(Bloomberg) -- Here comes Herschel. The same three words that many once uttered as the football player with Mount Olympus speed and strength barreled in their direction, again resonate loudly in Georgia. Primary voting takes place on Tuesday and Herschel Walker, one of the state’s larger-than-life sports heroes is expected to easily capture the Republican nomination for the US Senate.
With the backing and encouragement of his longtime friend and confidante, former President Donald Trump, Walker appeared likely to vanquish his five primary opponents – an average of recent polls show him with 63% of the vote – and face the Democratic incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock, whose only opponent in the primary was receiving less than 10% of votes in recent polls. It sets up a fall campaign season that will pit the taciturn football icon against an incumbent and popular Baptist preacher who presides in the same pulpit made famous by Martin Luther King Jr.
With two popular Black candidates facing off against each other in the November general election, Georgia continues to evolve and make political history, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “This race is not like any ever seen before in Georgia,” Bullock said. “Warnock’s Senate seat seems to be the most vulnerable seat up for re-election this year.” Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, is only the 11th Black person ever elected to the US Senate.
Early polls show the race between Warnock and Walker is close to a statistical tie at this point, with Warnock holding a lead of slightly 2% over Walker. Both men are expected to be well-financed, and in the first quarter of this year, Walker raised $5.5 million, compared to Warnock’s $13.6 million.
For Walker, 60, life after professional football has been checkered with stories of violence toward his ex-wife and others, exaggerated claims of business success, and mental health issues. For years, he delivered speeches in which he bragged of graduating in the top 1% of his class at Georgia, when in fact he never graduated from the university.
Walker’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a message left for comment.
After a primary campaign season in which he refused to debate his opponents, made few public appearances and garnered concern and criticism even among leaders within his own party, Walker is about to see his star power put to a larger test, given the impact that the race will have on Georgia and the nation.
In January 2021, Warnock, 52, was elected to complete the unfinished term of Johnny Isakson, who was ill at the time and has since died. Warnock’s victory in a runoff at that time, along with a runoff victory by fellow Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff, proved pivotal in giving Democrats control of the Senate. With the current 50-50 split in members, Georgia appears destined to again determine control of the Senate.
Up to this point, Walker’s problems and mistakes have been overlooked or forgiven by many Georgia voters, as polls show him personifying the power of name recognition. A football god in a football-worshiping state, Walker grew up in rural Wrightsville, Georgia.
A man-child destined for greatness, he was already a local legend when he headed 100 miles north to the University of Georgia, where he won the Heisman trophy and led the team to a national championship. Walker first met Donald Trump when the real estate mogul purchased the New Jersey Generals, a team in the short-lived United States Football League, where Walker in 1983 signed a then unprecedented 3-year, $5 million rookie contract.
Even his own opponents in the Republican primary have seemed hesitant to be too harshly critical of Walker. One opponent, Latham Saddler, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and also a graduate of the University of Georgia where Walker reigned supreme, in a campaign advertisement concedes, “Herschel Walker was my childhood sports hero.”
But the hero worship apparently has its boundaries. Some prominent Georgia Republicans have voiced concern that Walker hasn’t demonstrated an understanding of key issues and has failed to respond to questions regarding his past.
Outgoing Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, in a December op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said Walker “has yet to articulate a political vision or make the case to voters why he is best-suited to be their senator. Questions remain about his political playbook.” Marci McCarthy, chair of the DeKalb County GOP, told an Atlanta radio show host in February that she recently heard Walker speak in person and “it was truly a struggle for him to really articulate any of the issues.”
Walker says his candidacy is based on his conservative ideals -- “I’m a conservative who believes in smaller government, a strong military, personal responsibility, and making sure all people have the opportunity to pursue their dreams” he says in a campaign video -- and his support from Trump. “I’m a kid from a small town in Georgia who has lived the American dream,” Walker says.
In convincing Walker to run -- he had to relocate from Texas and re-establish residency in Georgia -- Trump moved to neutralize Warnock’s overwhelming appeal to Black voters, few of whom selected Trump in 2020. According to Bullock, Trump received 11% of the Black vote in Georgia in the last election, and even with Walker in the race “there probably won’t be many more” Black people voting for the Republican candidate this fall, Bullock said.
Just as Walker was blessed as a young boy with uncanny speed, Warnock is a comparably gifted orator. A native of Savannah and pastor of Atlanta’s famous Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock memorably acknowledged his Senate runoff victory last January by paying poetic tribute to his mother, noting that “because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator.”
Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the Atlanta-based voting rights group Black Voters Matter, put the popular view among Black voters more bluntly: “Black voters care about the issues and we’re not trying to vote for just any Black face, especially when it’s a mini-Trump in black face.”
“We’re going to vote our best interests, and Herschel Walker has demonstrated that he does not have our best interests at heart,” Albright said.
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