Opinion: Trump's shadow hangs over Herschel Walker in Georgia's Senate runoff

Opinion by Frida GhitisUpdated: Tue, 29 Nov 2022 20:05:34 GMTSource: CNNEditor's Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

Updated: Tue, 29 Nov 2022 20:05:34 GMT

Source: CNN

Editor's Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

Herschel Walker, the former football star now running to become a Republican US senator from Georgia, needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Georgians are already standing in long early-voting lines for the December 6 runoff election between Walker and Sen. Raphael Warnock. The Democratic incumbent narrowly beat Walker earlier this month but didn't clear the 50% mark required under state law -- thanks to the presence, also, of a Libertarian candidate, triggering a second round.

Rerunning a close race means both candidates have a tough job. Above all, they need to get their supporters back to the polls. Then, they must add to their totals. But the challenge is far greater for Walker for a number of reasons.

The main reason has a name. It begins with "T" and ends in "ump."

Yes, former President Donald Trump, who all but anointed Walker as the Republican nominee, is one of the biggest obstacles standing between Walker and the Senate. To win the runoff, Walker needs to convince those who voted for him to do it again, but he also needs to bring in Republicans and independents who dislike Trump.

Here's the dilemma: To fire up enthusiasm among Trumpists so they'll turn out again, he needs to feed them the political red meat that keeps MAGA energized. But that's the same menu that can make other voters he needs feel nauseous.

The phenomenon was on full display last week. Little more than 24 hours after a shooter in Colorado Springs, Colorado, went on a shooting rampage in an LGBTQ nightclub, killing five people, Walker released a new commercial attacking transgender athletes, a favorite issue in many Republican campaigns.

The anti-trans ad aimed to appeal to frightened conservatives, particularly older voters, who worry social change is making the country unrecognizable. It was a play to bring the already-persuaded to the polls.

But the timing of the ad, the Monday after the weekend shooting, had the ring of Trumpian insensitivity.

In fact, every play to the base risks boosting Warnock's appeal, just as much of Trump's rhetoric between the general election and the runoff made in Georgia two years ago helped Warnock -- along with now-Sen. Jon Ossoff -- win their races, handing Democrats control of the Senate.

Trump went to war against Gov. Brian Kemp in 2020 after the general election, depressing Republican turnout and invigorating Democrats. Kemp, you'll remember, faced pressure from Trump to overturn the election results. The very conservative Republican resisted that pressure.

Trump also enlisted David Perdue, the former Republican senator he supported but led to defeat in 2020, to run against Kemp for governor in the GOP primaries this year. Perdue suffered a humiliating loss, providing a preview of how toxic the former president was becoming for Republicans.

It's no secret that Walker appears utterly unqualified to be a senator. But the MAGA segment of the party was joined by many Trump skeptics -- party over candidate -- because control of the Senate was in play. Nearly 2 million Republicans voted for Walker in the midterm election. Still, he received the lowest number of votes of any Republican running for statewide office in Georgia.

Strengthened by a decisive win, Kemp is positioning himself as a prominent right-wing critic of the former president, blasting Trump for dining with a Holocaust-denying White supremacist last week. Walker, like many Republicans, has kept mum on the subject.

Kemp received more than 200,000 votes above Walker's total but didn't campaign with him until now. By helping the GOP Senate candidate in the runoff, Kemp could take some credit if Walker wins. If he doesn't, Kemp won't take the blame. Other Republican leaders are flocking to the state to boost Walker's prospects.

Since Democrats already won control of the Senate, the stakes in this election are much lower than last year's runoff, so there's less of an incentive to vote. But who benefits from that change?

In my view, Walker has the most to lose. That's because his shortcomings as a candidate are so overwhelming. It was easier to overlook them when the Senate was in play -- but not anymore.

It's hard to imagine a more flawed candidate. In an interview with ABC News, his ex-wife alleged Walker threatened to kill her when they were married. His own son has implied Walker is a hypocrite and a liar. Though he did not deny his ex-wife's accusation, Walker has said he had mental health issues that affected his behavior and memory. He says he has overcome those issues.

On issue after issue, Walker has turned out to be a practitioner of the behaviors he condemns. He was a critic of absentee fathers, and then his son said he was never around. Instead of one child, it turns out he has at least four. According to a report from the Daily Beast over the summer, he was ordered by a judge to pay child support starting in 2014. Walker's campaign says he was never "hiding" the children and suggesting that is "offensive and absurd."

Then there is the abortion issue. Walker has said he would favor a complete ban on abortion with no exceptions. But at least two women have alleged that he pressured them to have abortions. (Walker has denied the allegations, and CNN has not independently confirmed them.)

In addition to a chaotic personal life, he has made false claims and exaggerated his academic and business accomplishments. And when it comes to policy, he offers incoherent word salads that leave people scratching their heads.

One of his arguments against Warnock is that he aligns too closely with President Joe Biden. Biden is, in fact, unpopular in Georgia. But that most likely won't be enough to propel Walker over the goal line.

During the midterms, voters sent a strong message rejecting many of the most Trump-aligned, far-right candidates. Walker may try to create distance from his mentor -- "This is not Trump's race. This is Herschel Walker's race," he said on Fox Business earlier this month -- but voters have seen enough to know better.

Polls corroborate that independents favor Warnock over Walker by significant margins. So do young people. Walker's support tends to be among those 45 and older. Older adults tend to be more reliable voters, so that's Walker's potential path to victory.

That's why he's making ads about transgender athletes, hoping it will horrify those voters into going to the polls. But those ads are just as likely to energize young voters, many of whom support LGBTQ rights and have negative views of Trump and his politics.

The former football player is facing the toughest game of his life. Walker has to run away from Trump's shadow. Now that his football days are over, he's trying his hand at magic. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat means keeping Trump out of voters' minds. There's no hocus-pocus powerful enough for that.