US midterms: All eyes on Georgia
With all the scandals surrounding Herschel Walker taking the oxygen out of the Georgia Senate race, it is easy to lose sight of how high the stakes are.
In the last US presidential election in November 2020, Georgia was the closest race. Joe Biden won Georgia by only 11,779 votes, or only 0.23 per cent. Once a reliably conservative state, Georgia has transformed over the past few election cycles. As a result of demographic shifts and increased ethnic diversity, an influx of young professionals into the state, and massive voter registration drives, Georgia is now a true swing state.
'Considering how dramatically the population has shifted, Georgia is likely to remain a pivotal ‘purple’ state for years to come.'
Considering how dramatically the population has shifted – many historically Republican suburbs of Atlanta have swung radically to Democrats – Georgia is likely to remain a pivotal ‘purple’ state for years to come. It is a big state with 16 electoral votes, and as Republicans look like they have taken permanent hold in Florida and Ohio, Democrats are hoping Georgia can serve to blunt some of these losses going forward.
Political centre of gravity
But it was not just the presidential race that made Georgia the political centre of gravity in 2020. The US Senate, as well as the White House, hung in the balance. In part due to an unimpressive slate of Republican candidates but even more due to Donald Trump’s continuing claims that 2020 elections were ‘stolen’, Republican voters did not turn out in usual numbers in the January 2021 Senate runoff elections, and Democrats won both Georgia Senate seats.
For the first time in history, Georgia elected a Jewish senator (Jon Ossoff) and an African American senator (Reverend Raphael Warnock). The symbolism of this partnership was not lost on many Americans, especially those in the South who recall the emotional legacy of the Jewish-Black alliance during the Civil Rights era.
Two years later, Georgia is again the centre of US politics. The midterm elections will be held on 8 November and both chambers of Congress are up for grabs. While the polls indicate that Republicans will likely take control of the House of Representatives, the fate of the Senate will come down to a few very tight races.
Races marked by scandal
Many of these races could be the stuff of reality TV shows, and not of the good kind. In Pennsylvania, current Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a seven-feet-tall, tattoo-covered, working-class ex-mayor of a small town who is recovering from a recent stroke, is running a few points ahead of the Republican challenger Mehmet Oz, a shady TV ‘doctor’ and purveyor of pseudoscience and dubious weight loss schemes.
In Arizona, the voters will choose between the incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly, an accomplished NASA astronaut and Republican Blake Masters, a Trump loyalist who embraces the far-right ‘great replacement theory,’ which alleges that liberal immigration policies are ‘diluting’ the white race, opposes the US aid to Ukraine, and believes the FBI was involved in the January 6th insurrection.
Enter Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate for US Senate in Georgia, who is trying to unseat Raphael Warnock (Georgia’s second senator Jon Ossoff is not up for re-election until 2027). Walker’s main claim to fame is his career as a running back in the National Football League. His relationship to Georgia is tenuous – he played college football at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, never graduated, and became a professional football player for various teams in Texas, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New York, before retiring from professional football and buying a chicken food distribution company.
His real claim to fame, however, is his long-term friendship with Donald Trump. It was Trump who encouraged Walker to run for the Senate in 2021, at which point Walker changed his residency from Texas to Georgia. Walker’s credentials and biography began to crumble under even the lightest of media scrutiny. It turned out that Walker – just like his mentor Trump – tended to serially lie, exaggerate, and misinterpret events from his past.
He lied about graduating college, about his business success, and about contributing to charity. In a seemingly endless stream of sordid revelations, it turned out he had three ‘secret’ children he never recognized or supported, that he was accused of domestic violence by a former wife, and that he paid for an abortion for one of his girlfriends and urged her to have another abortion a few years later.
Politically damning allegations against Walker
While all these allegations portray a man clearly temperamentally unfit to be anywhere near a public office, it was the abortion allegations that appear to be the most politically damaging. These allegations would not be quite as salacious if it wasn’t for the fact that Walker is running on a platform of no abortion without exceptions. No abortion for anyone else, that is. The hypocrisy and cruelty of Walker’s positions would be shocking had it not been for the experience Americans collectively had with Donald Trump, whose hypocrisy and cruelty were unmatched.
It is embarrassing that the fate of the US Senate may be determined by how much Georgia voters care about the personal soap opera of a Trump-loving washed-out football star. But here we are. The problem for Walker and for Georgia Republicans is that the Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock seems to be popular enough to keep his job. The election is close, but Warnock has consistently been up by a few points.
‘Warnock continues to have a huge advantage among Georgia’s African Americans, who reliably vote Democratic, find Warnock impressive, and view Walker’s candidacy as a condescending plan to split their vote.’
And while the issue of race continues to be salient in Georgia – where one in three citizens is African American – the Republicans’ plan of using Walker to take the Black vote away from Warnock does not seem to have worked. Warnock continues to have a huge advantage among Georgia’s African Americans (85 per cent to 5 per cent), who reliably vote Democratic, find Warnock impressive, and view Walker’s candidacy as a condescending plan to split their vote.
In a race this tight, every vote counts, and the latest allegations against Walker may just be enough to keep a few otherwise diehard Republicans from voting for him. Republicans may still win big in Georgia. The Republican governor Brian Kemp is running for re-election and despite his challenger Stacey Abrams’s strong favorability among Democrats, Kemp has maintained a steady lead and is likely to pull out a victory.
Ever since Kemp stood up to Trump and blocked his attempt to overturn the results of Georgia elections in 2020, he has enjoyed steady support among moderate Republicans, who were turned off by Trump and are turned off by Walker, but in Kemp see a type of old-fashioned Republican they can get behind.
High stakes in Georgia
With all the scandals surrounding Herschel Walker taking all the oxygen out of the Georgia Senate race, it is easy to lose sight of just how high the stakes are. With Republicans looking likely to take over the House, Georgia, again, may decide who controls the legislature. There is no indication that Walker has developed particularly fine-tuned policy views, other than to be on the very far-right of the already very far-right Republican delegation. If elected, all indications are that he would vote a strictly partisan Republican line on all major issues.
‘With Republicans looking likely to take over the House, Georgia, again, may decide who controls the legislature.’
With Walker’s help, the Republican takeover of the Senate would mean a total block of President Biden’s agenda. Domestically, this will certainly entail further expansion of the conservative social agenda, especially on issues such as abortion, immigration, or conservative control of education curricula. Other issues with significant international impact, such as climate change, aid to Ukraine or support of NATO, may be completely upended by a hostile Republican Senate.
Much of US policy – domestic as well as foreign – may depend on how much a Republican voter in an Atlanta suburb ends up caring about the spectacle that is Herschel Walker. And that is a very unsettling thought.