Georgia U.S. Senate candidates leave party’s 2020 presidential contestants off campaign stage

Relatively few Americans are excited about a potential rematch of the 2020 election between President Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But more Republicans would be happy to have Trump as their nominee than Democrats would be with Biden.

Patrick Semansky / AP

Georgia’s candidates for governor, U.S. Senate, secretary of state are working to gin up support as their campaigns wind down with less than a week before a pivotal Election Day.

During early voting days leading up to the Nov. 8 midterm election, former President Barack Obama stopped by Georgia to stump for Democratic nominees for governor and U.S. Senate. Former Vice President Mike Pence campaigned Tuesday north of metro Atlanta for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.  

But over the course of campaigning, candidates like freshman Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock have kept their distance from President Joe Biden. And for Republicans Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, being on the receiving end of former President Donald Trump’s ire hasn’t hurt their bids for re-election. Even Trump-endorsed GOP candidates for U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor aren’t invoking the former president’s name much on the campaign trail.

When it comes to U.S. politics, it is not uncommon for the party in power in the White House to lose ground in the midterms. Republicans and Democrats are using messages against Biden and Trump to build support for their party’s candidates this year.

With Biden’s low approval rating in Georgia and Republicans tying problems with inflation to the sitting president, it makes sense that Democratic candidates keep Biden at arms-length, for now, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

“They don’t want to appear with Biden, whereas with Obama, what happens with presidents once they’re out of office, they become more popular because they were part of the good old days,” Bullock said. “For Democrats to do well, they’ve got to inspire Black turnout and there’s nobody better to do that than Obama.”

The state’s early voting turnout for the Nov. 8 election is at a record midterm pace, with more than 1.9 million Georgians casting ballots by Tuesday. That’s up 29% from this point in the 2018 midterms highlighted by the first round between Kemp and his Democratic rival Stacey Abrams.

According to a new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released this week, Warnock is losing ground to his GOP challenger Herschel Walker, who entered the race at Trump’s urging. The ex-president hasn’t visited Georgia since the May primary in which another Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate, ex-senator David Perdue was resoundingly defeated by Kemp.

Walker, however, has been boosted by visits to the campaign trail from prominent Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Bullock said that Walker has broken away from Trump more than many other Republican candidates, although that’s not a sign that their political stances don’t align.   

“I think that’s probably because here his handlers recognize that, while for Trump’s pleading Herschel would not be running, that once he decided to run, having Trump on his side after the primary wasn’t particularly helpful,” Bullock said.

Trump has defended Walker against allegations of domestic violence and that the NFL star pressured two women to have abortions. Walker, who says he backs Georgia’s abortion law banning most abortions after six weeks, has denied accusations lodged by the women. According to Monday’s poll, the majority of Republicans still plan to vote for Walker despite the survey showing that most don’t consider him trustworthy.

“While Donald Trump certainly inspires his followers, which is the bulk of the Republican Party, he also goes a long way towards inspiring Democrats to vote against him,” Bullock said “My guess is probably most of the Republicans running statewide are happy he hasn’t come into the state because it would be a mixed blessing.”

When questioned about Biden’s political future at debates, Warnock has said he’s not focusing on whether the president should run for re-election in two years. The Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor has also steered clear from mentioning Biden when talking about political accomplishments during his two years in the Senate.

Abrams has maintained a closer connection to Biden, whose wife Jill Biden headlined an Abrams’ fundraiser in October, and has said there have been discussions about also having the president visit Georgia. The Republican National Committee jumped on the opportunity to snipe about the First Lady’s visit after the campaign event was closed to the media.

“If Stacey Abrams believes that holding an event with Jill Biden behind closed doors, away from the cameras and shortly before a U.S. Senate debate that’s occurring in another part of the state, will inspire confidence in her campaign, not only is she laughably mistaken but concerningly nonsensical,” RNC spokesman Garrison Douglas said.

In the meantime, Kemp has refrained from trading barbs with Trump after the governor chose Atlanta businesswoman Kelly Loeffler rather than former Rep. Doug Collins to serve in the U.S. Senate following the resignation of the late Sen. Johnny Isakson. The once-cordial relationship further dissolved after the 2020 election, in which Trump spread unfounded claims of a stolen election and he blamed Kemp for not overturning his narrow loss to Biden and for the subsequent ouster of two Georgia GOP senators in a January 2021 runoff.

GOP governor, secretary of state overcome Trump backlash

Bullock said that for Kemp, Monday’s visit by Pence could further bolster support for the subset of conservatives who are dissatisfied with Trump’s rhetoric.

“By having Pence here, this reinforces the notion that he is not Trump’s candidate in case people forgot Trump was supporting David Perdue in the primary,” Bullock said. “Republicans who arguably were decisive in what happened in 2020 and 2021 can feel good about voting for Brian and not be conflicted.”

James T. LaPlant, professor and dean at Valdosta State University, believes incumbency may have more influence on close election outcomes than support from presidents or how candidates fall on issues such as voting rights and abortion rights.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger holds a double digit advantage over state Rep. Bee Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat. Nguyen accused him of supporting the rollback of voting protections and being anti-abortion while overseeing the nursing licensing board.

But Raffenspeger’s is most known for rejecting Trump’s claims of a stolen election despite pressure from many within his party.

“Now, again, that may hurt him among some of the Trump base but, oh my goodness, it should help him with moderates and swing voters and even some Democrats,” LaPlant said. 

But the Trump effect could be the reason that more minority men may support Republicans, which even in small margins could sway a tight race, LaPlant said.

Since Georgia incumbents were able to weather the storm from Trump-backed candidates for secretary of state and governor, the former president has focused his attention elsewhere. 

“We know he’s not going to be campaigning side-by-side with the governor or the secretary of state,” LaPlant said. “Herschel doesn’t need him on the campaign trail. Right now, you could argue Herschel has a handful that he’s dealing with.”

Meanwhile, the controversial far-right-wing Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has become a darling of the Republican Party, appearing on behalf of candidates in other states and attending a rally with Trump in Michigan. Unlike Walker, Greene appears unbeatable over Democratic challenger Marcus Flowers in north Georgia’s District 14.