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Georgia settles the Senate again

Why did Herschel Walker lose the first time? It wasn’t about mail-in ballots

Senate candidate Herschel Walker should have won the first time around, Winston writes — but it wasn’t about mail-in ballots or election malevolence. Above, Walker speaks at a campaign rally on Nov. 4.
Senate candidate Herschel Walker should have won the first time around, Winston writes — but it wasn’t about mail-in ballots or election malevolence. Above, Walker speaks at a campaign rally on Nov. 4. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Tuesday proved to be a not unexpected end to another tough runoff election characterized by harsh personal attacks and outside interference, with policy discussion beyond abortion kept to a minimum.

Trudging out to the polls to pick a senator for the sixth time in two years has got to test the partisan commitment of even Georgia’s truest of “true believers,” Republican or Democrat. 

To paraphrase an old movie, “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Georgia,” and the center of the political universe again.

The truth is, we shouldn’t be here, because Herschel Walker should have won the general election race in November just as Adam Laxalt in Nevada and Blake Masters in Arizona should have prevailed in their races. They didn’t — but in all likelihood, not because of mail-in ballots or early voting. 

Walker and his campaign underperformed in November, and that’s why he was forced into a runoff. I’m not saying Republicans shouldn’t explore the Democrats’ turnout game nationally and in key states like Georgia. With a country this evenly divided, any tactical improvements that can deliver more Republican votes are worth some study. 

But other factors likely had a lot more to do with these losing races than election malevolence. A comparison of the congressional vote and the Senate vote in these three competitive Senate races — Georgia, Nevada and Arizona — shows that Republican congressional candidates outperformed their senatorial counterparts. So did many local statewide candidates. 

In other words, if the GOP Senate candidates in those states had gotten as many votes as the Republican House candidates (and, in the case of Georgia, statewide Republican candidates), all three would be packing their bags for Washington, and Republicans would be in control of both chambers.

Starting with Georgia, with data through Dec. 2 (as is the case for Nevada and Arizona discussed below), eight Republican statewide candidates came out winners, each getting more than 2 million votes, topping the magic 50 percent mark needed to avoid the dreaded runoff election. Gov. Brian Kemp got 53.4 percent, and 203,000 more votes than Walker.  

The lieutenant governor earned 51.4 percent, while the secretary of state got 53.2 percent. The state school superintendent even topped the governor, at 54.2 percent, and 207,000 more votes than Walker.  

Together, Georgia Republican congressional candidates won 52.3 percent of the total vote. Had Walker simply matched their vote total, he would not only have won, but won outright.

A similar scenario played out in Nevada. If Laxalt, who lost by roughly 8,000 votes — 490,388 to Catherine Cortez Masto’s 498,316 — had also matched the total Republican congressional vote of 515,535, he, too, would have won.   

In Arizona, congressional Republicans did even better, winning 56.4 percent of the total statewide congressional vote, which amounted to a margin of slightly more than 320,000 votes. Republican Senate candidate Masters would have clinched a victory, just barely, if he had only managed to equal the GOP congressional vote. In gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s case, she would have won as well if she had done the same. 

So, the question here isn’t whether there was election fraud. It’s hard to imagine election fraudsters singling out Lake and Masters for their mischief, whatever that might or might not have been, without their misconduct also impacting Republican congressional candidates. But that didn’t happen.

Perhaps the more likely explanation of the losses in Nevada, Arizona and Georgia in both 2020 and 2022 was a group of imperfect candidates with bad messaging, bad campaigns and former President Donald Trump’s election denial crusade, which became a losing millstone around their collective necks.  

For those looking to blame Democratic turnout superiority for these losses and others, this is a misread of the election. The preliminary national congressional vote and the party self-identification numbers in the Edison Research exit polls show that, contrary to what many political pundits are saying, voters weren’t endorsing Democrat policies or the president’s priorities.  

The exit polls asked voters whether they saw themselves as Republican, Democrat or independent, regardless of how they voted that day. According to the preliminary numbers, 36 percent of voters said they identified as Republicans, where Republicans have been in 10 of the prior 19 elections from 1984 forward. However, looking at that same time period, Democrats in this election got their lowest percentage, at 33 percent, while independents recorded their highest, at 31 percent. 

The Republican 3-point margin over Democrats is the largest since 1984, better than 1994 (the Gingrich revolution), 2002 (when Republicans regained the Senate in a midterm election), 2010 (when Republicans won the “Where are the jobs?” election) and 2014 (when Republicans gained their largest number of House seats since 1928). 

Republicans are currently winning 50.7 percent of the national congressional vote, while Democrats managed only 47.7 percent — a 3-point advantage that says we won the battle and yet seemed to lose the war in places like Nevada and Arizona and Pennsylvania, to name three. 

Walker lost the runoff, but one thing is clear. This party needs a serious messaging content audit to understand why the hundreds of millions of dollars of negative campaign advertising, pushed by a fee-driven consulting community, has once again turned off independent voters and cost Republicans seats they should have won.  

As the RNC’s post-election analysis committee begins its work, it’s important that it understand what these election results and data show: The party’s election problems are strategic more than tactical. Mail-in and early voting, while worth exploring, are convenient scapegoats that miss the bigger problems: an overreliance on outdated, negative messaging when voters want positive solutions to their problems, and campaign strategies based more on personality than policy.

If Republicans want to build on the gains they made this year in terms of voter attitudes toward the handling of major issues, the RNC must do a substantive content audit to understand why too many voters, especially independents, preferred Republicans on handling economic issues but not in the polling booth. 

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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