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Georgia runoff highlights GOP worries about Trump — and excitement surrounding DeSantis

<i>Getty Images/AP</i><br/>The Georgia runoff highlights GOP worries about former President Donald Trump
Getty Images/AP
The Georgia runoff highlights GOP worries about former President Donald Trump

By Gabby Orr and Steve Contorno, CNN

Herschel Walker’s success in his upcoming runoff against incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock could depend on GOP luminaries flocking to Georgia between now and December 6, several Republicans say.

Many are torn over whether that should include former President Donald Trump, whose status as the anchor of the party is under renewed scrutiny amid an underwhelming midterm outcome for Republicans.

“Since Tuesday night, the No. 1 question I’ve been getting is, ‘Is Trump going to screw this up?'” said Erick Erickson, a prominent Georgia-based conservative radio host who backed Trump’s 2020 reelection bid.

Though the former president helped recruit Walker, a Georgia football legend and longtime Trump family friend, into the Senate contest last year, he was ultimately advised to campaign elsewhere during the general election, two people familiar with the matter told CNN. Some Republicans are still haunted by Trump’s appearances in Georgia leading up to a pair of 2021 runoffs that ended with Democrats winning both seats and gaining control of the Senate. At the time, then-President Trump littered his campaign speeches with false claims that voter fraud was rampant in Georgia and that Republican officials had worked against him.

Walker allies feared that a Trump appearance ahead of the midterms would turn off independents and suburban women, critical voting blocs in the battleground state. Those concerns remain as Walker now enters the runoff period after neither he nor Warnock took more than 50% of the vote on Tuesday.

Some Georgia Republicans said Trump’s decision to proceed with an anticipated 2024 campaign launch next week will distract from what should be paramount for every Republican at the moment — helping the party secure a Senate majority. Trump aides sent out invitations late Thursday for a November 15 event at Mar-a-Lago, which the former president hopes will blunt the momentum behind Ron DeSantis, the popular Florida governor and potential presidential primary rival who glided to reelection this week.

In fact, while a debate unfolds over whether Trump should campaign for Walker in the coming days, several Republicans said they would eagerly welcome an appearance by DeSantis.

“We need every Republican surrogate we can get into the state to put their arm around Herschel. I think that [Virginia Gov. Glenn] Youngkin or DeSantis is a better fit for soft Republicans or independents in the suburbs that we need to turn out,” said Ralph Reed, president of the Faith & Freedom Coalition.

Reed later noted that he believes Trump could also be helpful in driving turnout among rural Georgia voters, though he cautioned that he was “not speaking for the [Walker] campaign.”

“I’ll let them work that out,” he said.

Walker campaign manager Scott Paradise did not return a request for comment.

‘DeSantis would be helpful’

A person close to the Walker campaign said DeSantis would be “a huge draw if we could get him,” noting that the Florida governor did not campaign for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp despite being just over the border and recently stumping for candidates in New York, Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Kemp won his own reelection bid on Tuesday, defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams for the second time. And the Georgia governor has told allies he wants to help Walker any way he can, including by hitting the campaign trail for him, according to a person briefed on those conversations.

“DeSantis would be helpful. Youngkin would be helpful. Kemp will be helpful. I think those are the biggest draws in Georgia,” said Erickson.

A Republican with knowledge of DeSantis’ political operation said DeSantis’ interest in campaigning for Walker “depends on what happens with the remaining two races” for Senate in Arizona and Nevada. Both contests remain too close to call but if Republicans win one of the races, control of the upper chamber will come down to Georgia.

“It becomes the center of the political universe at that point,” this person said.

A spokesman for DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment about his future travel plans. Though DeSantis endorsed Republicans in tough battlegrounds and campaigned for controversial candidates like Arizona’s Kari Lake and Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano, he made no such effort during the midterms to aid Walker amid a flurry of headlines about the former Heisman Trophy winner’s tumultuous past and personal troubles.

DeSantis — whose Tallahassee executive residence is 20 miles from the Florida-Georgia border — also did not join the GOP fight in the Peach State two years ago for a pair of Senate runoffs Republicans ultimately lost.

But a Republican fundraiser close to DeSantis said the Florida governor would likely make the trip across the border if he believes he can help Walker. “He’s a Republican leader and wants Republicans to take the Senate,” the fundraiser said.

But if DeSantis shows up in Georgia, Trump allies said it would be exponentially harder to convince the former president to stay out of the state himself. Much to the frustration of those who want a distraction-free environment for Walker, Trump has continued to hurl insults at DeSantis in recent days, snapping at the Florida governor in a statement Thursday that referred to him as “an average Republican governor” who lacked “loyalty and class” for refusing to rule out a White House bid of his own.

If the Florida Republican goes to campaign for Walker, those attacks would likely intensify, said a person close to Trump.

“Imagine [Trump] seeing Ron campaign for Herschel while he is being told, ‘Please stay away.’ He would go ballistic,” this person said.

One Trump aide, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said one idea being floated is to have the former president help Walker financially with a generous check. Trump’s MAGA Inc. super PAC gave $16.4 million to candidates in the closing weeks of the 2022 cycle and he was sitting on more than $100 million across his fundraising committees at the end of September, according to federal election data.

“He is looking at how he can salvage this moment and one of the ways for him to do that is to help Walker win,” said a Trump adviser, referring to Tuesday’s underwhelming outcome for Republicans and the stinging defeat of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, whom Trump had endorsed in the Republican Senate primary.

“But I think there’s no way he can announce a campaign for president and not go campaign for Walker,” the person added, claiming that Trump’s absence from Georgia as the presumptive frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination would suggest he is a liability for vulnerable Republicans — a toxic message to be sending at the outset of a presidential campaign.

Michael Caputo, a 2016 Trump campaign aide who remains close to the former president, said Trump should do as much as possible to raise money for Walker because a presidential announcement will likely cause a surge in Democratic contributions to Warnock.

“You have to offset that on the Walker side. From my perspective, the best thing Trump can do is donate and raise a ton of money for Herschel because he can,” Caputo said.

Trump’s political team has held discussions about how he can best help Walker since it became clear the Georgia Senate race would advance to a runoff, according to two sources familiar, both of whom said nothing has been firmly decided.

“President Trump is 220-16 in races that have been called, and with the support of President Trump, Herschel Walker, after forcing a run-off, is well-positioned to win,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said in a statement to CNN.

Worries about a 2021 repeat

Much of the sensitivity around a Trump visit to Georgia stems from his campaign appearances for former GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler two years ago, when both Republicans were fighting for survival in their own runoff contests.

On the eve of those runoffs in 2021, Trump tore into statewide Republican officials for refusing to challenge the 2020 election results in Georgia, falsely claiming that he had won the state and promising to return when Kemp was up for reelection to campaign against the GOP incumbent, which Trump later fulfilled by recruiting Perdue to challenge Kemp in a primary.

Republicans back in Washington watched the rally in horror at the time, deeply concerned that Trump’s intense focus on election fraud and various attacks on statewide Republican officials would depress voter turnout among his core supporters the following day. In the end, both Loeffler and Perdue lost their runoffs, catapulting Warnock and Jon Ossof into the Senate and handing Democrats a narrow majority.

The episode has come back to haunt Trump as Republicans face a potentially identical scenario to 2021, with control of the Senate riding on Georgia if Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly wins reelection in Arizona and Republican Adam Laxalt unseats incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada. Laxalt currently has a razor-thin lead while Kelly is more than 100,000 votes ahead of his Republican challenger, according to the vote counts as of Friday morning. Less concerned that he would deliver a message that depresses turnout, Republicans are primarily worried this time around that Trump would ultimately be a drag on Walker in a once deep-red state that is now trending purple and where the polarizing former president might alienate the exact voters Walker needs to prevail.

“Herschel needs to do better among Kemp voters and independents in the suburbs,” said Reed. “About 5% of the voters that went to Kemp didn’t go to Herschel and he needs to get a minimum of 1 out of every 4 of them.”

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