Stepping out of their polling station last week in McDonough, a city of 29,000 in the southern suburbs of Atlanta, conservative voters explained why they had cast early ballots for Herschel Walker and his Trump-backed, scandal-plagued and sometimes messianic bid for a seat in the US Senate.
“[We need] a shift in power,” said Scott Roman, a 53-year-old podiatrist still wearing his blue scrubs. “Everyone’s got skeletons, so I’d rather have him as a Republican, versus a Democrat.”
Charles Schubert, a 71-year-old financial adviser, said Walker was not “perfect” but would get back to the “pro-USA, pro-America” policies of the Trump years, with “low inflation, full employment and energy independence”.
The former American football star and self-professed “warrior for God” has faced allegations of domestic violence, revelations that he pressured women to have abortions, disclosures of previously unknown children and a public rebuke from one of his sons.
Yet Walker remains in contention to unseat Raphael Warnock, the incumbent Democrat and pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr used to preach.
For Mason, a 23-year-old financial adviser who declined to offer his last name, it was a “tough decision” to support Walker, but he thought a divided government would be better for business. “When nothing can get done, the economy grows,” he said.
Just two years after Joe Biden was elected to the White House and Democrats won control of Congress, polls show there is a strong possibility that the Republican party will make a decisive comeback in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
Republicans are expected win back the House of Representatives, while control of the Senate is in the balance and will come down to the outcome of a handful of key races, including in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Georgia.
“The Senate is still a toss-up, but there are far more avenues for Republicans to win a majority than for Democrats,” says Jessica Taylor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
While Democrats are still hoping to mobilise their base of voters to avoid sweeping defeats, even a partial victory for Republicans — probably fuelled by concerns about high prices, crime and immigration — would carry big implications for American politics heading into the next presidential election in 2024.
It would show the extent to which the Republican party remains an acceptable political alternative in the eyes of a sufficiently large group of voters — even though it has lurched further towards Trumpism during the Biden years.
Within its ranks, the tolerance for election denialism, the disdain for federal institutions such as the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service, the relentless demonisation of any liberal politician and the wariness of America’s traditional alliances have only grown — as has the willingness to allow for personal hypocrisy and fringe candidates like Walker.
“Donald Trump eliminated any pretence that character counts, and that used to be at the core of how Republicans pitched themselves,” says Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who runs focus groups with swing voters and has bristled at the former president’s stranglehold on the party. “There was a period where it seemed like Trump was an exception to the rule, and now it’s pure nihilism, nothing matters.”
The Senate race in Georgia is a particularly important contest, not just because it could determine control of the upper chamber of Congress, but because it is a fierce and expensive fight to gain the edge in one of America’s newest — and most prominent — political battlegrounds. (Under Georgia rules, if neither candidate wins an outright majority this week, there will be a run-off contest in early December.)
In 2020, for the first time in almost three decades, a Democrat carried Georgia in a presidential election and the party also captured two Senate seats, including the one Walker is trying to win back with a campaign that is built around culture war issues.
“I’ll help make the streets safer for you, I’ll help secure that border, I’ll lower your taxes, I’ll get men out of women’s sports, I’ll keep your religious freedom,” Walker told supporters in the back lot of a Ford dealership in Augusta last week, with his bright red campaign bus as a backdrop. “And I’ll make sure Jesus goes to Washington with me.”
The White House and senior Democrats have known for months that they would be facing a very difficult midterm cycle as a burst in inflation has strained American household finances, leaving the current leadership possibly in line to suffer the same fate as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who lost their House majorities in 1994 and 2010.
Such a result would grind Biden’s legislative ambitions to a halt while Republicans are likely to pursue a series of investigations aimed at all levels of his administration, and possibly even his son Hunter. Biden will have much less flexibility to respond to any big new economic and financial shock should one occur and may face hurdles in delivering funding for Ukraine. He will also probably face a high-stakes clash over raising the US debt ceiling to avoid a default.
Hampered by Biden’s low approval ratings, Democrats have tried to make the case that their policies have been largely successful in light of the huge challenges they faced with Covid, the economic recovery and the war in Ukraine.
They have also turned to highlighting what they describe as Republican extremism, on everything ranging from the party’s push for strict abortion restrictions and bans in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling overturning the Roe vs Wade precedent in June, to its continued embrace of Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen.
“We can’t ignore the impact this is having on our country. It’s damaging, it’s corrosive, and it’s destructive,” Biden warned in a speech from Union Station in Washington in one of his final pitches to voters.
The reality that Democrats would be squaring off in this year’s midterms against a mostly unreconstructed Republican party has long been apparent: many senior lawmakers downplayed Trump’s role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and then defended the former president even as he faced a criminal probe for hoarding sensitive documents related to national security at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
But it became so much more vivid after so many of Trump’s preferred candidates for office prevailed in primary contests across the country, setting them up as their party’s standard bearers. These have included Kari Lake, the former television anchor turned Republican candidate from Arizona, who still refuses to say whether she will concede defeat in her own race if she loses, as well as Doug Mastriano, a former military officer now Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, who was at the rally on the National Mall with Trump that preceded the riot.
Along with Walker in Georgia, the party’s controversial candidates for the Senate include political novices Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician running in Pennsylvania, and JD Vance, the venture capitalist and author competing in Ohio as well as Blake Masters in Arizona and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire. But while the Trumpian capture of the party’s Senate nominees was considered a weakness for Republicans just a few weeks ago, it is seen as less of a risk now.
“If Republicans were a bit more ‘generic’, we’d be arguing between a red wave versus a red tsunami,” Beacon Policy Advisors, a consultancy in Washington, told clients this week. “Republicans are underperforming the fundamentals. But the fundamentals are so good, it doesn’t matter in the House. The last couple of weeks seems like the underperformance doesn’t matter as much in the Senate as well,” they added.
Walker is benefiting from this shift. As Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, puts it: “It looks like a growing number of Republicans who were on the fence are deciding to join most Republicans, who operate on the belief that having control of the Senate is more important than anything in Herschel Walker’s background or character.”
The importance of turnout
Some Democrats remain confident that they will do far better than expected in the midterms. “All the evidence is that voting is going to be at record levels for a midterm, matching or exceeding 2018. And yes, Republicans are turning out in big numbers, but that was also true in 2018 and 2020, and Democrats still won,” says Mike Lux, a Democratic political consultant. “There are simply more Democratic voters than Republican voters and when everyone votes in big numbers, we are likely to win.”
In Georgia, a victory for Walker would still count as a come-from-behind upset. The state, for decades a bastion of southern conservatism, has moved towards the left over the past decade as the outskirts of Atlanta have grown in population, bringing in more diverse, well-educated voters who typically vote for Democrats. At the same time, local Democrats have built up an imposing turnout machine to galvanise their own supporters in the most populous counties where elections are won and lost.
Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor who is trailing behind Republican incumbent Brian Kemp, brushed off concerns that energy among Democrats would be subdued this year. The one wild card was younger voters, whose turnout has been lagging in early voting. “Young voters are always going to be the slowest to turn out. But we know that when they do show up, they change the outcomes,” Abrams said during a campaign stop at a shopping centre in McDonough.
Sarah Riggs Amico, a logistics executive in Cobb County, north of Atlanta, who has run for office as a Democrat in Georgia, says the gutting of the right to an abortion is still a big motivating factor for suburban women, even though some polls show they may be shifting back to Republicans amid economic worries.
“I’ve got to say women are up in arms about having old white GOP men take away their bodily autonomy,” she says. “I think you will see a battle for who shows up on election day,” she adds.
In McDonough, Democratic voters bristled at Walker and were determined to re-elect their senator, who has far better favourability ratings as measured by polls.
“Warnock did what he said he was going to do once he got to the Senate. I’m not sure about Herschel Walker. He’s so all over the place, you know, with the abortion and domestic violence and so forth, I think it’s a bad look for the Senate and for the United States,” says Scott Jervis, a 61-year-old retired American football referee.
But Raesa Waldon, a 33-year-old social media consultant at the polls with her mother Vivian, says it is not surprising to see a divisive backlash brewing from the right against Democrats. “We’re going to keep enduring these types of politics, these types of talking points, these types of opinions, for as long as we’re living,” she says.
One reason Republican leaders across the US have grown more confident about their chances is that polls have shown the economy and high inflation rising to the top of voters concerns, eclipsing worries about democracy or reproductive rights. Their response has been to close ranks behind key candidates in vulnerable positions — including in Georgia — with late endorsements and fundraising.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has continued to funnel cash, including $23mn in October, to Walker’s campaign through his Senate leadership fund. “We’re going to take it all the way to the end,” McConnell said last month when questioned about the Georgia race. Rick Allen, the Republican House member representing Augusta, introduced Walker at the bus tour stop in his district last week. “I feel an undercurrent out there,” Allen said. “America’s waking up, and it’s about time.”
Longwell warns that a Republican capture of Congress, and particularly the Senate, would further embolden Trump to run for a second term as president.
“It would tell us that you do not suffer a penalty for being a party that attempted a coup — there’s no penalty for election deniers,” she says. “To the extent that Trump handpicked Walker and handpicked Oz, it puts him in a springboard position for the Republican primary in 2024.”
Additional reporting by Caitlin Gilbert in New York