While the Democrats have already clinched control of the Senate for the coming legislative term, all eyes are nevertheless on Georgia. There, the runoff election between incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and GOP challenger Herschel Walker will determine the breadth of the Democrats' lead, the subsequent tone of their majority, and the electoral cushioning they can expect in 2024, when the party will be defending 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs.
Republicans, meanwhile, are focused on Georgia for an entirely different set of reasons. While a win in the Peach State would certainly help blunt the Democrats' Senate majority to a degree, the race has also become a proxy battleground in a larger schism working its way through the GOP as a whole — one fueled by the party's anemic midterm election showings, which have only exacerbated finger pointing between establishment leaders like Mitch McConnell and the ascendent MAGA wing of Donald Trump over who is to blame, and who will lead Republicans into 2024. Here's everything you need to know:
How does Trump come into play in Georgia?
While former President Donald Trump made little secret of his resurgent political aspirations ahead of the midterm elections, the upcoming Georgia runoff will be the first and most consequential test of his influence after he's officially declared his candidacy for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. That Walker — Trump's handpicked candidate — failed to best Warnock in an election cycle overwhelmingly in Republicans' favor has only served to spook conservatives worried that Trump's predilection for flashy, extremist celebrities in lieu of more traditional candidates may have harmed the party's chances in this, and future, elections.
In no small part, the debate is a familiar one: Can Trump-the-candidate lift down-ticket Republicans, or is he incapable of being for anyone other than himself? Here the question is more acute: Were Trump to visit Georgia ahead of the run-off, would it be for his, or Walker's benefit? Would Trump succeed in energizing voters demoralized by the midterms, or would he suck the air out of the race, and link the pair for the worse in the eyes of voters?
"Right now, Walker's campaign needs to be the priority and focus for our party," GOP strategist and former Trump 2016 advisor Mike Biundo told Fox News shortly before Trump announced his 2024 plans. It's a sentiment echoed by many Republicans, who worry that Trump's presence in Georgia would turn the independent voters Walker needs if he has any hope of besting Warnock.
"If you talk to Georgia election strategists, they believe Trump was a huge drag on Walker in suburban Atlanta and there's just no reason to risk repeating that," one GOP source told The Hill. "If Trump injects himself into the race somehow and Walker comes up short, that's really bad for Trump too."
Who else in the GOP is eyeing opportunities in Georgia?
While Trump — or perhaps more accurately, Trumpism — may be one of the central animating forces behind the GOP's Georgia fixation, he is not the only person who sees Walker's campaign as a means to their own potentially self-interested ends. In an election as high profile as this final Senate race of the year, there are multiple interested parties who have swooped in to leverage the situation for their own fundraising purposes.
Earlier this month, Republican Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) lashed out at the multiple PACs and parties piggybacking off Walker's race to fundraise and data-gather for themselves, telling Fox News Digital, "People who want Herschel to win should give directly to Team Herschel. These other organizations are using this race to capture data and donors for themselves, while Democrats are sending hundreds of millions to Warnock."
As Inside Elections reporter Jacob Rubashkin pointed out in regard to a Trump-aligned PAC's request for campaign funds, these sorts of third-party solicitations will often feature a wildly uneven contribution distribution ratio hidden in the fine print:
And Trump's PAC hasn't been the only one:
Even the legitimately Walker-campaign-aligned National Republican Senatorial Committee solicitations have been hit with similar criticisms, not only for shifting distribution ratios but also for allegedly being an effort by outgoing NRSC chair Rick Scott to build his own fundraising data list to compete with Mitch McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund. Earlier in November, Scott lost his dark horse bid to unseat McConnell as GOP Senate leader amid ongoing bad blood between the two.
With the firehose of campaign contribution opportunities reduced to a trickle after the 2022 midterms largely ended, Georgia represents a last-minute extension, then, for interested parties hoping to strike while the rapidly cooling iron is still marginally hot.
With the Democrats already having clinched their 50 seats in the Senate, the Walker campaign has been robbed of its most compelling campaign message in Georgia: "Vote for Herschel to deny the Democrats their Senate majority." Absent that pressing necessity, the Walker team has been forced to pivot back to an issue-based campaign — something the candidate himself has struggled with. The question for Walker — and GOP observers of his campaign — is what are those issues, and if they will resonate with voters.
Just one day after a deadly mass shooting at an LGBT nightclub in Colorado, Walker unveiled a new campaign ad leaning hard into the conservative anti-transgender sentiment considered by many to have been a significant factor in the recent violence.
While Walker's embrace of GOP culture war rhetoric like this is hardly a new phenomenon, it comes shortly after a Morning Consult/Politico poll suggested that the politicization of transgender athletes ranked at the very bottom of most voters' list of priorities for the incoming congress. If Walker does succeed in ousting Warnock, political strategists will be forced to contend with whether his victory was fueled by this wholehearted adoption of the right wing's anti-LGBT agenda. Conversely, should he lose, those conservative figures promulgating that same sentiment will likely pause to reassess their issue-based messaging and its effect on independent voters.