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Herschel Walker Is Trumpism’s Latest Loser. Where Will the GOP Go From Here?

Raphael Warnock’s win in Georgia’s senate runoff election dealt another blow to Trump’s group of hand-picked candidates.

Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker and his wife Julie Blanchard leave after he delivered his concession speech during an election night event at the College Football Hall of Fame on December 6, 2022, in Atlanta, Georgia.

The result of Georgia’s senate runoff election this week, in which Sen. Raphael Warnock won reelection with a roughly 2 percent margin, has cast a glowing spotlight on the GOP’s Achilles’s heel. Put simply, in the two years since the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol, the party’s base has remained so in thrall to Donald Trump and Trumpism that its primary process now reliably puts forward candidates who know how to fluff the Mar-a-Lago man’s ego, but who end up proving toxic to critical numbers of independent voters in the general election.

Trump’s batting record with his hand-picked candidates in 2022 is dismal. In most every major competitive state and congressional race for which he put his thumbs on the scale, his candidates won through the primary process only to be humbled in the general election. For only the third time in a century, the party in control of the White House came out of a midterm having increased its Senate majority. Election-denying candidates in Arizona, New Hampshire, Nevada and Pennsylvania all were defeated in elections that, at the start of the political season, they had better-than-even chances of winning. Now, the election result in Georgia — the state that was the epicenter of Trump’s efforts to sabotage the 2020 election and prevent the peaceful transfer of power — has handed the Democrats an outright Senate majority and, by giving Democrats numerical majorities on all the key committees, will make possible the accelerated confirmation of Biden’s judges and other nominees.

Trump’s control over the GOP primary process in 2022 has fed into an evermore extremist cycle, and also a race to the bottom morally and intellectually. The vengeful and embittered ex-president wants candidates who will at least rhetorically buy into his stolen election “Big Lie” claims, and who will stand silently by as he makes increasingly fascistic statements — such as his recent outburst about “terminating” the U.S. Constitution in order to facilitate his restoration to power. His criteria for candidate endorsement, beyond sycophancy, seems to be celebrity status, intellectual and moral plasticity, and a comfort with extreme truth-bending in pursuit of power.

Herschel Walker checked all of those boxes. A famous former football running back with an inflated résumé, he said pretty much anything to win votes, contradicting his own positions on abortion and other signature issues almost on a daily basis. He was a grifter who claimed to be “born again”; his former girlfriends said he pressured them into getting abortions, yet he was running on a strict anti-abortion platform; he preached Republican “family values,” yet he had repeatedly abandoned his own children. The Heisman Trophy winner was shockingly ignorant of basic policy debates, and gave off the impression of being largely uninformed about how the U.S. political process and its institutions functioned. Perhaps most importantly to Trump, he lent his name and his celebrity status to the spurious notion that election officials in Georgia had behaved nefariously in denying Trump a win, and he called for some of them to be sent to jail.

Walker’s candidacy wasn’t an anomaly, it was the reductio ad absurdum, an entirely predictable outcome of ceding control of the party to Trump and the MAGA cult, and of old-school GOP leaders failing, yet again, to stand up to Trump and his extremist movement. Mitch McConnell was aware from the get-go that Walker was a huge electoral liability, and entirely unfit to serve in the Senate — and he mused out loud about difficult-to-elect candidates diluting the possibility of a “red wave.” But the Senate minority leader was so unwilling to cross Trump’s loyal primary voters that he ultimately put millions of GOP dollars behind Walker’s campaign.

Now, in the wake of yet another definitive rejection of Trump’s candidates and his increasingly bizarre, conspiracist movement, McConnell’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. He can see how fast the legal and political tides are turning against Trump — and, having been at the wrong end of brutal Trump insults and threats in recent months, he would likely love to see Trump neutralized as a political force. But he also knows that many of his colleagues in the Senate, and a great majority of his party peers in the House of Representatives, remain wedded to the Trumpist cause and continue to be deeply fearful of crossing the Trumpist base.

As a result, even while McConnell says that anybody who dines with neo-Nazis or threatens to “terminate” the Constitution is highly unlikely to be elected president, and even as a growing number of GOP governors plead with their party to rediscover the political middle, Kevin McCarthy is plotting a path to the speakership of the House that largely involves him promising über-Trumpists in his ranks an ongoing effort to protect their would-be Führer’s flank by investigating all those who have sought to hold Trump to account over the years. Having committed to this strategy for so many years, McCarthy is now utterly incapable of even milquetoast condemnations of Trump’s explicitly anti-democratic statements.

Meanwhile, Walker himself, the latest Trumpian wingman to fall back to Earth, exited the political stage in a strangely dignified manner. His concession speech, after all of the ugliness of his candidacy, ended up being a million miles away from Trump’s inflammatory oratory about fraud and stolen votes after the 2020 election, in the run-up to January 6, 2021, and in the nearly two years since.

Walker’s speech was short — about two or three minutes — bittersweet, and, perhaps for the first time in his mendacious political career, touchingly sincere. He said his nomination had been the greatest honor of his life, called for unity in the wake of the result, and told his supporters to keep their faith in the U.S. political process and its elected officials. The defeated candidate seemed, on that stage, to be on the one hand a man entirely out of his depth, almost strangely relieved that this political journey for which he was so manifestly unqualified was finally over, and, on the other, to be someone trying, belatedly, to salvage a shred of dignity from a campaign that had brought to light his myriad personal flaws and forever tied him to the Big Lie mythos propagated by Trump.

By contrast, Senator Warnock, heir to Martin Luther King Jr.’s pulpit in Atlanta, gave a soaring, lengthy, lyrical speech about family, about progress, about possibility and dreams, about democracy, about people voting with their heads and their hearts, about access to the ballot box, about diversity and so on. He talked about the civil rights movement, from Fannie Lou Hamer to John Lewis, and the need today to keep building that bridge to a better future that they had started to construct, and to keep walking that long walk that they had walked.

“You the people have decided that your voices will not be silenced,” the reelected senator told his enthused audience. Referencing the ugly history of Georgia’s runoff system, which was set up to make it as unlikely as possible for Black candidates to be elected to high office, Warnock added:

Let us not forget that when we entered this runoff, a vestige of the ugly side of our complicated American story, state officials said that we couldn’t vote on Saturday. But we sued them and we won. And the people once again rose up in a multiracial, multireligious coalition of conscience…. You endured the rain, and you endured the long lines, and you voted; and you did it because you believe, as I do, that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea; this notion that each of us has within us a spark of the divine.

Warnock’s speech was so very, very far removed in quality and in vision from the self-absorption and chicanery of Trumpism. There was also something hopeful in realizing that the GOP now faces a reckoning. The party can either cast Trump off or it can suffer ongoing electoral defeats, like that in Georgia this week, as critical numbers of independent voters turn away from many of the extremist, and stunningly dysfunctional, Trump-watermarked political candidates.