The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid scandals, Herschel Walker hopes voters ‘believe in redemption’

The Republican candidate is concentrating on White evangelical Christians as he tries to unseat Sen. Raphael G. Warnock in Georgia

Gail Barraza, left, Martha Amos and Ryan Houtz worship during a Bible study held by Relentless Church on Oct. 24 in Pooler, Ga. The church’s pastor, Kyle Garrison, and those at the small gathering voiced support for Herschel Walker despite the controversies surrounding him. (Sean Rayford for The Washington Post)

POOLER, Ga. — After they had said prayers and sung the final “Hallelujah!” on a recent Monday evening, the Relentless Church Bible study group turned to the Georgia Senate race.

Republican nominee Herschel Walker has faced a number of scandals, including an allegation by his ex-wife that he put a gun to her head in 2005 and threatened to kill her, and more recent claims by two former girlfriends that he pressured them to have abortions. And yet, Walker still has such strong support that his race against Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock is considered a toss-up. The contest is one of a handful that could determine which party controls the Senate after Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Walker has said he is a new man, “redeemed by the grace of God.” It’s a message that resonates with Gail Barraza and other members of her church, who say they are not focused on Walker’s past, but on his current pledge that he will be a Republican senator who would support a national abortion ban.

“We all have done wrong,” Barraza, 64, said when asked about some of Walker’s false statements, including that he was his high school’s valedictorian. “Who are we to judge?”

“If you waited for the perfect candidate, you would never vote again,” agreed Leah Houz, 29, who hosted the Bible study in her home in this small, mostly White suburb of Savannah, the majority-Black city where Warnock grew up.

Many Walker supporters interviewed here over three days last month are willing to forget — or at least not think too much — about the allegations against him because he supports a Republican agenda that aligns with their beliefs.

Walker, a Georgia football legend who was urged by former president Donald Trump to run for Senate, has made faith a central part of his pitch to evangelical voters, a group whose support would be key to his candidacy. He has focused on the notion of redemption, especially when confronted about his past behavior, including accusations of domestic violence and failing to publicly acknowledge and support his out-of-wedlock children.

A spokesman for Walker did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The members of the Relentless Church Bible study group said there have been so many news reports about Walker’s past that they didn’t know what to believe, and so decided not to weigh the candidate’s moral character as they once would have. They said they have tuned out what they called the “chatter” and “noise.” And yes, many said they know Walker is “a flawed candidate,” but they are willing to forgive his past to focus on their future. What mattered most was that he was a Republican who could deliver a ban on abortions and an end to Democratic control in the Senate.

“Especially in these times, we all have to learn to muzzle our ears because there is so much ying-yang goin’ on,” said Larry Ward, 49, a roofer who also joined the Bible discussion. He was tuning out the “negative,” he said, and basing his vote on the “non-negotiables.” Asked what those were, he began by saying, “Are we looking for handouts or a work ethic?”

The pastor of Relentless, Kyle Garrison, 36, who also attended the Bible session, made it clear he will vote for Walker because the Republican agenda is “more aligned with God’s values.” Garrison said that God sometimes uses flawed people to do good things and that Walker could help Republicans regain control of the Senate — a fact blaring on Georgia airwaves in the final days of the campaign.

According to many Republican voters, especially those who call themselves conservatives, Democrats have not done enough to address crime, inflation, gasoline prices and immigration. Garrison added that he also believes there is an “over-acceptance” of “homosexual rights” and that the country “needs a new direction.”

It wasn’t just the moms juggling jobs and kids, or the busy shop owners, or the many active-duty and retired military members living here, who said they didn’t really know much about Walker’s troubled past. Mainly they knew he was No. 34, a Heisman Trophy winner and one of the greatest running backs in University of Georgia history.

“I am not sure what the facts are,” said Rebecca Benton, the mayor of Pooler, when asked about one of the former girlfriends who said Walker had paid for her abortion.

What people say they do know is that gas costs too much and there is “runaway crime” — there has been a blitz of GOP ads for Walker showing vicious assaults and laying blame on President Biden.

Trump urged Walker, a longtime friend, to run against Warnock and capitalize on his huge name recognition in this football-obsessed state. Trump narrowly lost Georgia in 2020, winning 49.3 percent of the vote to Biden’s 49.5 percent. But one group that came through for Trump was evangelical Christians — 89 percent voted for him, according to AP VoteCast. And Walker is focusing heavily on them, appearing at many evangelical churches and constantly talking about his Christian faith and redemption.

On the stump, Walker often responds to criticisms from Warnock by arguing that he is a “a pastor who doesn’t even believe in redemption.” In an ad released shortly after the first woman accused Walker of paying for her to have an abortion, the candidate says, “I’m Herschel Walker, saved by grace.”

That messaging works for many of the voters he is trying to win over.

According to Pew Research, 63 percent of Americans identify as Christian and 40 percent as Protestant. Pew further found that 24 percent of adults consider themselves born-again or evangelical Protestants. Georgia has one of the highest numbers of those Protestants in the country; various surveys estimate that they make up 33 to 39 percent of the state’s voters.

Many Christians support Warnock — a pastor at Atlanta’s historical Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached — and say the Democratic Party cares more about the virtues Jesus preached, including taking care of the needy and justice for all.

There is a huge divide among Christians over abortion and other political issues. Warnock is a Baptist preacher who supports abortion rights. During a debate last month, he said: “A patient’s room is too narrow and small and cramped for a woman, her doctor and the U.S. government. ... I trust women more than I trust politicians.” For much of the race, he has focused on the issues, especially lowering prescription drug prices and helping veterans, but as Walker has gained in the polls, he has hit back at him.

“This is a man who lies about the most basic facts of his life,” Warnock said last weekend about his opponent. “If we can’t trust him to tell the truth about his life, how can we trust him to protect our lives and our families and our children and our jobs and our future?”

Walker said he graduated from the University of Georgia in the “top 1 percent,” when in fact he never graduated, leaving in his junior year for the NFL. Walker has also said he worked in law enforcement, a claim that has been debunked. Still, at a debate last month, he flashed a sheriff’s badge and later released a video in which he posed with a sheriff and insisted that the gold-colored star was real.

In 2017, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) resigned from Congress after it became public that he urged his mistress to have an abortion despite his antiabortion stance. GOP leaders urged him to quit. But now, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is pouring tens of millions of dollars into Walker’s campaign to keep it alive, and leading figures in the Republican Party, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), have come to Georgia to campaign with Walker, because his victory could tip the balance of power in the Senate.

Democrats are pouring money into the race, too. Former president Barack Obama flew to Atlanta last Friday, praising Warnock at a rally that drew thousands. He also took a shot at Walker, saying voting for a candidate “who carries around a phony badge and says he’s in law enforcement like he’s a kid playing cops and robbers” isn’t the way to address concerns over crime.

Obama also raised the GOP nominee’s “issues of character” and called Walker a “celebrity who wants to be a politician.”

Walker’s response was to stay on his religious messaging. “I’m not a celebrity,” he said. “I’m a warrior for God.”

Even as Walker keeps repeating “God forgave me,” he is vague on why he needed forgiveness. Sometimes he refers to his 2008 book — in which he talks about his “dissociative identity,” or multiple personality, disorder — and says God helped him overcome his mental illness. He denied knowing the first woman who said he paid for her to have an abortion, but later acknowledged that she was the mother of one of his children. He also admitted that he’d written her a check for $700, but said he didn’t know that it was to pay for an abortion.

News of that allegation brought criticism from Walker’s adult son, who posted on Twitter that his father was absent and not a Christian family man. The son tweeted: “He left us to bang a bunch of women, threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months running from your violence.” The two ex-girlfriends said he pressured them into having abortions years ago, and call him hypocritical for supporting a strict abortion ban nationwide now.

Not all of those who say they will vote for him find it easy.

“It’s a difficult choice,” said Colleen Suddath, 61, a member of Relentless and its Bible study.

One Republican noted that there are barely any Walker yard signs. Even along U.S. Route 80, the main road through Pooler, there were clusters of signs for Republican candidates — including many for Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter, the city’s former mayor who is running for reelection to Congress — but only one small sign for Walker.

But Suddath is not happy with Biden and thinks Warnock just follows the Democratic agenda. She said Walker better represents what her state wants. She blamed Biden for soaring gas prices. She also worries that Democrats will try to expand the Supreme Court to take control of it — a scenario frequently raised by Republican ads and one that Warnock has not declaratively spoken out against.

As a mother who home-schooled her two children, she also believes that Republicans would give parents more control of what children are taught in public schools. So she plans to vote for Walker.

“He has overcome a lot of issues,” she said.

Scott Clement, Sabrina Rodriguez and Dylan Wells contributed to this report.