Herschel Walker's loss in the Georgia Senate runoff is setting off a fresh round of recriminations among Senate Republicans, with allies of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) pointing the finger at former President Trump's involvement in Senate GOP primaries and discontented conservatives blaming their leadership for lacking an agenda.
Tuesday’s loss in Georgia reopened the Election Day wound of failing to defeat a single Senate Democratic incumbent or hold onto retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) seat. It’s the first time in recent memory that no incumbent from the president’s party was defeated in a midterm election.
Trump’s Senate critics put the loss in Georgia and other races squarely on his shoulders, arguing his endorsement helped weak candidates win nominations and his relentless claims — unsupported by evidence — that the 2020 election was stolen turned off many voters.
“Whether we talk about it or not, Trump was going to be a factor and [for] a lot of the folks that he endorsed he insisted the predicate for that endorsement be that the 2020 election was stolen and that’s a losing argument,” Senate Republican Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
“His obsession with the 2020 election became an albatross and a real liability for people who are running, especially in swing states,” Thune added.
Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), one of Trump’s most vocal Senate GOP critics, said Trump had a huge influence on which candidates advanced to the general election because of his influence among Republican primary voters.
“President Trump has a big impact on the primary and the general. If you get endorsed by him in the primary, you’re likely to win. If you’re endorsed by him in the general, you’re likely to lose. For someone who actually wants to win an election, getting endorsed by President Trump is the kiss of death,” Romney said.
Toomey, whose seat will be held by Democrat John Fetterman in 2023, echoed those comments.
“I think it was the badly flawed candidates, candidates that were too clearly aligned with Trump, that’s what was being rejected,” he said.
Toomey noted the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, embraced Trump’s stolen-election claim and lost by 15 points. That, in turn, was a drag on the party’s Senate candidate, Mehmet Oz, who lost Pennsylvania only by four points.
Mastriano, a state senator, beat eight other candidates to win the party’s nomination. Trump also endorsed Oz in the primary.
Toomey added Oz wasn’t helped by Trump showing up in Pennsylvania the weekend before Election Day. Trump held a rally with Oz and Mastriano in Latrobe.
“A guy losing by 15 points at the top of the ticket makes it very, very hard for down-ballot races,” Toomey said. “It wasn’t only Oz who was affected. We lost three House races that could have been pick-ups.”
Other Republicans described Trump’s drag on Republican candidates in more general terms, arguing candidates who tried to relitigate the results of the 2020 election failed to talk enough about what voters could expect in the future if they won election to the Senate.
“I think there are two major lessons. One is we need to look forward and that candidates who looked back at the 2020 presidential election did not generally fare that well,” said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a prominent Republican moderate. “Second, we need to do a better job as Republicans in appealing to moderate voters.”
Trump’s Senate allies, however, rallied to his defense and instead blamed the failure of party leaders in Washington to draft an agenda that appealed to working-class voters who turned out in huge numbers for Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, said the claim by fellow GOP senators that Trump is to blame for dragging down Senate Republican candidates was overblown.
“That analysis makes sense in some places, not in others — not in Georgia,” he said.
President Biden beat Trump by roughly 12,000 votes in Georgia in 2020.
He argued Senate Republican candidates were hurt by the failure of the national party to develop a more effective early voting program and to generate enough fundraising to compete with Democratic candidates who outspent their GOP rivals in key races.
“We’ve got to improve early voting and we’ve got to find a way to be more competitive financially,” he said. “Structurally, we’ve got a problem in several states. [Democrats] get too far ahead in early voting. We got to fix that and they’re outspending us three and four to one.”
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who traveled to Mar-a-Lago last year to give Trump a “Champion of Freedom” award dismissed criticisms that Walker was a flawed candidate or that his association with Trump turned off voters.
“I’m really disappointed. Herschel’s a really good person and he’s a good candidate. He would have been a really good U.S. senator,” he said. “If you look at the guy’s background. He’s a successful business guy, he’s a successful football player, he’s a hard worker. If you meet him, he’s a sincere person.”
Like Graham, he said Walker and other Republican candidates fell behind their Democratic opponents in early voting.
He also criticized the failure by Republican leaders in Washington to lay out a compelling message for how they would govern if in control of Congress.
“We all have to sit back and say to ourselves, ‘What’s our message? What message do we have? Do we have the right message to get voters to support us?” he said, noting that Senate Republican conservatives will convene a special conference meeting next week to discuss the direction of the party.
Scott said he hadn’t seen any polls showing that Trump’s influence hurt Walker.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said the lesson from Georgia is that Republican leaders need to work on a better party agenda.
“Another Senate election, another GOP loss. Maybe time for Senate GOP to change direction, craft a new agenda to, you know, appeal to voters. Just a thought,” he tweeted.
Scott challenged McConnell for the Senate’s top Republican leadership position in an acrimonious race last month. Graham and Hawley both voted for him.
Democrats came away from the Nov. 8 election and Tuesday’s runoff in Georgia convinced that Trump and his “Make America Great Again” brand of GOP politics helped them expand their Senate majority despite predictions earlier in the year that they would lose control of the chamber.
“In May and June, the public began to realize how far right these MAGA Republicans had gone. The Dobbs decision was the crystallization of that, of course, when people said, ‘Wow these MAGA Republicans are serious about turning the clock all the way back,’” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Wednesday.
He credited the House Jan. 6 hearings for keeping Trump’s election fraud claims in the spotlight as well as his role in encouraging last year’s attack on the Capitol.
“There were the Jan. 6 hearings. I think they had an important effect because people didn’t just read about something that happened once but every night they saw on TV these hooligans, these insurrections being violent, beating up police officers,” he said.
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who beat Walker by nearly 3 points to keep the Georgia seat in Democratic hands, said voters rejected Trump’s divisive brand of politics.
“I think that the voters of Georgia rejected the politics of division. They saw my real effort to build relationships, even with people on the other side of the aisle and to stay focused on doing the people’s work,” he said. “I think too often the politics has been about the politicians.”