The pivotal Senate election in Georgia is still more than a year away, but the money race is very much on.
The two leading candidates, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Republican hopeful and NFL legend Herschel Walker, have roped in a combined $12.8 million since June 30, juicing their war chests in expectation of a fierce battle for the swing seat next November.
Warnock’s $9 million haul for the period—the top quarterly number in all of Congress—outwardly appears to have bested the Walker campaign, whose financial report shows roughly $3.8 million raised. However, Walker only started accepting donations on Aug. 24, and by a daily measure, he went pound-for-pound with his rival, with each clocking about $100,000 a day.
But it’s unclear if Walker, a political neophyte mostly coasting on celebrity and a Sept. 3 endorsement from his old friend Donald Trump, can sustain those numbers the way Warnock has.
The freshman senator has been on a roll, raking in more than $22 million since winning one of Georgia’s two runoff elections in January. He currently boasts an intimidating campaign bank account, with more than $17 million cash on hand.
And while both candidates have attracted out-of-state donors, Walker’s fiery 37-day start has already put him on par with Warnock’s totals over the first half of the year. The Hall of Famer collected at least $817,000 of his $3.8 million—about 20 percent—from contributions beyond his home state, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data.
One of Walker’s out-of-state contributions came from fellow Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, who gave his former Dallas Cowboys teammate $1,000 the day after Walker opened his campaign account, listing his occupation as Fox Sports Broadcaster.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Walker campaign touted the candidate’s performance.
“In just five weeks, Herschel raised twice as much as all of our primary opponents combined raised in the full quarter. Herschel has unprecedented momentum in Georgia and is laser focused on winning back this seat,” the spokesperson said.
The combined totals for the Georgia Senate race put the contest in second place for overall fundraising in the third quarter, trailing the fight for GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s seat in Florida. In that race, Rubio’s presumed Democratic opponent, Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), outperformed the sitting senator, $8.5 million to Rubio’s $6 million. Demings, who also spent more than $5 million in the same period, reported the largest haul among challengers across all races.
Democrats, however, see a favorable map for holding their slim Senate majority in 2022. Two Republicans are stepping down from seats in purple states—Richard Burr in North Carolina and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania—and Democrats will mount serious challenges to incumbents like Rubio and Sen. Ron Johnson, who holds a key seat in Wisconsin but has not announced whether he plans to seek re-election.
Republicans, however, hold out hope that they can turn not just the House—where Democrats hold only a four-seat majority—but also the Senate. If they succeed, they’d almost certainly have to flip Warnock’s seat, which he won in January when he defeated one-term incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) by a thin margin.
Warnock appears to have been targeted not just politically, but personally. Over the first six months of the year, the freshly elected Democrat spent far and away the most campaign money on personal security, more than $344,000. He kept up the pace over the next three months, reporting more than $144,000 in security expenses for this latest filing.
And given the ugly final weeks of Warnock’s 2020 bout against Loeffler, in which GOP surrogates tapped anti-Black sentiment among the state’s base by taking a series of underhanded shots invoking race, this contest could be brutal. However, this time around, Warnock—a pastor who still delivers sermons at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King’s former congregation—is squaring off against another Black man, and that risk of friendly fire might go a distance to keeping right-wing racial animus in check.
National Republican Senate Committee spokesperson Chris Hartline told The Daily Beast that fundraising, while critical to reaching voters, is not the alpha and omega of campaign politics.
“I’m old enough to remember that [2020 Democratic Senate challenger in South Carolina] Jaime Harrison broke fundraising records and got blown out by double digits,” Hartline said. “Candidates from both parties will have plenty of money to get their message out this cycle. But Democrats will have to spend that money attempting to cover up the failures of President Biden and Senate Democrats.”
FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average at the time of this report puts Biden’s nationwide approval rating at about 45 percent, more than 4 points behind his disapproval rating.
“Republicans will be investing their money in a winning message of expanding opportunity and being a check on the Democrats’ socialist schemes,” Hartline added.
Although money might not be a substitute for popularity, a September poll from Redfield Strategies shows Warnock holds an 8-point positive favorability rating in the state—39 percent approving to 31 percent disapproving.
But if Georgia proves to be a referendum on Biden, that could pose trouble. The president’s approval rating in the state has slipped in recent weeks, with Black and minority voters expressing concerns that his agenda, currently stalled out by a Democratic logjam over a sweeping budget package, may not deliver many returns in their communities.
The GOP has its own contingent to worry about. Last week, Walker himself cancelled a fundraising event hosted by a donor whose Twitter profile featured an image of a swastika made of syringes. Before the calling off the event, a Walker spokesperson had defended the image as as “clearly an anti-mandatory vaccination graphic,” adding that “Herschel unequivocally opposes antisemitism and bigotry of all kinds.”
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Amanda Sherman tagged Walker for the scandal.
“Between hiding from Georgians, escalating attacks from his fellow Republicans, and his scandal over defending the use of a Swastika to discourage vaccinations, Walker’s rocky campaign is proving to be the nightmare scenario that the GOP desperately wanted to avoid,” Sherman told The Daily Beast.
But Walker is cruising among Republicans. In an early August poll released by Public Policy, conducted weeks before Walker officially threw in, he topped the prospective GOP field with 72-7 approval among Republican voters. (In contrast, Loeffler, a multimillionaire married to the chair of the New York Stock Exchange, clocked a 56 point net approval.)
And though it’s still early days, that same poll indicated Warnock may have another tough fight ahead. Walker, who won the Heisman Trophy while attending the University of Georgia, trailed the incumbent by only two points, 46-48.
However, Walker, 59, comes with baggage. In July, an Associated Press review of public records revealed that he had been accused of making threats to his ex-wife on multiple occasions. The report also said Walker, whose 2008 memoir documented his long-term battle with dissociative identity disorder (a.k.a. multiple personality disorder), had “exaggerated his financial success” and “alarmed” business colleagues with “unpredictable behavior.”
He may also find himself under pressure to re-evaluate his stance on immigration, which is more lenient than the GOP party line. The issue, which periodically cycles to the top story in conservative media, is certain to be top-of-mind for Republicans in 2022. Walker has previously opposed mass deportations and supported a path to citizenship, breaking with policies endorsed by longtime friend Trump—though the hometown football hero supported a wall on the southern border with Mexico.
On Monday, Walker campaign spokeswoman Mallory Blount told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Walker continues to support migrants who enter the country legally. She also criticized the “humanitarian and illegal immigration crisis at our southern border that career politicians have created.”
Earlier this month Walker announced Trump will host a campaign event at his Mar-a-Lago club. The fundraiser will feature Hall of Fame Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, and pro wrestling icon Ric “Nature Boy” Flair.