At a rally in the Atlanta suburbs this past Saturday, Gov. Brian Kemp did something he has never done before this election season: he got onstage with Herschel Walker.
“Look, we cannot rest on our laurels here,” the freshly re-elected governor said to a crowd in Cobb County. “Who do you want to fight for you in the United States Senate? Do you want a guy that represents our values like Herschel Walker, or do you want a guy who’s stood with Joe Biden 96 percent of the time?"
In most states, it would be unremarkable to see the Republican governor campaign with the Republican Senate nominee. But before the November election, Kemp and Walker shared the top of the GOP statewide ticket in Georgia—and virtually nothing else.
The no-drama Kemp was cruising to re-election after defying Donald Trump and his supporters’ relentless calls to embrace 2020 election fraud claims. Walker, Trump’s handpicked candidate to take on Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), ran a MAGA-fueled campaign that became consumed by scandal after reporting by The Daily Beast and other outlets revealed his personal conduct contradicted his public “family values” positions.
The distance between the two candidates—organizationally, politically, and personally—only deepened with Walker’s growing controversies. In the final months of the election, Kemp declined to explicitly endorse Walker, and simply said he was working to ensure GOP victories “up and down the ticket.”
But now that the Senate contest is in a runoff, Kemp is all in. And his support for Walker is notable for a simple reason: Walker is an election denier.
While it’s far from the most piercing controversy with Walker, the Georgia football legend was a prolific spreader of election conspiracy theories after the 2020 election—and directly criticized Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on multiple occasions.
“Why is @BrianKempGA refusing to ensure that Voter Signature Verification was enforced?” Walker tweeted on Dec. 18, 2020, in a quote tweet of then-President Donald Trump that was also critical. “Shows that something is up.”
Walker repeatedly retweeted false claims of election fraud, from figures like the infamous “Kraken” lawyer Sidney Powell and the QAnon-believing election conspiracy theorist Lin Wood. On his Twitter account, Wood issued outlandish claims that Trump actually won 70 percent of the vote and wildly accused Kemp and other GOP officials of being complicit in a massive cover-up for Chinese intelligence and communist actors to steal the election from Trump.
By the 2021 runoff date in January, with Wood marginalized even in Trumpworld, Walker tweeted that Wood’s tweets were “eye-opening” and called for a “total cleansing” of the country. (Later, in March, Walker and Wood would get dinner in Washington.)
Lin Wood last night posted that he had dinner with Herschel Walker, a former UGA football star who won the Heisman and a potential GOP candidate for the Senate seat held by Democrat Raphael Warnock. pic.twitter.com/Kgx6hfoJIK
— Dave Thomas (@DaveThomas5150) March 23, 2021
That rhetoric was a key factor behind former Sen. David Perdue’s primary challenge to Kemp, which had Trump’s full support. But his attempt to make Georgia Republicans throw out a popular governor solely on the basis of 2020 fraud conspiracies fell embarrassingly flat.
While Kemp pushed back against those conspiracies and schemes, he was careful to never directly push back on Trump. In fact, one of Kemp’s first moves after the 2020 election was to muscle an election reform bill through the legislature that was widely seen as a response to fraud claims. Even if Kemp won’t embrace the rhetoric himself, he’s embraced the people using the rhetoric; his next lieutenant governor will be someone who was a fake elector in 2020.
When the votes were tallied after the Nov. 8 general election, Kemp once again won in convincing fashion, defeating Stacey Abrams by over 7 points. Meanwhile, Walker headed to a Dec. 6 runoff contest with Warnock. For Walker to prevail, winning over just some of the roughly 203,000 people who voted for Kemp—but not him—will be key.
With his own re-election secure, Kemp is free to spend his political capital boosting the scandal-tinged Walker. But the governor’s emergence as a major player in the Georgia Senate race comes at a tumultuous moment for the Republican Party—one that is exposing the fissures that helped to separate Kemp and Walker in the first place.
Since Election Day, the defeat of Trump-backed MAGA adherents in key races has sparked intense GOP backlash against the former president and his continued fixation on the 2020 election. Last Tuesday, facing widespread criticism from formerly loyal Republicans, Trump announced his 2024 campaign for the presidency at his Mar-A-Lago club.
Republicans hoped Trump would delay his campaign launch until after the Georgia runoff, worrying that his close ties with Walker—and the threat that Trump would move to flex his muscles by campaigning in Georgia for him—could alienate voters whose support Walker badly needs.
Many in the GOP remain traumatized by Trump’s involvement in the state’s 2020 Senate runoffs, which Republicans lost after he made the state a focal point for his election grievances.
Some in Georgia see Kemp’s long-awaited intervention for Walker as an attempt to box out Trump. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is counting on a victory to cut into the Democratic majority, leaned on Kemp to lend his personal support and organizational might to Walker, Politico reported.
“Obviously, Leader McConnell wanted to get Brian’s team in there quickly, so Donald Trump has no way to insert himself in it,” said Baoky Vu, a longtime Republican official in DeKalb County who is among the Georgia voters who split their ticket between Kemp and Warnock.
“The worst fear would be, Donald Trump announces a run for president, then he tries to campaign for Walker—that would literally ensure defeat,” Vu said.
But Trump’s return, and voters’ recent rejection of his political brand, amplifies that central irony underneath Kemp’s campaign to rescue election denier Walker.
The Walker campaign did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast about whether he stood by his tweets casting doubt on Kemp and his handling of the 2020 election, or if he had any comment on Lin Wood’s calls to jail the governor.
In response to questions about Walker’s past statements, Kemp spokesman Tate Mitchell referred The Daily Beast to the governor’s remarks at his rally for Walker, in which he offered general praise for “my friend Herschel Walker.” Notably, Walker stayed neutral in Kemp’s primary against Perdue.
The governor is in a position to be a kingmaker, with the runoff race between Warnock and Walker considered to be a dead heat. In addition to campaigning for Walker, Kemp offered to give much of his considerable organizational muscle and his trove of campaign data to McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC that has been Walker’s biggest booster.
“Herschel, his campaign, never really developed that grassroots organization… We saw the results of that on Election Day,” said Jason Shepherd, a longtime GOP activist in Georgia. “If Herschel had the ground game that Brian Kemp did, he might have gotten across the finish line. Now, Kemp is giving him his ground game.”
With two weeks to go until the Dec. 6 runoff, it’s unclear if Kemp will campaign for Walker in person again. Even a campaign ad starring the popular governor would be gladly welcomed by Walker’s allies.
But whether Kemp’s appeal to independents can ultimately transfer to Walker—who lacked that appeal, as election results clearly showed—is a tougher question.
“The suburban voter is sophisticated enough that they’re not going to switch for Herschel Walker just because Brian Kemp is saying it,” said Vu, the Kemp-Warnock voting Republican. “The question is, do they stay home, or do they vote for Warnock?”
On Saturday, just before Kemp rallied for Walker, Georgia Democrats held a press conference featuring a duo of Republicans who split their tickets between Kemp and Warnock. At one point, a member of the press asked Blake Briese, of Atlanta, what he made of Kemp supporting Walker.
“He’s a Republican, and that’s his job,” said Briese. “It’s a little disappointing, but I’m not surprised.”