Republican rivals try to topple Georgia football star Herschel Walker in key Senate race

Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker smiles in front of a microphone.
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Despite a flurry of bad press and complaints from his primary competitors that he’s avoiding the campaign trail, Herschel Walker is the leading Republican contender in the race to face the Democratic incumbent, Raphael Warnock, in this fall’s key Georgia Senate race.

Walker, a legendary former University of Georgia football star, recently moved back to the state after a decade of living in Texas, but he quickly established a comfortable lead in polling for the nomination after launching his campaign last year. He’s also won the support of both former President Donald Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who have been feuding over candidates in recent months.

Herschel Walker at the microphone, with former President Donald Trump, expressing his approval, by his side.
Trump applauds as Walker speaks at the rally in Perry, Ga. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)

While enjoying broad support within the GOP, Walker has attempted to distance himself from his opponents in the May 24 primary, including skipping a debate last weekend.

“Mr. Walker not showing up and not making himself available to the people of Georgia is not serving the people of Georgia,” said Kelvin King, a contractor and military veteran also running for the GOP nomination. “This is an interview process, and if you don’t show up for the interview process, you don’t get the job.”

Warnock, meanwhile, is the pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a role once filled by Martin Luther King Jr.

Last year, Warnock won a runoff election to serve out the remainder of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, after the Republican retired due to health concerns. But that victory put him in the unenviable position of having to immediately defend his Senate seat.

Sen. Raphael Warnock makes a point at the podium.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Martin Luther King Day of this year. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

Warnock’s win came just two months after Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since 1992. Trump continues to baselessly insist that Biden won in Georgia only due to election fraud, a claim that GOP strategists say encouraged Republican voters to sit out the January 2021 Senate runoffs, in which Warnock and his fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff emerged victorious.

Warnock has been particularly successful in fundraising, and has already brought in nearly $30 million in what is expected to be an expensive race. He and Ossoff are the first Democrats to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate since Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat who supported Republican President George W. Bush, retired in 2005.

Warnock has his work cut out for him if he is to remain in office. Republicans are hoping to win back both chambers of Congress in November, and McConnell predicted Tuesday that the GOP is on track to have its best midterm performance in several decades.

President-elect Joe Biden points with both index fingers at Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who are both waving. All three are wearing masks.
President-elect Joe Biden with the Democratic Senate candidates from Georgia, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, at a rally the day before the state's Jan. 5, 2021, runoff elections. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“From an atmospheric point of view, it’s a perfect storm of problems for Democrats, because it’s an entirely Democratic government,” McConnell told the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

At the same time, McConnell warned that Republicans could “screw this up” if they nominate candidates who alienate the broader electorate, which is just what Walker’s GOP rivals say the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner would do.

Walker has been repeatedly accused of domestic abuse. His ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, claimed in divorce filings that he was physically abusive and threatened to kill her; she told ABC News in 2008 that he had pointed a gun at her head. In August, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that in 2012 an ex-girlfriend of Walker’s had filed a police report in which she alleged he had threatened to “blow her head off” and then kill himself.

Walker has been vague in discussing the allegations, although he’s been open about his mental health issues. Late last year, he told Axios that he had never broken the law.

Herschel Walker poses cheek to cheek with his wife, Cindy, in front of a bank of microphones, with an ornate cared mantel behind them..
In 1986, Herschel Walker poses with his wife, Cindy, after announcing he will play for the Dallas Cowboys. (Marty Lederhandler/AP)

Georgia's agriculture commissioner, Gary Black, Walker’s closest rival in the primary, has said the accusations should disqualify Walker from consideration. He has also been running digital ads referring to a 2001 domestic incident revealed by the Associated Press in which a police report mentioned Walker talking “about having a shoot-out.” No charges were filed.

Black brought up the allegations at the weekend’s debate, saying, “Anyone who has put their hands on a woman, who has stalked, has threatened police with shoot-outs, does not deserve to be in the U.S. Senate.”

Walker has also been accused of embellishing or outright fabricating his résumé. On April 1, CNN reported that he had a long history of overstating his academic record. On Wednesday, the Daily Beast reported that Walker had claimed to own companies that did not exist.

The Associated Press reported last summer that he potentially exaggerated his business successes. Additionally, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported this week that campaign finance experts had found issues in Walker’s disclosure forms. Earlier this year, he also questioned evolution.

Herschel Walker, seen from below in a gray suit against a bright blue sky, flings a red baseball cap into the air.
Walker throws a cap at a rally for Trump in Commerce, Ga., on March 26. (Alyssa Pointer/Reuters)

Polling has been sparse in the race, but a survey from Emerson College and The Hill released earlier this month showed Walker with 57% of the vote and Black a distant second at 13%. If Walker falls below 50%, he would be pulled into a June runoff to secure the nomination.

Jay Williams, a Republican consultant in Georgia who is not involved in the primary, said Walker benefited from his folk hero status in the state and the lack of a “heavyweight” competitor, noting the minimal name recognition of his GOP primary opponents.

“Fifty-seven percent is still a lot in a multicandidate primary, I don’t care who you are, and I think his numbers will end up higher than that,” Williams told Yahoo News. “These other guys have been able to drive a message with the press that this guy’s not fit for office, but I just don’t know if it’s going to stick. I think he’s going to be fine.”

Should Walker prevail in next month’s primary, he is likely to benefit from an environment favorable to Republicans in a race against Warnock. Inflation rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, Biden’s approval ratings remain stubbornly low, and the party out of power tends to do well in midterms against the party in the White House.

Herschel Walker at the podium, both hands raised in a grand gesture, at a podium sporting a placard saying: Save America.
Walker at a rally in Perry, Ga., on Sept. 25, 2021. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)

The Emerson College and The Hill poll released earlier this month showed Walker with a 4-point lead over Warnock. Earlier polling showed a tight race, and the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates it as a “Toss-Up.”

With the Senate divided 50-50, the Georgia race is key. And while he has steered clear of his Republican opponents, Walker has said he would debate Warnock.

“I’m thinking about debating Raphael Warnock, because that’s who I need to be debating right now,” Walker said in March. “I’m going to debate Raphael Warnock, because I’m going to win this primary, and I’m going to the general.”

Williams is bullish on Walker’s chances, saying that while the candidate may face scrutiny in the general election, he expects that national issues will take precedence in the race and dominate the debate.

“At that time, it's going to be about taking down the Democrats,” Williams said. “I think people will hold their nose.”