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In Georgia, Herschel Walker campaign’s closing pitch to voters: ‘Bear with us’

Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate candidate, greeted supporters during a campaign stop at a restaurant in Dawsonville, Ga. on Monday.DUSTIN CHAMBERS/NYT

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — On Monday morning, as the last and perhaps highest-profile Senate contest of the midterms drew to a close, the former college football star and uneven GOP candidate Herschel Walker squeezed into a diner to sign autographs for voters eager to luxuriate in memories of his football days.

There was no stage and no surrogates. And while anyone here who wanted to hear a real campaign speech would have been disappointed, some were glad to be spared another potentially embarrassingly viral moment in a campaign that has been full of them.

“Maybe it’s better he didn’t speak,” said one admirer with a shrug after squeezing into Curt’s Cafeteria.

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So ends the last stand of one of former president Donald Trump’s most prized Senate recruits, in a race that could give Democrats a thin cushion in their Senate majority. What was once seen as an eminently winnable race for Republicans in a closely divided state has turned into slog for Walker, whose campaign devolved into a parade of scandals and self-inflicted wounds — including a rambling speech about werewolves and vampires — that have been compounded by dubious strategic decisions.

Still, in spite of Walker’s vulnerabilities, it’s a close race, according to polls, which show a narrow edge for Walker’s Democratic opponent, Senator Raphael Warnock. That gives voters like Martha Zoller, a Georgia Republican and radio host, hope, even though Warnock appears to have piled up a healthy advantage in early votes.

“He made a lot of mistakes. He was a first-time candidate,” Zoller said of Walker.

But over two days of campaign stops on Sunday and Monday, even some of Walker’s truest believers could not hide their concern, particularly as Warnock has raised three times as much as Walker, according to federal election filings, with outside groups for both men pouring more money into the race.

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“I’m a little bit worried because of all the money that’s been coming in,” said Connie Dills, a retired nurse with a mini-golf business who came to Flowery Branch to tell Walker she was praying for him.

“He says he understands it’s in God’s hands — whatever happens happens,” she said, recounting her conversation with Walker.

The race has become a window into a GOP at odds with itself over the best way to emerge from an underwhelming midterm election. Trump, who handpicked Walker to run here despite his documented history of domestic abuse, lack of political experience, and Texas residency dispute, has largely stayed away from the race. However, in the eleventh hour, Trump planned a virtual rally for Walker on Monday night, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who cruised to reelection over Democrat Stacey Abrams last month, deployed his turnout machine on behalf of Walker for the runoff after keeping his distance for the duration of the 2022 general election. But while his face is plastered over campaign literature and television ads for Walker, Kemp has appeared for a public campaign event with the former football great only once so far, before Thanksgiving.

That left Walker to campaign alone, or with Republicans from nearby states, in the closing days.

There were sometimes awkward moments. On Sunday, in the Atlanta suburb of Loganville, his enormous red bus pulled into the parking lot of a car dealership, announcing its presence with a loud recording of Walker.

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“I’m not here to be a politician,” boomed the disembodied voice, speaking over a thrumming beat. “I’m here to be a warrior.”

The crowd cheered. A woman bounced her baby on her hip in time to the music. But then a young staffer stepped to the microphone and sheepishly explained that Walker was not quite ready to get off the bus.

“We’re finishing up an interview on the bus and then we’re gonna bring him out in just about a couple of minutes, OK?” he said. “So bear with us, keep the energy high, we appreciate the support.”

On the stump, Walker speaks with an energetic folksiness that often veers into the unknown. A recent musing on whether or not it would be better to be a werewolf or vampire was a wrapped gift to Democratic admakers. Walker provided the same Halloween-themed fodder on Sunday by reupping the comments, unprompted, perhaps in an attempt to defend himself, during a morning interview on Fox News, suggesting it was a parable about faith. He did not explain exactly how.

Despite clear data that showed the focus on culture war issues turned off political independents, Walker spent the weekend doubling down on base-pleasing talking points on gender. On Sunday in Loganville, he accused Democrats of not knowing the difference between men and women — “She’s a woman, she’s from the rib of a man,” he explained — before complaining about the use of pronouns to denote people’s gender.

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“I do know that peace through strength, so why are they bringing pronouns in our military. Pronouns? What the heck is a pronoun?” Walker asked. “I’m sick and tired of that pronoun stuff.”

It is political red meat that delights his base — but it means it falls to his surrogates to try to make a case that appeals to the 200,000 voters who backed Kemp in November but not Walker.

“Why in the hell would you send Warnock to Washington to undercut everything that Kemp is doing in Georgia?” asked Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina while campaigning for Walker last week, suggesting split-ticket voters are “soft Republicans” and urging them to “put someone in the boat that can row the boat in the same direction as Kemp.”

Meanwhile, Warnock has been campaigning with a message tailor-made for independent voters, frequently mentioning his authorship of a bill to cap the drug price for insulin and bragging about his bipartisan credentials.

“In this particular race, it’s no longer about the difference between Republican and Democrat, it’s just right and wrong,” said Warnock, who spent Sunday and Monday speaking to groups of college students, labor unions, and Black voters — all groups who will be key to a victory.

In midtown Atlanta on Monday, Warnock gave an impassioned speech to hundreds of students at Georgia Tech — part of a tour of college campuses he has made in recent days, hoping to draw out young voters who lined up to take photos with him.

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“We’ve got one more day to bring this thing home and I want you to create a real 911 emergency — I want you to vote like it’s an emergency, I want you to vote like democracy depends on it, vote like health care depends on it, vote like a woman’s right to choose depends on it, because it does,” Warnock said to the crowd.

Referencing the sheer number of times he has had to run for office in the past two years, between one primary, two general elections and two runoffs, he urged the students to turn out for him one more time, and they cheered.

And Warnock turned somber as he answered reporters’ questions after the event, urging Democrats not to get too comfortable. “There is still a path for Herschel Walker to win this race,” he said. “He still could.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.