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Genius or gimmick? Georgia GOP puts its Senate hopes on Herschel Walker

With Donald Trump’s blessing, untested Walker poised to claim U.S. Senate nomination. But is he too much of a risk?

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

GeorgiaATLANTA (CFP) — Are Georgia Republicans ready to hand their U.S. Senate nomination to a man who has never run for political office, hasn’t lived in the Peach State for decades, and has a personal history that includes mental health struggles and an ex-wife with a restraining order?

Picture of Georgia U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker

U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, R-Georgia

With Donald Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement, Hall of Fame football hero Herschel Walker enters the race as the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock next year.  But with control of the Senate on the line, nominating Walker is certainly not the safest path, given the questions he will face about his politics and his past.

Will a Walker candidacy end in strategic triumph or bitter regret? Trump clearly believes the former; Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly nervous about the latter.

“I’m a kid from a small town in Georgia who’s lived the American dream, and I’m ready to fight to keep that dream alive for you,” said Walker in a campaign kickoff video posted August 25, which contained footage of his Heisman-winning exploits at the University of Georgia, spliced with workouts in the gym.

“I’m a conservative not because someone told me to be. I’m a conservative because I believe in smaller government, a strong military, personal responsibility and making sure all people have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”

Watch Walker’s announcement video at bottom of page

The video did not mention Trump, who has been encouraging Walker to make a Senate run for months. But his campaign website features a famous photo of Walker doing an elbow bump with the former president during the 2020 presidential campaign.

The campaign rollout was unusual in that Walker entered the race quietly, with a statement and website, rather that with a public event in front of reporters, who might have asked uncomfortable questions.

Walker, 59, was born and raised in Wrightsville, a small town in Middle Georgia. He led UGA’s football team to its only consensus national title in 1980 and, in 1982, won the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player.

He went on to play professional football, first in the USFL (where he played for a team Trump owned) and then in the NFL, where he retired from the Dallas Cowboys in 1997.

Since his retirement, Walker had been living in Texas, where he established a poultry business. He registered to vote in Georgia just days before entering the Senate race.

In a 2008 book, Walker disclosed that he has suffered from dissociative identity disorder, which used to be called multiple personality disorder. He credited therapy and his Christian faith for his recovery.

In July, the Associated Press published an extensive investigative profile of Walker, based on business and court records. According to the report, Walker’s ex-wife got a protective order in 2005, alleging violent and threatening behavior. Walker was also involved in several contentious disputes with his business partners and may have made exaggerated claims about his record as a businessman.

Walker did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment for the story. Refusing to address the allegations will be much harder to do in the heat of a political campaign.

Walker’s current wife, Julie Blanchard, is also under investigation by Georgia election officials for casting an absentee ballot in the 2020 election, despite residing in Texas. As one of Walker’s rivals for the GOP Senate nomination, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, noted, “it makes it very difficult to talk about voter fraud after that.”

Black, who has won statewide office three times, will certainly be no pushover for Walker. But Trump’s full-throated support for Walker will make his task that much harder, as evidenced by Black’s tepid fundraising in what will become one of the most expensive races of the 2022 cycle. (He’s raised $703,000, compared to $34 million for Warnock.)

The Republican field had been frozen for months as potential Senate candidates waited for Walker’s decision, with several members of Georgia’s U.S. House delegation looking at bids. But there will be very little appetite to take on the Trump-Walker duo.

In a sense, Georgia Republicans find themselves in this situation because of Republican Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to think outside the box and pick uber-wealthy businesswoman Kelly Loeffler for a Senate seat in 2020. She quickly proved to be out of her element against Warnock — with debate performances that were painful to watch — and could not hold the seat.

So is it wise for Georgia Republicans to think outside the box again with Walker, having no idea what kind of political candidate he will make? Particularly against Warnock, equipped as he is with the power of incumbency, a mountain of money, and Barack Obama-level political skills?

Georgia Bulldog fans view Walker fondly, even reverently. But it has been 40 years since he led them to glory — years in which the state has changed almost beyond recognition.

Trump, of course, is the ultimate example of using celebrity to gain political power, which is no doubt why he thinks Walker is a slam-dunk Senate choice.

But time will tell whether nominating Walker is strategic genius or an ill-fated gimmick. Control of the Senate may very well hang on the answer.

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Second time’s a charm? Charles Booker makes new run for Kentucky U.S. Senate seat

Former Democratic legislator from Louisville will face uphill climb to unseat Republican U.S. Senator Rand in 2022

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

KentuckyLOUISVILLE (CFP) — When he launched his first run for the U.S. Senate in 2020, few observers gave Charles Booker a snowball’s chance in a Kentucky August.

booker 2

Democrat Charles Booker announces U.S. Senate run

He was just 32, had served in the legislature for just one year, and was trying to wrestle the Democratic nomination away from Amy McGrath, a fundraising powerhouse who had the full backing of Senate Democrats and their leader, Chuck Schumer.

But then, Booker took a leading role in social justice protests in Louisville after the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, his charismatic style caught the imagination of the Democratic left, and — amid an uneven, uninspiring and hyper-cautious campaign from McGrath — he came within 16,000 votes of pulling off what would have one of the year’s biggest primary upsets.

Exiting the race, Booker told his supporters, “Don’t ever let someone tell you what’s impossible.”

A year later, he’s trying the impossible again, this time with a run for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, held by Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul.

“A lot of people don’t believe that change is possible in Kentucky. We’re going to prove the doubters wrong,” Booker told supporters at his kickoff rally in Louisville July 1. “We’re going to win this race, and we’re going to transform Kentucky, and it starts right now. Let’s go.”

Video of Booker’s announcement speech at end of story.

And Booker made it clear that whether or not his optimism is borne out, or whether or not the race against Paul ends up being competitive in the end, his quest to unseat Paul will be fiery, unapologetically liberal and in-your-face, in a way McGrath never was.

“Randal Howard Paul — I see you. I see you, but you don’t see us,” Booker said. “Rand Paul thinks we are a joke. He mocks us whenever he opens his mouth. He’s mocking us. He’s an embarrassment to Kentucky because he does not care.”

“He thinks his job is to stir dysfunction, to weaponize hate and essentially dismiss Kentuckians altogether.”

Rand’s response to Booker’s announcement telegraphed the likely Republican strategy against him; namely, pounding him on his more left-wing positions in a conservative state: “I just don’t think defunding the police and forcing taxpayers to pay for reparations will be very popular in Kentucky.”

What happened to McGrath in 2020 illustrates the decidedly uphill nature of Booker’s quest in 2022. She spent $90 million to lose to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell by 20 points, failing to even break 40%.

Of course, McConnell is a more formidable political force than Paul, and McGrath’s near loss to Booker in the Democratic primary — in which he beat her in Louisville-Jefferson County by 36,000 votes — was a glaring sign of her weakness as a candidate. Booker does have stronger political skills, and it seems likely at this point that he won’t have to battle through a primary.

Still, Donald Trump carried Kentucky by 26 points in 2020, and Paul heads into the race with Trump’s endorsement. And a Democrat has not won a Senate race in the commonwealth for 30 years.

Booker’s theory of the race is that he can reach, rally and motivate voters on the left, rather than trimming his sails to appear more moderate, which did not work for McGrath. To that end, he has hired two campaign operatives involved in Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock’s runoff win in January, which won with a rallying-the-base strategy.

Booker, like Warnock, is a charismatic African-American candidate with an engaging, pulpit speaking style. However, Kentucky has a much smaller black population than Georgia and is much less urban. Louisville’s impact on the statewide vote will not be as determinative as Atlanta’s was.

Indeed, Booker’s loss to McGrath shows the challenges of a base-centric style in the Bluegrass. He beat her in Louisville and Lexington, but she won the primary by carrying most of the rest of the state.

So, the key question for 2022 is, can he find enough votes in more heavily populated parts of the state to overcome Paul’s margins in more rural areas? Or can he cut into those margins with an economic appeal to rural voters in poorer counties in Eastern Kentucky, where Democrats still have local influence?

Another wild card in this race is the amount of institutional support Booker might get from national Democrats, for a race that is seen as rather less than winnable. The powers-that-be who went all in for McGrath may be wary of going down that road again, although, as Paul’s foil, Booker should be able to raise enough money on his own to be competitive.

It is not impossible for a Democrat to win statewide in Kentucky, as Governor Andy Beshear proved in 2019. Then again, Beshear was running against Matt Bevin, whose performance as governor had made him as popular as a bad rash. Paul starts the race in much better shape.

Booker starts the race with an audacious belief in his own chances, and he has clearly decided that caution is not the better part of valor. While that may or may not end up making a senator, it will make the Kentucky Senate race among them most compelling of the 2022 cycle.

Video of Charles Booker’s announcement

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Former Georgia U.S. Rep. Doug Collins won’t seek statewide office in 2022

Republican passes on primary challenge  to Governor Brian Kemp encouraged by Donald Trump

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

GeorgiaATLANTA (CFP) — Former Georgia Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins has announced he won’t seek any statewide office in 2022, deciding to forgo a primary challenge to Governor Brian Kemp or a race against Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock.

In an announcement on Twitter, Collins said he planned to stay active in politics but gave no details of his future plans.

GAcollins_main_decision 2020

Doug Collins

“For those who may wonder, this is goodbye for now, but probably not forever,” he said. “I do plan on staying involved in shaping our conservative message to help Republicans win back the House and the Senate and help more strong conservative candidates get elected here in Georgia.”

Collins, 54, from Gainesville, was elected to represent Georgia’s 9th U.S. House District in 2012 but gave up the seat to run in a special election for a vacant U.S. Senate seat in 2020. He finished third in an all-party contest, which Warnock won in a runoff.

After the 2020 election, Donald Trump, unhappy that Kemp wasn’t doing more to help him overturn his election loss in Georgia, publicly urged Collins to challenge Kemp in this year’s GOP primary.

Collins — one of Trump’s staunchest defenders in the House — could have posed a threat to Kemp with Trump behind him, which has now been removed with his decision not to run.

Kemp has so far drawn only one significant Republican challenger — Vernon Jones, a former Democrat who served as chief executive of DeKalb County before switching parties to support Trump in 2020.

Collins is the second major Republican to take a pass on the Senate race against Warnock, joining former U.S. Senator David Perdue.

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The night the GOP’s lights went out in Georgia: Democrats gain Senate control

Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeat Republican U.S. Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ATLANTA (CFP) — Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won Georgia’s two hotly contested U.S. Senate runoffs Tuesday, handing Democrats control of the U.S. Senate and removing a significant impediment to President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

In the last act of a long and contentious political season, Warnock — the senior pastor of Atlanta’s iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church who was making his political debut — defeated Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, leading by about 564,000 votes, or margin of 50.3% to 49.3%.

Ossoff defeated U.S. Senator David Perdue by a smaller 25,000-vote margin, or 50.3% to 49.7%, a sweep of both races in a state that had not elected a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years.

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia

In a victory video posted on his campaign website, Warnock said “we were told that we couldn’t win this election, but tonight, we proved that with hope, hard work and the people by our side, anything is possible.”

“I am going to the Senate to work for all of the people of Georgia, no matter who you cast your vote for in this election.”

Warnock will make history as the first African American ever elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia.

Loeffler, the multimillionaire Atlanta businesswoman appointed to the Senate last year by Republican Governor Brian Kemp, did not concede during brief remarks to her supporters, who gathered in person Tuesday night despite the COVID-19 pandemic: “We have a path to victory, and we’re staying on it.”

In a video post Wednesday morning, Ossoff, who narrowly lost a U.S. House race in 2017, thanked supporters and said he would focus on fighting the coronavirus pandemic once he gets to Washington.

“This campaign has been about health and jobs and justice for the people of this state,” said Ossoff, who, at 33, will become the youngest person to serve in the Senate in the last 40 years. “They will be my guiding principles as I serve this state in the U.S. Senate.”

Perdue’s campaign released a statement saying that “this exceptionally close election that will require time and transparency to be certain the results are fair and accurate.”

“We will mobilize every available resource and exhaust every legal recourse to ensure all legally cast ballots are counted,” the statement said. “We believe in the end, Senator Perdue will be victorious.”

However, Ossoff’s margin was more than twice as large as Biden’s win in November, which held up through two recounts.

Perdue, who was seeking a second term, had been in quarantine and off the campaign trail in the closing days of the race after a campaign staffer tested positive for COVID-19.

Tuesday’s results are yet another electoral rebuke to President Donald Trump, who lost Georgia in November and roiled the Senate runoffs with unsubstantiated claims of fraud and biting criticism of Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused to validate Trump’s fraud allegations.

The Senate will be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking the tie to give Democrats control.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will lose his leadership perch, although he will remain as minority leader in a Senate divided 50-50.

With Senate control on the line, the four candidates and outside groups poured more than $882 million into the races — about $83 for every man, woman and child in the state.

The unprecedented spectacle of two Senate runoff elections on the same day in Georgia was the result of a Senate vacancy and an unusual feature of state law that requires candidates in general elections to secure an outright majority to win.

Loeffler was appointed to the Senate last year by Kemp to replace Johnny Isakson, who retired due to ill health. That triggered a special election to fill the two remaining years in Isakson’s turn, which featured an all-party contest in November in which the top two vote-getters — Warnock and Loeffler — won spots in a runoff.

Perdue defeated Ossoff in November’s vote but narrowly missed winning an outright majority, which Georgia law uniquely requires. So the two men faced each other again Tuesday.

With the Democratic victories in Georgia, the number of senators representing Southern states will rise from three to five, compared with 23 Republicans.

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Georgia runoffs will decide control of U.S. Senate Tuesday

President Donald Trump, President-elect Joe Biden both rally the Peach State faithful on campaign’s closing day

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ATLANTA (CFP) — With control of the U.S. Senate and the legislative prospects of the incoming Biden administration hanging in the balance, voters across Georgia will go to the polls Tuesday to decide two U.S. Senate runoffs, after both President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden made last-minute appeals to supporters Monday.

Republican U.S. Senator David Perdue faces Democrat Jon Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide. In the other race, Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler faces Democrat Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church making his first bid for elected office.

From top left: Ossoff, Perdue, , Loeffler, Warnock

In-person polling runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET Tuesday, although more than 3 million people have already cast their ballots through early and absentee voting.

If Ossoff and Warnock win, the Senate will be split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris breaking the tie to give Democrats control.

If either Loeffler or Perdue win, Republicans will control the upper chamber, giving them a check against Biden’s legislative program and approval of his nominees.

With Senate control on the line, the four candidates and outside groups have poured more than $882 million into the races — about $83 for every man, woman and child in the state.

Biden emphasized the unusual impact that voters in a single state can have during an address to a rally Monday in Atlanta, where he told Peach State supporters that they “can chart the course not just for the next four years but for the next generation.”

“Georgia — the whole nation is looking to you,” Biden said. “The power is literally in your hands, unlike any time in my career.”

The president-elect spent most of his 16-minute speech touting Ossoff and Warnock, saying their election will help move coronavirus relief through Congress, “restoring hope and decency and honor for so many people who are struggling right now.”

He also had harsh words for what he termed the Trump’s administration’s “God-awful” rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, using the issue to take a swipe a Trump for his singular focus on election fraud claims since his loss in November.

“The president spends more time whining and complaining than doing something about the problem,” Biden said. “I don’t know why he still wants the job. He doesn’t want to do the work.”

Trump, in what was likely the last campaign rally of his presidency, spent much of his 80-minute speech in Dalton relitigating his November election loss and railing against what he termed a “rigged” process in Georgia, where he lost after the vote was recounted twice.

He also promised that he would produce new information that would change the election outcome and gave a lengthy recitation of fraud allegations that have been repeatedly rejected by elections officials in several states and in every court where lawsuits have been filed.

Trump also cast the consequences of Tuesday’s vote in Georgia in apocalyptic terms, casting Ossoff and Warnock as radical socialists who don’t reflect Georgia values.

“The stakes of this election should not be higher,” Trump said. “The radical Democrats are trying to capture Georgia’s Senate seats so they can wield unchecked, unrestrained absolute power over every aspect of your lives.”

Hanging over the last day of the campaign was a controversial phone call Trump made to Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a recording of which was obtained by the news media on Saturday.

In it, the president asks the state’s top election official to “find” more than 11,000 votes to flip Georgia into his column; a local prosecutor in Atlanta says she is looking at possible criminal charges.

Neither Biden or Trump brought up the phone call in his speech, but Trump took a shot at both Raffensperger and Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who has also refused the president’s entreaties to overturn the Georgia election results.

“I’m going to be here in a year and a half, and I’m going to campaign against your crazy governor and secretary of state,” Trump said.

Also looming over Tuesday’s vote is an effort by Republicans in Congress to challenge Biden’s Electoral College win on Wednesday, turning what is normally a ceremonial event into a last-ditch effort to prevent Biden from winning the White House.

Hours before the Dalton rally with Trump, Loeffler finally announced the she would back the challenge, after refusing to take a position for several days. Perdue also said he backs the challenge, although, because his Senate term ended when the new Congress convened on Sunday, he will not vote on it.

Taking the stage next to Trump, Loeffler told the crowd that “this president fought for us. We’re going to fight for him.”

But during his speech in Atlanta, Biden hit both senators for taking a stand that he said was in defiance of the Constitution.

“You have two senators who think their loyalty is to Trump, not to Georgia,” Biden said. “You have two senators who think they’ve sworn an oath to Donald Trump, not to the United States Constitution.”

In his speech, Trump also alluded to the fact that Vice President Mike Pence will preside over the session Wednesday where the Electoral College votes will be counted.

“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us,” he said, then joked that “of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him as much.”

The unprecedented spectacle of two Senate runoff elections on the same day in Georgia is the result of a Senate vacancy and an unusual feature of state law that requires candidates in general elections to secure an outright majority to win.

Loeffler was appointed to the Senate last year by Kemp to replace Johnny Isakson, who retired due to ill health. That triggered a special election to fill the two remaining years in Isakson’s turn, which featured an all-party contest in November in which the top two vote-getters — Warnock and Loeffler — won spots in a runoff.

Perdue, running for a second term, defeated Ossoff in November’s vote but narrowly missed winning an outright majority, which Georgia law uniquely requires. So the two men are facing each other again Tuesday.

Perdue has been off the campaign trail in quarantine after a staffer tested positive for COVID-19 last week, and he did not appear with Trump at Monday’s night rally.

The four candidates in the race have, combined, raised more than $445 million, with outside groups adding at least another $437, according to figures from OpenSecrets.org.

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