CUMMING, Ga. — Herschel Walker’s taunt was aimed at his opponent in the race for Georgia’s U.S. Senate seat, but it could as easily have been a retort to critics of both parties who’ve questioned his intelligence, mocked his grasp of policy and even asked whether his troubled temperament disqualifies him for the U.S. Senate.
“I’m not a child,” he told the audience in this conservative city recently, ripping into Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) for purportedly avoiding a debate. “Put your big man pants on and show up. Show the people what you can do. I’m this country boy, remember? I don’t know what I’m talking about? So why don’t you show up and embarrass me?”
Walker, 60, cruised through a Republican primary four months ago, armed with former president Donald Trump’s endorsement and buoyed by his name recognition as a national championship-winning Heisman Trophy winner. He offers his up-by-the-bootstraps story as a counterpoint to liberal assertions that the country is rife with systemic racism, telling mostly White audiences that they should ignore overblown complaints about a racist America.
But the ease of his primary win has been followed by an eruption of misstatements and revelations that are complicating his sprint to a Senate seat. They also have highlighted the GOP’s struggle to recalibrate in a state whose increasingly diverse, urban population — about half of all Georgians are now non-White — threatens its longtime dominance.
And it’s prompted some political operatives to question whether the party embraced a deeply flawed candidate in an urgent bid to appeal to voters outside a shrinking base.
“The Republican Party has not historically done a very good job of building bridges to minority communities,” said Ralph Reed, a former Georgia Republican Party chairman. “That has to change, or we face permanent minority status.”
Two years ago, in a 63-day span, Georgia voters handed the state’s presidential vote and its two U.S. Senate seats to Democrats, a startling turnabout for a state in the heart of the Deep South. Reversing that trend now rests on Walker’s muscular shoulders.
As Black voters increasingly show their strength, the Georgia GOP leadership remains largely White and almost entirely male. The party has struggled to find a message that appeals to independent, college-educated voters in some of the nation’s fastest-growing suburbs, according to nearly two-dozen strategists, politicians, voters and activists of both parties interviewed for this article.
For many, it’s unclear if Walker is a solution to the problem or a symptom of it. With seven weeks until the election, many polls show a statistical tie between Walker and Warnock, who is also Black.
A CBS News poll in Georgia shows Warnock with a small two-percentage-point edge over Walker. An Atlanta-Journal Constitution poll shows Walker has the support of 46 percent to Warnock’s 44 percent. Both polls are within the margin of error for the candidates, who have agreed to debate next month.
While Walker appears to have weathered many of his worst stumbles, the troubling stories and campaign missteps could still derail his candidacy, especially as voters begin to focus more on the race.
Many Republican operatives admit privately that Walker was backed by the party’s leaders at least in part because the GOP wanted a Black candidate to face Warnock, the first Black senator in Georgia’s history, who preaches at the pulpit once held by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“A lot of [conservatives] said, ‘He’s Black, and he agrees with us,’ and I think that’s why people just gave him the benefit of the doubt,” said one Republican strategist in Georgia, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “That’s what happens when you have a primary and, you know, a celebrity candidate, unvetted in the media.”
Beyond peeling off a handful of Black voters, GOP leaders may also have been seeking to reassure White swing voters that their party was not racist, the strategist said. A Black nominee appeared to be a way to do that, even if he was an almost entirely unknown quantity.
“He never debated in the primary. He never had to answer any questions about his business interests. He never had to answer anything about his wife or his mental health issues,” the strategist said. “You just kind of breeze through it based on your celebrity, and now — when people are actually paying attention, when things matter — I mean, he’s just floundering every single day.”
The Walker campaign has dealt with a conveyor belt of damaging public revelations that have rattled Republican leaders in Georgia and Washington.
He preached about the corrosive influence of absentee fathers — then his campaign confirmed that he was one, as he had three children he had not discussed publicly. He has been accused of stalking one woman and threatening to kill at least two. In a televised interview, Walker’s ex-wife recounted being choked by the former football star and spoke of the time he “held the gun to my temple and said he was gonna blow my brains out.”
Walker has said that he’s had a lifelong struggle with dissociative identity disorder. He has detailed his mental health struggles on television interviews and wrote a 2008 book that his supporters tout as a redemption story — albeit one filled with still more troubling moments.
“The logical side of me knew that what I was thinking of doing to this man — murdering him for messing up my schedule — wasn’t a viable alternative,” Walker wrote about someone who was supposed to deliver a car he had ordered but instead was ducking his calls. “But another side of me was so angry that all I could think was how satisfying it would feel to step out of the car, pull out the gun, slip off the safety, and squeeze the trigger.”
He wrote that his rage dissipated when he saw a sticker on the man’s truck saying, “Smile, Jesus loves you.”
Walker says his alternative personalities were responsible for some of the more disturbing moments of his life, but also credits them with powering him through childhood adversity and helping him perform extraordinary athletic feats, including playing through excruciating pain. He has generally characterized any mention of his past as political mudslinging.
But voters appear to have taken note. Statewide, 40 percent of likely voters have a favorable opinion of Walker, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released this month, while 51 percent have an unfavorable opinion.
“Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Eph. 4:29. @ReverendWarnock & his friends want to stigmatize & turn us against each other. Let’s reject that. pic.twitter.com/GZI3wxEQVh— Herschel Walker (@HerschelWalker) August 10, 2022
Former Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones, a Republican who lost a primary for Congress in June, said Republicans aren’t the only ones who lean into race to send a message to voters. Democrats picked Warnock, he said, in part because they felt he could excite a growing Black electorate.
“The Democratic Party right now is nervous about the decline of the support from Black voters,” said Jones, who is Black. “That’s what makes Herschel a viable candidate, because Black people have been saying, ‘We’ve got all these Democrats, and I’m still losing.’”
One D.C.-based Republican strategist said conservative leaders knew about many of the potentially damaging stories from Walker’s past before the May 24 primary, but their concerns peaked after Walker became the GOP nominee. During the worst weeks, an internal email list compiled by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which featured stories about candidates across the country, was picking up a half-dozen negative Walker stories every day.
“It was brutal,” said this strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “So yeah, ‘not a quality candidate’ is the nice way to say it.”
Traditional Republicans have also been concerned with Walker’s inability to articulate his party’s policy positions. This year he challenged the theory of evolution, saying, “If man descended from apes, why are there still apes?”
He attacked President Biden’s climate change policies by asking, “Don’t we have enough trees around here?” He said Georgia’s “good air decides to float over” to China, replacing China’s “bad air,” which goes back to Georgia, where “we got to clean that back up.”
In August, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) questioned whether his party could retake the Senate, which is now split 50-50 between the parties, citing “candidate quality” as a problem. McConnell did not single out individual candidates, but several strategists said Walker is among those widely thought to be underperforming.
In statements to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Walker insisted that he was unfazed by McConnell’s comments. “Guys, I’m here for the people of Georgia,” he said. “I’m not worried about what people say.”
Publicly, national Republican leaders have now rallied around Walker. McConnell has endorsed him, as has Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the second-ranking Senate Republican. A Walker victory would double the number of Black Republicans in the Senate. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is heavily favored to win reelection. In addition, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has served in the Senate since 2013.
But some Republican insiders wonder if Walker will alienate voters who are otherwise open to voting for the party.
“If you’re a suburban independent voter, or you’re a White mom anywhere in the state, it doesn’t give you a whole of confidence that Walker can’t articulate the importance of the Second Amendment or why the Dobbs decision would be good for a Georgia voter,” said another Georgia GOP strategist, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent abortion decision.
But Walker does not necessarily need to be a policy wonk, said Theodore Johnson, a senior director at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank. Walker’s role as a solid Republican vote in the Senate may be enough for many conservatives, he added.
“This is just going to be a guy who puts his head down, maybe says some dumb stuff,” said Johnson, an expert in race and politics. “But if he is a reliable vote, you know, is it better to have than Warnock, who’s a reliable vote [for Democrats] 90-plus percent of the time? People may be willing to make that trade-off that he may not be the most gifted or qualified, but he’s going to do as he’s told by McConnell.”
At his rallies, Walker mostly sticks to broad, rapid-fire statements about Republican values, coupled with criticisms of Warnock and Democratic policies.
“You can see I’m not a politician. I don’t look like one. I’m not going to act like one,” he said at a recent appearance in Cumming. “What I see going on is not right in this country. Inflation is going off the roof, is it not? Inflation is, oh wow. And they don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to talk about inflation. They don’t want to talk about crime. They don’t want to talk about this border. Because they have nothing to say. And they’ve done it. They are the reason we have this problem we have today. And if you want that, vote for [Warnock] again, because you’re going to get more of it. Because they got no solution. All they want to do is spend money. When they have a problem, they throw money at it. That’s no way you solve a problem. You need to get in and get your hands dirty.”
Walker declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article. (Many of his interviews have been with right-leaning outlets.) But during an informal news conference following an event in Norcross, Ga., he conceded he has a learning curve, while rejecting criticism that he is unfit to be a senator.
“Everyone that came into office came into office on Day 1,” he said. “Who has been better at getting anything done? … Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve succeeded at.”
The people who come to Walker’s rallies seem ready to forgive, and many contend that he is now finding his rhythm.
“He brings a whole bunch of advantages, and of course he’s got some baggage that I was afraid would derail him, but so far, it doesn’t seem like it did in the primary,” said Allen Norris, 56, an air-conditioning repairman from Wrightsville who attended a recent Walker rally.
Some Black leaders see Walker’s campaign as part of a long history of Black candidates being chosen as political figureheads. In 2004, for example, two-time presidential candidate Alan Keyes entered the Senate race in Illinois against a rising Black candidate named Barack Obama. Keyes was a Black Maryland resident with little connection to Illinois, and he lost badly.
But as the polls suggest, there is no guarantee that Walker’s missteps mean a Democratic win. Georgia’s statewide offices are still largely dominated by conservative Republicans, and the Democratic Party has its own challenge in the state, including the view of many Black voters that Democrats failed to deliver on promises to reform policing, improve ballot access and attack systemic racism.
Still, LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said many African American voters view Walker as a Black face who was chosen to make conservative ideologies more palatable. Walker’s Republican backers miscalculated, she said.
“They felt that all they needed to do is to solidify the White base and to be able to skim some of the Black vote,” Brown added. “I think they overshot. I believe if Herschel Walker had been a little bit more sophisticated, he could have pulled it off.”
Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.