Herschel Walker made racism a top general election campaign issue in Georgia’s competitive Senate campaign this week with a new TV ad that extols the promise of America and accuses his Democratic opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock, of encouraging division.
“Sen. Warnock believes America is a bad country full of racist people,” Walker, a Republican, says straight to camera, following images and soundbites of Warnock and other prominent Democrats discussing the existence of systemic racism. “I believe we’re a great country full of generous people. Warnock wants to divide. I want to bring us together.”
Walker's ad, which comes in a historic race between two Black men vying for a Senate seat in the Deep South state, tracks with his long-espoused belief in a post-racial America. But in elevating the issue, Walker, a former football star, has also given Democrats an opportunity to further highlight some of the more controversial comments he has made over the years about race — including during the GOP primary — that could play differently to a wider, multiracial general election audience.
In the past year, Walker has said the late civil rights icon John Lewis, whom he mistakenly referred to as a senator, wouldn’t have wanted his name on a voting rights bill sought by Black lawmakers. He has archly embraced a racial slur used against Black people and posited that people can’t be racist unless they are somehow approaching their 200th birthdays.
"You're not a racist unless you’re 185 years old in today’s world," Walker said in October at the Memory Lane Classic Car Museum in Young Harris, Georgia, according to audio of the event obtained by NBC News.
"You have to be 185 years old, because you’ve got to learn that from your parents, because maybe they don’t know any better, and that’s OK," Walker added. "You’re not a racist today, because they have television, they have the internet, they have something else to show you that we’re all the same. So you’re not a racist. You’re just stupid.”
Will Kiley, a spokesman for Walker's campaign, said Democrats are "running scared because they know that they can’t win on the issues, so they want to attack and divide.”
Warnock's campaign declined to comment.
But Democrats have taken note of Walker's rhetoric, and they featured some of his more provocative comments, including the “185 years old” statement, in a digital ad that circulated this summer, NBC News has learned.
The 30-second spot is part of a body of work financed by the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The group wouldn’t comment on its plans.
Walker, a political novice who was recruited to run for the Senate seat by former President Donald Trump, won a Heisman Trophy at the University of Georgia and worked in business after he retired from the NFL. He easily beat several lesser-known challengers in the primary in May, when 95% of the ballots were cast by white voters, according to TargetSmart, a leading Democratic data firm.
Since the primary, however, polls have shown that Walker hasn’t drawn much more support from Black voters than the average Republican. Three have shown Walker’s support from Black voters at about the same level as support for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who is running against Stacey Abrams, a prominent Black Democrat who is also featured in Walker's new ad.
A Republican source said the ad isn’t designed to appeal to Black voters: It’s aimed at white voters — especially those white swing voters who stayed home or voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential race and the 2021 Senate runoff elections, both of which Republicans lost.
“Of course we want more Black voters, but the fact is Black voters are fiercely loyal to the Dems but they’re still only 30% of the electorate,” said the Republican, who described the intention of the ad on condition of anonymity to discuss the tactics more freely. “This is about a permission structure for white swings. That’s where we’re going to win or lose.”
Walker has consistently downplayed or denied the systemic challenges people of color face.
In 2020, he suggested that racism exists only when there is physical harm.
"That’s what racism is — when people are harmed, people are shot. That is what racism is," Walker, who wasn’t yet a Senate candidate, said in a June 2020 interview on “The Bigun Rick Show,” a motorcycle-themed radio program broadcast from Dallas.
In an October 2020 radio interview on “The Kenny Burns Show” in Atlanta, Walker defended Trump for calling on the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Members of the far-right extremist group participated in the racist 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and have organized against Black Lives Matter protests.
“The Proud Boys are not a racist group,” Walker asserted. “They … have Black, white — they have a lot of different people in it.”
More recently, in his campaign speeches, Walker has seemed to suggest that he takes no offense at a racial slur used against Black people. At a March event, after he recalled being called by the word, he repeated the slur and asked his audience: "Can you believe that? They’re not even smart enough to know a coon is one of the smartest animals in the kingdom. So if you’re gonna call me something, call me by a dumb animal."
The audience laughed, according to video posted by Georgia talk radio station WLBB. He has used the story on at least one subsequent occasion, according to The New York Times, which reported on Walker's "joking aside" at a May rally.
At another event, in March, Walker suggested that racism is a myth because he, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are among the Republican Party’s top fundraisers. Scott is Black; Rubio is a Cuban American who is white and Hispanic.
“Guys, we need to get away from this race thing and put people in office that are going to do the right thing,” Walker said, according to audio obtained by NBC News.
Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Black Democrat, said Republicans are using Walker to mainstream unpopular opinions from the mouth of a Black celebrity.
“A white candidate couldn’t do what Herschel Walker is doing, say what he’s saying, without receiving 10 times the national scorn,” Reed said. “He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
But CJ Pearson, a Black Republican conservative activist from Georgia, said Democrats are the ones who have exploited racial politics for too long, arguing that racial animus against Black Republicans like him comes from Democrats.
“What Herschel Walker is doing is looking to grow the tent of the party when it comes to an evolving political landscape,” he said.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com