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SMYRNA, Ga. — Gov. Brian Kemp on Saturday campaigned for the first time with GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker in a highly anticipated rally meant to show a united front among Georgia Republicans ahead of the Dec. 6 runoff election.

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Kemp’s public show of support is considered crucial for the Senate hopeful’s prospects as the governor strongly outperformed Walker in the general election. More than 200,000 Georgia voters backed Kemp but did not vote for Walker — and both Walker and Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock are making direct appeals to those voters. Walker, whose candidacy has been plagued with controversy over his private life, is the only Republican on the statewide ticket who did not win on Nov. 8.

Speaking for seven minutes, Kemp emphasized to a crowd of hundreds of supporters that “we cannot rest on our laurels here,” adding that the stakes of the race remain high even if Democrats have already secured control of the Senate.

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“Don’t believe the political pundits that are saying, ‘Oh, this race doesn’t matter anymore,’” Kemp said outside a gun store here. “It matters … It’s not just about this December. It’s gonna be about November two years from now. It is about the future of our country.”

The rally was held in Cobb County, one of the counties where Walker most dramatically underperformed compared to the governor. Kemp lost to Democrat Stacey Abrams in Cobb County by 5 points, while Walker lost to Warnock by 17 points. Kemp received about 20,000 votes more than Walker in the county, which is part of the metro Atlanta area.

National Republicans for months have descended upon Georgia to boost Walker, but Georgia Republicans, like Kemp, have been slower to openly embrace the former University of Georgia and NFL football star, whose campaign has been dogged by allegations of domestic abuse and that he paid for two former girlfriends to have abortions.

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On the campaign trail, Kemp did not publicly rule out stumping with Walker and often emphasized that he was working to get the entire ticket elected. Still, Kemp largely kept his distance from Walker during the general-election campaign. That was most acutely on display the night before the election, when Kemp hosted a rally with most of the statewide GOP candidates and Walker opted to host his own rally.

But in the days since the election, Kemp and other state Republicans have rallied around Walker.

“Who do you want to fight for you in the United States Senate? Do you want a guy that represents our values like Herschel Walker? Or do you want somebody that stood with Joe Biden 96 percent of the time?” Kemp asked the crowd. “That is what the question is.”

In his remarks, Walker thanked Kemp and his family for their support, noting that “we’re in a tough fight.”

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“We need somebody in Washington that’s going to represent you,” Walker said. “We need someone in Washington that’s gonna row the boat with Governor Kemp, and we got to go in the same direction.”

Kemp did not stand onstage while Walker spoke. They hugged as he introduced Walker onto the stage and again took the stage to shake hands and take photos at the end.

The governor won his reelection bid against Abrams by more than seven percentage points, garnering 2.1 million votes. Walker received 1.9 million votes.

Georgia counties scramble to meet new deadlines as Senate runoff looms

Warnock’s campaign has emphasized that he is the only Democrat to get more votes than his Republican opponent on the statewide ticket. However, he didn’t reach the 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright under Georgia law. Warnock, Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, won the seat in a 2021 special runoff election, is seeking a full, six-year term.

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Earlier this month, Warnock released a 30-second ad featuring a testimonial from a voter from Rossville who was “proud” to vote for Kemp but did not back Walker. “I just can’t get past Herschel Walker’s lack of character,” she says in the ad. He ran a similar ad in the run-up to the general election that featured several such voters.

Georgia Democrats on Saturday morning held an event less than three miles away from Walker’s rally, featuring remarks from voters who backed Kemp and Warnock in the election and plan to support Warnock again in the runoff.

“I’ve heard Herschel talk about redemption. But I was taught that redemption requires confession, contrition and accountability,” said Heidi Moriarty, who lives in Buckhead. “The choice is clear, Georgia. I voted for Governor Kemp and Reverend Warnock on Election Day, and I plan to once again cast my ballot during the runoff for Warnock.”

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Warnock has offered a bipartisan message on the campaign trail, calling himself a “practical” senator willing to work with anyone to deliver for Georgians.

“I have a proven record of being able to work with people on the other side of the aisle to get things done,” Warnock told reporters on Friday evening when asked about Kemp’s rally with Walker and his own efforts to court swing voters.

Warnock pointed out, as he does frequently on the campaign trail, that he’s ranked the 18th most bipartisan senator in the Senate by the Lugar Center, a nonprofit founded by former GOP Sen. Richard Lugar. “No matter what my opponent says, he can’t erase that fact,” Warnock said.

Warnock on Saturday planned to make stops in several counties in the metro Atlanta area, including Gwinnett and Cherokee. Warnock won in Gwinnett by 20 points and lost to Walker in Cherokee by 38 points. He also had a rally scheduled with students at Emory University. Warnock’s campaign announced Saturday that musician Dave Matthews is scheduled to perform at a Nov. 28 get-out-the-vote rally in Cobb County.

Walker supporters at the rally expressed hope that having a popular Republican leader like Kemp would help drum up enthusiasm for Walker ahead of the runoff.

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Paula White, 57, and Emily Chapmon, 68, of Smyrna said they were optimistic that Kemp’s public show of support for Walker would help build up support from moderate and conservative voters unsure about the former football star.

“We need Kemp because he had such an advantage,” Chapmon said. “We need to be united among the Republican Party for one thing first. When that’s divided, you know, then we don’t have a prayer.”

As Republicans worry, Democrats welcome Trump’s shadow in Ga. Senate runoff

Chapmon and White said the reason they felt Walker didn’t garner as much support as other GOP statewide candidates is because former president Donald Trump has vocally supported him. Trump encouraged Walker to run for the Senate, and he even gave him a shout-out during his announcement last week that he’ll be running for president again in 2024.

“But now that Kemp is on board and they seem to have one common goal, we think we can take Herschel Walker over [the finish line] now, too,” White said.

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Matthew Hardwick, 58, said he was thrilled to see Kemp stumping for Walker, especially given the governor’s icy relationship with the former president. Trump has publicly railed against Kemp for resisting pressure to overturn the Georgia election results in 2020. Biden beat Trump in Georgia by just under 12,000 votes. Trump supported a primary challenger against Kemp.

“I think it’s a great sign that at least, at the very minimum, for Herschel Walker’s sake and for the state of Georgia’s sake, that [Kemp] was out here today,” Hardwick said. “It shows that, yeah, he’s gonna support Herschel Walker, regardless of the Trump question. That’s great news for us all.”

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