum, the party still faces a difficult challenge.

“People are really frustrated with Biden; They’re really frustrated with the economy,” said Jay Williams, a Georgia Republican strategist. “It’s a much more nationalized election and I think the people of Georgia will be swinging the Republicans.”

Republicans also said they are not surprised that the Senate race in Georgia has intensified in recent weeks. It’s still considered one of the most competitive of the year, and voters across the board have kept it firmly in the toss-up column.

“The race would just get closer and closer,” said Clay, the former Georgia state senator. “Herschel has become a much better candidate through the process. And now it’s up to the last 1 or 2 percent to make that decision.”

“Can Herschel win? Yes,” he added. “Do I still say slight advantage for Warnock? First yes.”

Al Weaver contributed to this.

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