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Herschel Walker’s defeat delivers another blow to Trump and his slow 2024 bid

By Kristen Holmes and Gabby Orr, CNN

Donald Trump was hoping for a win on Tuesday amid the slow start to his latest presidential campaign, believing a victory for his longtime friend and hand-picked candidate Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate runoff would mitigate calls for new Republican leadership following a spate of losses for his endorsed candidates in high-profile 2022 races.

Instead, Trump’s first cycle as a so-called GOP kingmaker ended with one final blow to his scorecard.

Walker lost by nearly 3 percentage points to Sen. Raphael Warnock, handing Democrats a wider Senate majority than they’ve had the past two years and plunging the former president into deeper scrutiny as the GOP’s only declared 2024 contender.

“OUR COUNTRY IS IN BIG TROUBLE. WHAT A MESS!” Trump wrote on his Truth Social site shortly after several networks called the race for Warnock late Tuesday night.

One source close to Trump said the Georgia results were likely to further damage the 2024 Republican hopeful’s third presidential campaign, which has been marred by a series of self-inflicted wounds and legal troubles in the three weeks since Trump announced he was running.

“This is really, really bad,” this person said.

Many in the former president’s orbit are concerned that this will boost demand for other Republicans to challenge him for the party’s presidential nomination.

“Trump backed the wrong candidates and lost virtually all of them in the Senate in 2022. He then goes and attacks two of the most popular Republican governors, the governor of Virginia and Florida, and now he talks about terminating the Constitution. He’s destroying himself,” longtime GOP pollster Frank Luntz told CNN.

In the six states where Trump’s MAGA Inc. political action committee spent tens of millions boosting candidates with his backing, he notched only one victory: Sen.-elect J.D. Vance in Ohio, a state that has trended Republican in recent years. Trump aides insist he remains pleased with his roughly 80% success rate for the 250-plus endorsements he doled out this cycle — many of which went to heavily favored incumbents, Republican hopefuls running for reliably red seats, or candidates who ran unopposed — even as the former president has privately complained to allies about the blame he’s facing for elevating low-caliber candidates and suggesting that many of them could have run better campaigns, sources said.

“Conservatives across the country are tired of losing. 2024 is key to winning the future again. Choose well,” Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Iowa Republican who endorsed Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, wrote on Twitter late Tuesday as Walker appeared headed for defeat.

Erick Erickson, a Georgia-based conservative radio host who also endorsed Trump in 2020, said Tuesday’s outcome in his home state further demonstrated that voters “in the swing states that matter have kept rejecting candidates tied to Trump.”

“You want to win? Move on from an angry old man with nothing left but a knockoff Twitter feed. And move on from candidates who are objectively not good fits,” Erickson wrote in a Wednesday morning column, suggesting that Walker, a candidate besieged by domestic abuse allegations and claims that he paid for multiple abortions, didn’t lose solely because of Trump and but likely wouldn’t have entered the Senate race last summer had the former president not encouraged him to. Walker has denied the allegations from two separate women who claim he encouraged them to terminate their pregnancies.

‘I want to back a winner’

Members of Trump’s orbit had hoped for a Walker win to breathe new energy into the former president’s own stagnant campaign, but are now grappling with the reality that this has likely set them back farther.

One Mar-a-Lago member who is close to Trump said the former president’s 2022 scorecard has cemented his decision to financially support an alternative in the Republican presidential primary, most likely Ron DeSantis if the Florida governor runs.

“Donald’s got his problems right now and they are so numerous that I don’t think he can win and I want to back a winner,” this person said. “There are a lot of friends of mine who don’t want to have Trump at the top of the ticket because they feel it’s a killer.”

Thomas Peterffy, a billionaire GOP donor who lives just down the street from Trump in Palm Beach, said the former president “is to blame for many of the Republican losses in the gubernatorial and senatorial races” this cycle.

“Right now, I think his negatives are so much stronger than his positives,” said Peterffy, who has met with some of Trump’s potential 2024 rivals.

As of Wednesday, Trump’s team was bracing for a deluge of blame to be placed on the former president for the Georgia outcome, in addition to other party leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, National Republican Senatorial Committee chief Rick Scott, and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, all of whom have faced calls from fellow Republicans to either step down from their leadership roles or stop enabling Trump’s influence.

But while some Republican operatives have called for the party to reevaluate its election tactics and chart a new course, others said Trump’s grip on the GOP should never be underestimated.

The former president has faced a seemingly endless string of legal troubles since mounting his 2016 campaign for the White House and constantly attracts bipartisan scrutiny for his behavior — and still, throngs of grassroots Republicans remain besotted with the former businessman. Rarely has he seen a significant chunk of his supporters wander away from him.

“There is still a large portion of the Republican base who only care about Donald Trump,” one former Trump Republican told CNN.

Trump allies and advisers hope he can keep his grip on that portion of the party as the 2022 cycle reaches its conclusion and voters and rumored Republican presidential hopefuls shift their attention to the 2024 primary season. But some aren’t sure he still wields the same power that he did even just months ago, before the November midterms, when GOP lawmakers and candidates were flocking to his Mar-a-Lago club for meetings and fundraisers and polls showed him drawing steady support among Republican voters.

“(Trump is) still very popular in the party. People appreciate his presidency. They appreciate his fighting spirit. But there’s beginning to be a sense, can he win?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, told CNN.

In the weeks since his campaign announcement, signs of Trump’s dwindling power over the party have been on full display as some Republicans seem emboldened to publicly distance themselves from the former president and former allies — including Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo — have indicated that they are prepared to potentially take him on in 2024.

“You just can’t deny what the results are. You can’t go around sincerely saying, ‘(Trump) is not a drag on the party,’ and won’t be a profoundly negative force if he winds up on the top of the ticket in 2024,” said a former Trump campaign official.

Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement that the former president’s 2024 strategy “is being implemented even though the presidential calendar hasn’t been set yet and the 2022 midterm cycle just ended.”

“President Trump is the single most dominant force in politics and people — especially those who purport to be close to him — should never doubt his ability to win in a decisive and dominant fashion,” Cheung said.

Other hurdles

Even before Walker lost Tuesday’s runoff, Trump’s 2024 campaign had been confronted with setbacks.

Within days of Trump announcing his run, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to take over two criminal investigations into the former president and his associates surrounding the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol and his retention of classified documents after leaving office. Then, shortly before Thanksgiving, Trump drew widespread backlash for dining with Kanye West, who has spent the past month publicly spouting antisemitic remarks, and White nationalist Nick Fuentes at his Palm Beach residence. He then drew a fresh round of criticism this week after calling for the “termination” of the US Constitution in a Truth Social post over the weekend to allow him to be reinstated as president. And on Tuesday, just hours before Walker’s defeat, Trump’s Manhattan-based real estate company was convicted by a New York City jury on multiple charges of tax fraud and other financial crimes.

“The special counsel wasn’t a huge surprise but the Kanye dinner was a completely avoidable mistake,” said one Trump adviser. “It made his campaign look completely incompetent and that’s catnip for potential rivals.”

Trump’s physical avoidance of Georgia also raised questions about his ability to appeal to crucial swing state voters, who will likely hold the key to another term in Washington if he emerges on the other side of the 2024 GOP primary as the party’s nominee. After not visiting Georgia ahead of the November midterm elections, Trump continued to keep his distance before the runoffs. The former president did host a tele-rally on Monday, hoping to galvanize Republican voters to support Walker the following day.

But that decision was welcomed by Georgia Republicans, given Trump’s relationship with the Peach State.

After winning Georgia in 2016, Trump’s record across the state has spiraled downward. In 2020, he became the first GOP presidential candidate to lose Georgia in nearly three decades, only to lash out at statewide Republican officeholders, baselessly accusing them of concealing widespread voter fraud for which he provided no evidence. Shortly after his defeat, the state’s two incumbent Republican senators — Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — lost their respective runoff contests against Jon Ossoff and Warnock, handing Democrats a slim Senate majority at the beginning of Joe Biden’s presidency. Many in the party blamed Trump’s election denialism and criticism of mail-in ballots for lower party turnout in those runoff contests.

“There were many in 2020 saying, ‘Don’t vote by mail. Don’t vote early,’ and we have to stop that and understand that if Democrats are getting ballots in for a month, we can’t expect to get it all done in one day,” McDaniel, the current RNC chairwoman, said in an apparent reference to Trump during a Fox News appearance just hours before polls closed on Tuesday.

And after Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger refused to help Trump overturn Biden’s victory in the state, Trump waged an effort to exact political retribution, endorsing unsuccessful primary challenges against the two men. Kemp and Raffensberger went on to handily win their general election contests last month.

In part because of his losing record in the state, aides to both Walker and Trump believed the political risk was too great for Trump to appear alongside Walker. Still, the two men continued to speak by phone regularly in the lead up to the November midterms — and his ultimate defeat on Tuesday.

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