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GOP starts boosting Walker in runoff amid calls to keep Trump away from Georgia

Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is already raising money for Walker, but he's not touching the question of how to handle Trump.
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The head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee pledged Wednesday to raise whatever money he can and begin an advertising blitz this week for Herschel Walker’s runoff in Georgia against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.

But there’s one aspect Sen. Rick Scott of Florida won’t weigh in on: whether former President Donald Trump should stay out of the Dec. 6 runoff.

GOP insiders faulted Trump, who has had a toxic relationship with popular Republican Gov. Brian Kemp even though he endorsed him the day before his re-election, for costing the party control of the Senate in two simultaneous runoffs last year, after Trump lost his re-election bid to President Joe Biden and then advanced false conspiracy theories about voting that led many Republican voters in Georgia to stay home.

Warnock won his race against Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, and Sen. Jon Ossoff defeated GOP incumbent David Perdue, swinging control of the narrowly divided Senate to the Democrats.

Now — after both sides have spent more than $200 million in this year's Senate race — Warnock is in another runoff. And it once again could decide the balance of power in the Senate.

Republican leaders don’t want a repeat of the 2021 runoff, especially now that Trump has teased a "big announcement" Tuesday, when he is widely expected to officially declare another White House bid. But Scott is staying mum on the Trump question.

“That’ll be a decision between Herschel and Trump. I know that Trump wants to be helpful to make Herschel win. That’s an issue for the campaign. I don’t get to participate in those decisions,” said Scott, who is in charge of getting Republicans elected as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Instead, Scott said, his focus will be limited to raising “every dime” possible for Walker after the NRSC plowed $14 million into the race. The committee will start running TV ads this week.

Scott also urged donors and surrogates in a memo to get involved, including through TV appearances, to solicit campaign donations for Walker.

Scott acknowledged that he “was disappointed” with Tuesday’s election results because Republicans expected to win more Senate seats. Instead, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who was backed by Trump, lost his bid for an open Pennsylvania Senate seat vacated by a Republican, while Republican Blake Masters is trailing Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona. NBC News hasn’t projected a winner in the Arizona race.

Still, another GOP Senate candidate supported by Trump, Adam Laxalt of Nevada, is leading Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in another contest NBC News has not projected. Should Laxalt prevail, the Georgia Senate race would once again determine control of the Senate.

Trump recruited Walker, a former University of Georgia football star, to run because he is an iconic sports figure in the state and has been friends with the former president for decades.

But Walker also has a long record of false statements about his business and education, in addition to domestic violence allegations and accusations that he paid two women to have abortions, which he has denied. Democrats savaged him in a saturation ad campaign that Scott called “character assassination.”

All other statewide Georgia Republican candidates avoided runoffs Tuesday by winning more than 50% of the vote. Warnock just missed the threshold, with 49.4% in a three-way race, with Walker at 48.5% and libertarian Chase Oliver at 2%.

Walker got almost 203,000 fewer votes than Kemp, whom Trump tried to take out in a Republican primary this year by recruiting Perdue to run against him. Kemp, who refused to help Trump overturn the 2020 election results in the state, beat Perdue soundly in the primary.

Scott blamed Walker's relatively poor showing on Republicans who didn’t vote, even though Tuesday's election results indicate that enough Republicans went to the polls, and many voters split their ticket.

“This comes down to Donald Trump, again,” said former Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican critic of Trump. “Donald Trump coming to Georgia is not good for anybody who wants Republican control of the U.S. Senate.”

By comparison, Duncan said, Warnock has skillfully avoided being tied too closely to Biden, who is deeply unpopular in the state along with Trump.

A spokesman for Trump, Taylor Budowich, dismissed concerns about Trump’s endorsement record and Walker’s standing.

“President Trump is 220-18 in races that have been called, and with the support of President Trump, Herschel Walker, after forcing a run-off, is well-positioned to win,” Budowich said in a statement.

In the waning days of the general election, Trump didn’t hold any rallies in Georgia. Walker’s internal campaign polling showed Trump hurt him “with the voters we need to win” — independent, moderate Republican and female voters, according to campaign sources familiar with data who declined to discuss the information on the record.

One of the sources said Trump had no problem staying out of the state because “he wants to see Herschel win.”

Some Trump confidants and advisers want him to delay his expected presidential campaign announcement so it doesn’t overshadow or complicate the Georgia Senate race.

“Our whole focus as a party should be about winning the Senate, and the best way we do that is keep a laser focus on Georgia and President Biden,” one of the sources said.

“By making the political moment about his presidential campaign, it just causes issues: stories about whether Trump will campaign with Herschel, stuff about how Trump is toxic to a lot of Georgia voters,” the person said. “It’s a distraction.”

Trump, however, indicated to Fox News on Wednesday that he still plans to make his announcement next week.

Political commentator Erick Erickson, a Kemp surrogate, said Republicans want Trump to stay away.

“The emails I’m getting all morning is: Can we keep Trump from coming to Georgia to help Herschel?” he said. “If they can keep Trump off the radar, maybe they can get Walker across the finish line. If Trump shows up to help, that ruins it.”

Kemp, who has had a strained relationship with Walker, plans to rally with him, according to sources familiar with the discussions between the campaigns. But the exact nature of Kemp’s help is unclear.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said Kemp’s big win Tuesday night cemented his status as a powerful Republican.

“Kemp just proved his strength statewide, and he showed he knows how to turn out votes,” Gingrich said. “Whether Trump comes to North or South Georgia — not Atlanta — is for all of them to decide. The question is whether there’s a way to get Trump and Kemp to work together. The fate of the Senate is hanging in the balance.”

Scott said he hasn’t given up hope on winning Arizona, saying, “We still have a path.” But he’s leaving nothing to chance.

“We just can’t take our eye off the ball and make sure we prepare to win Georgia,” he said. “We have a plan. We’re working it. And we’re gonna win.”