By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans on Wednesday blamed their loss in Georgia's U.S. Senate runoff election on several factors directly tied to former President Donald Trump, beginning with the scandal-plagued celebrity he chose as their candidate.
Herschel Walker, a former University of Georgia football star with no political experience, failed to unseat Democratic incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock after being plagued by questions about his fitness for office. Warnock's win gave Democrats a 51-49 majority in the 100-member chamber.
"You have to have candidates that appeal to the general public," Republican Senator Mike Rounds told reporters. "Herschel Walker worked as hard as he could."
Senate Republicans largely avoided citing Trump by name, but made it clear they saw Walker's loss as the latest in a series, in a year that began with party hopes of capturing the Senate and House of Representatives. Trump's party succeeded in winning a House majority, but by a smaller margin than it had expected.
The Georgia runoff followed losses in Arizona, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, where Trump-endorsed novice candidates succeeded in party primaries only to fall to Democrats in the Nov. 8 midterms.
"Candidates matter, and I think we've lost two or three or four races we didn't have to lose this year," Republican Senator Roy Blunt told reporters.
Republicans said party losses this year also stemmed from Trump's repeated false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him and his use of election denial as a litmus test for candidate endorsements.
"Forcing candidates to take positions that the 2020 election was stolen and making that the principal issue is a losing strategy," said Senator John Thune, the chamber's No. 2 Republican.
"Among the voters in the middle of the electorate, which are the ones that decide national elections and certainly swing-state elections, they just weren't having it."
Trump did not travel to Georgia to campaign with Walker during the runoff campaign, but did launch his own run for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic President Joe Biden in 2024 and drew a flurry of criticism for meeting with a white nationalist and musing about suspending the Constitution.
Republicans also said it was time to reinvigorate their ground game by embracing mail-in ballots and early voting, which Trump has falsely blamed as vehicles for fraud.
"We just need to be able to be aggressive," said Republican Senator Cynthia Lummis.
Walker was one of Trump's earliest 2022 endorsements. The former football star had support on the campaign trail from prominent Senate Republicans including Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Rick Scott, who chairs the Senate Republican campaign arm.
But Walker, a staunch opponent of abortion, faced claims that he paid for two women to have abortions after getting them pregnant, which he denied. He was also widely known for gaffes on policy issues and sometimes confusing musings, including one riff on werewolves and vampires.
Warnock, who like Walker is Black, is pastor of the historic Atlanta church where assassinated civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. In a state that was reliably Republican only a few years ago, Warnock spent much of the campaign showcasing his ability to work across the aisle.
Asked if Trump's influence had been a factor, Scott told Reuters: "Whenever you lose, everybody's responsible for figuring out what they could do better ... whatever people do on their endorsements, you've got to figure out how to get your voters out to vote."
Some of Trump's staunchest allies blamed the loss on lopsided campaign spending and the power of Warnock's incumbency, though the Democrat assumed office less that two years ago in a January 2021 runoff.
Warnock's campaign had raised more than $175 million as of Nov. 16, versus a Walker warchest of just over $58 million, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Trump himself faced some criticism from within the party for raising at least $170 million over the past two years and spending little of it on midterm candidates.
"We're losing close elections, and part of it is that we're getting outspent three to one," Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters.
Senator Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach first elected in 2020 with the help of Trump's endorsement, denied that Trump played a role in the Georgia loss.
"President Trump wasn't an issue in this," Tuberville said. "It's hard to beat experience. It really is. It's hard to unseat somebody."
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)