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What the GOP's next steps should be after Herschel Walker's loss

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Herschel Walker ran for U.S. Senate in Georgia, he faced criticism for many things he said. But when he lost this week, he gave a gracious concession speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERSCHEL WALKER: I don't want any of you to stop dreaming. I don't want any of you to stop believing in America.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Herschel.

WALKER: I want you to believe in America and continue to believe in the Constitution and believe in our elected officials most of all.

INSKEEP: Unlike some, Walker did not claim his defeat was unfair. The loss concluded a disappointing midterm for Republicans, who failed to recapture the Senate. So we called a Republican who knows a lot about Senate elections. Steven Law runs a political action committee that spent tens of millions of dollars on Republican candidates.

What went wrong with Herschel Walker's campaign?

STEVEN LAW: I think there were several things. First of all, Herschel Walker obviously was a tremendously famous sports figure in the state, beloved - 100% name ID - but he also had a lot of problems in his past life, many of which he was quite straightforward about. But when that - when those kinds of things end up in the political environment, it did him some harm.

And then, in addition to that, Raphael Warnock is an unusually strong candidate. It's not any surprise the Democrats are already looking at him as a potential future presidential candidate. He raised over $100 million, and he used that very effectively to negatively define Walker. Now, Walker raised a lot of money himself. He raised more money than any other Republican challenger in the country, but it just proved to be a bridge too far.

INSKEEP: When you talk about Warnock's image, some analysts have pointed out that Warnock worked very hard over the past couple of years to appear bipartisan. You might agree or disagree as to whether he really was, but he worked with Ted Cruz on things that were important to his state. He had a particular stance on immigration that was different than the rest of his party. He was taking his own stances on things.

LAW: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I mean, one can argue whether it was more artifice than reality, but he was certainly smart enough to invest in efforts to appear bipartisan. And it was a huge part of his messaging, which indicates, you know, something that's going on in the electorate - that voters want to see more cooperation in Washington. They want to see people working together. They're tired of the hardcore partisanship and the crisis, the scandal, the grievance politics. They want to see people solving problems. And Warnock clearly marketed himself that way. And we - whether or not it was accurate or not, it seemed to stick with voters.

INSKEEP: Did the Georgia result symbolize the whole problem for the Republican Party in the midterm elections?

LAW: I think Georgia had a lot of unique complicating factors. I mean, it was the one race where we had a true celebrity on the ballot, and we were also running against a Democrat who was popular. But the cycle didn't go well for Republicans for any number of reasons. Among them, the red wave that a lot of people were expecting - we were not, but a lot of people were - it just never materialized. Democrats were very energized.

And then the second thing that hurt Republicans was candidate quality overall. We just had a number of candidates - and I'm not just talking at the Senate level - gubernatorial level, House races, up and down the ballot - candidates who were flawed, candidates who simply couldn't communicate to the middle part of the electorate, which ended up having a decisive role in these election outcomes this year.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about another factor that I think you've commented upon in social media. Fox News personalities in the last few days have been saying, wow, it was a really bad idea for Republicans to avoid early voting and to pretend there was tons of fraud in the system.

LAW: Well, exactly right. You go back to the days when Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman ran the RNC - the Republican Party bested the Democrats on getting out the vote in every single election. Democrats were simply not good at it. And over the last couple of decades, they've really invested in doing well at that while Republicans started to treat early voting is a bad habit that needed to be avoided. And we got the results that you would expect from that. I do think it's important that the party step up on it. I'm glad to hear that people are recognizing that this was a major tactical failure on the Republican Party side.

INSKEEP: Paul Ryan, the former House speaker, said something the other day that I think you said before - kind of a formula. He said, with Trump, we lose. Without Trump, we win. Is he correct?

LAW: Well, I think Trump himself will have a decision to make about how he wants to come across and what he wants to talk about. At the end of the day, what voters are in the mood for is constructive, competent leadership. They want leaders to get the job done and to leave us alone. And you look at what's worked. You look at the kinds of politicians who have been succeeding in the last couple of elections. It's been people like Governor Brian Kemp, Governor Glenn Youngkin, Governor Ron DeSantis.

INSKEEP: Now, you began that answer - I asked if Republicans lose with Trump, and you said, well, it depends on how he decides to present himself. Are you saying you think it is still conceivable that this particular former president could rebrand himself as a competent centrist?

LAW: I really don't know. I mean, I'm nowhere near that inner circle or - and I'd be the last person who could predict his thinking or how he'd approach things. But I - the one thing I do know is what we are seeing that voters are now drawn to. They're drawn to politicians who are not mired in grievance politics. They're not mired in some particular ideological bent. They want to solve problems. They want to make people's lives better. And a leader who comes forward with that kind of approach is more likely to be successful than one who's not.

INSKEEP: Stephen Law, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

LAW: Thank you. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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