• Mon. Feb 6th, 2023

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In Georgia, Walker’s Pace in the Finish Worries Republican Allies

ATLANTA — Herschel Walker was being swamped by negative television ads. His Democratic opponents were preparing to flood the polls for early voting as soon as doors opened. After being hit by fresh allegations of carpetbagging, he was left with just over a week to make his final appeals to voters in the runoff for Georgia’s Senate seat.

But for five days, Mr. Walker was off the campaign trail.

The decision to skip campaigning over the crucial Thanksgiving holiday weekend has Mr. Walker’s Republican allies airing frustrations and concerns about his campaign strategy in the final stretch of the overtime election against Senator Raphael Warnock.

Democrats, they point out, have gotten a head start on Republicans in their early-voting push and are drowning out the G.O.P. on the airwaves — outspending them two-to-one. With less than a week to go, time is running out fast for Mr. Walker to make inroads with the moderate conservatives who did not support him during the general election.

“We almost need a little bit more time for Herschel’s campaign to get everything off the ground,” said Jason Shepherd, the former chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party, pointing to the transition from a general election campaign to a runoff sprint. Notably, the runoff campaign was cut from nine weeks to four by a Republican-backed law passed last year.

“I think we’re behind the eight ball on this one,” Mr. Shepherd added.

Mr. Shepherd said Mr. Walker’s decision not to campaign during Thanksgiving was just one troubling choice. He also pointed to a series of mailers sent by the Georgia Republican Party encouraging voters to find their polling places that contained broken QR codes as examples of poor organizing. And he raised concern about the steady stream of advertisements supporting Warnock, a first-term senator and pastor, on conservative talk radio and contemporary Christian stations.

Both Democrats and Republicans note that they are far from counting Mr. Walker out. The race remains within the margin of error, according to recent polling. Democrats outspent Republicans in the general election, too, pouring in more than $100 million, compared with $76 million spent by Republicans.

Still, Mr. Walker, the former football star, won 1.9 million votes earlier this month — landing 37,000 votes short of Mr. Warnock and roughly 60,000 votes shy of the 50 percent threshold for winning the seat outright.

His campaign has been one of the most turbulent in recent memory: Mr. Walker was found to have lied or exaggerated details about his education, his business, his charitable giving and his work in law enforcement. He acknowledged a history of violent and erratic behavior, tied to a mental illness, and did not dispute an ex-wife’s accusation of assault. Two women claimed that he had urged them to have abortions, although he ran as a staunchly anti-abortion candidate. He denied their accounts. He regularly delivered rambling speeches, which Democrats widely circulated with glee.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Herschel Walker might be the most flawed Republican nominee in the nation this year,” said Rick Dent, a media consultant who has worked for candidates from both parties and plans to vote for Mr. Warnock.

Still, despite all their spending against Mr. Walker, Mr. Dent said, Democrats “have not been able to shake him yet.”

With the Democrats’ majority in the U.S. Senate already secured, both parties have struggled to frame the race in all-or-nothing terms. Still, the runoff will determine whether Democrats win a 51st seat, perhaps easing the path for some judicial appointments. It will also cement the Democrats’ status as competitors in a onetime Republican stronghold.

The super PAC aligned with Senate Democrats said on Wednesday that it will spend nearly $6 million on a tough television ad focused on the allegations of physical violence and abuse against Mr. Walker. The advertisement strikes a somber tone, quoting Mr. Walker’s ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, his son Christian and an ex-girlfriend, all saying that Mr. Walker threatened them. It concludes, “Herschel Walker doesn’t belong in the Senate.”

Mr. Walker’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Walker has continued to be hit by damaging news. Last week, a county official in Texas confirmed that Mr. Walker filed to receive a tax exemption for his home there, citing the property as his primary residence, even though he was running for office as a resident of Georgia. The news, first reported by CNN, prompted a complaint from Democrats, who have asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the state attorney general to review whether he ran afoul of residency rules.

Mr. Walker has not answered questions about the matter; he has largely stopped talking to reporters. He was also notably silent this week as other Georgia Republicans denounced former President Donald J. Trump for hosting Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, two figures who have made racist and antisemitic statements, at his private club in Florida.

In one sign of Mr. Walker’s pursuit of moderate voters, his campaign agreed this week with aides to Mr. Trump, a political benefactor, that the former president would not campaign in Georgia for Mr. Walker.

Representatives for Mr. Walker did not respond to questions about his closing strategy. His allies have said that he had personal obligations that kept him from campaigning last weekend, including a memorial service for his former University of Georgia football coach, Vince Dooley, on Friday and an 85th birthday celebration for his mother on Saturday.

Mr. Walker has tried to counter the onslaught of criticism by acknowledging his lack of political experience.

“God prepared me for this moment because he didn’t want a politician,” he said on Monday at a campaign event in Cumming, Ga. “I’m not a politician. I can run that football. I can run track. And I do all those other things. I’m that warrior that God was looking for.”

Mr. Walker’s campaign has also run negative advertisements about Mr. Warnock. One on the airwaves in major markets on Tuesday revisited a 2020 domestic dispute between the senator and his ex-wife, as well as allegations that an apartment building with ties to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Mr. Warnock is the senior pastor, was kept in squalid conditions and that its staff members threatened to evict tenants for low outstanding debts.

Mr. Warnock has condemned the allegations as a “desperate” attempt to tarnish the name of his church. He told reporters in October that no evictions took place at the apartment building this year. A representative for the complex told The New York Times that no evictions had been carried out since 2020.

In the first three weeks of the four-week runoff, Democrats spent roughly $46 million on television and radio ads, while Republicans spent just over $20 million, according to the advertising data tracker AdImpact.

Mr. Warnock’s message has become tightly focused on amplifying voters’ misgivings about Mr. Walker. In a spot that started running in major Georgia markets on Monday, voters are seen watching a series of videos of Mr. Walker in which he delivers some of his stranger remarks, including musings on vampire movies and pregnant cows. The viewers react with disbelief, confusion and embarrassment.

Republicans acknowledge that the message against Mr. Walker has resonated.

“While certainly people are working hard in getting him elected, they are encountering concerns,” said Martha Zoller, a Georgia-based conservative radio host and a former aide to Gov. Brian Kemp and former Senator David Perdue, two Georgia Republicans.

Democrats have largely focused on pushing their political base back out to vote, but Republicans are still working on persuading voters that Mr. Walker is the right choice.

If the decision voters make reflects their preference between President Biden and the Republicans, Ms. Zoller said, “then Herschel Walker’s got a chance.” “If the choice is strictly based on the two men,” she added, “it’s much more difficult.”

The argument for strict party loyalty in Georgia became harder to make when Democrats won control of the Senate earlier this month, deflating the national stakes in the race.

Still, several national Republican figures have continued to campaign alongside Mr. Walker in an effort to gin up enthusiasm among base voters and a fraction of moderates in the suburbs. Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, stumped with Mr. Walker on Tuesday alongside Senator-elect Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma.

Other high-profile Republicans, including Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, have attached their names to fund-raising emails for Mr. Walker over the last few days, but they have not shown up in person during the runoff.

Perhaps the most important surrogate for Mr. Walker is Governor Kemp, who pulled in just over 200,000 more votes than Mr. Walker to win re-election. Mr. Walker’s campaign views Mr. Kemp as an influential voice with both conservatives and moderates who may be motivated to vote for Mr. Walker. The governor has contributed staff and resources to Mr. Walker’s cause and has appeared alongside Mr. Walker at a campaign event and fund-raiser. He also cut an ad with a direct-to-camera appeal to voters on behalf of Mr. Walker.

“Herschel Walker will vote for Georgia — not be another rubber stamp for Joe Biden,” Mr. Kemp says in the ad. “That’s why I’m backing Herschel. And I hope you’ll join me in voting for him too.”

“It has been critical for Governor Kemp to put his arm around Herschel and make it a team sport,” said Ralph Reed, a Walker supporter and the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “That will be a driving message for college educated and suburban voters who might have held back before or might not have been inclined to turn out.”

Turnout, indeed, will be crucial. More than 800,000 people have cast ballots so far, according to the Georgia Secretary of State, outpacing turnout during the early-voting period of the 2018 general election. The participation surge extends across the state, including to counties that Mr. Walker won and the deep-blue metro Atlanta region.

The Democrats have called in reinforcements, too. Former President Barack Obama will campaign for Mr. Warnock in Atlanta on Thursday. The former first lady Michelle Obama has recorded a series of robocalls encouraging people to vote.

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.