A crowd of supporters rose to their feet to greet him; the kind of celebrity who only needs one name.
It was a far cry from an account he retells in his 2008 memoir “Breaking Free.”
“No one wanted to associate with me because I was an outcast, a stuttering-stumpy-fat-poor-other-side-of-the-railroad-tracks-living-stupid-country boy,” wrote Walker, who was raised in Wrightsville as one of seven children.
By the time he got to high school, Walker would dedicate himself to fitness and reading, even becoming a member of the Beta Club, an honor society.
That maniacal devotion to hard work and personal responsibility has long been a hallmark of Walker’s public persona, and it has taken him from Heisman Trophy winner to the cusp of the United States Senate. It is a quality that has informed his political beliefs, which are critical of too much government involvement. They have also guided his work as a business owner, motivational speaker, influencer and advocate for mental health after struggling with the long-stigmatized illness.
Still built like the football player and mixed martial arts fighter he used to be, Walker reportedly does 2,000-3,000 pushups and situps each day.
‘I have always admired him’
He was carrying all of that when he walked into a room of a Cuban restaurant on that recent evening in September in Gwinnett.
“I have always admired him and his ability to dig in,” said Camilla Moore, who grew up in Middle Georgia and now is chair of the Georgia Black Republican Council. “I don’t get caught up with what people say about him. He was not ashamed to talk about his past and his behavior, and even though I am a hard-core Republican, I still need people to earn my vote. He has earned mine.”
In the final days of a historic campaign where two Black men are vying for the same Senate seat, polls show Walker and his opponent, incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock, are essentially tied. That is despite Warnock heavily outspending his rival.
On the campaign trail, Walker has been prone to gaffes, and his rambling remarks on things like clean air, trees and COVID-19 have been mocked by critics as incoherent. But in the lone debate he participated in with Warnock, Walker landed a few punches, and some Republicans harboring doubts came away believing Walker could handle the job.
They are willing to look past a string of exaggerations, embellishments and falsehoods as well as a complicated personal life that includes allegations of violence against his ex-wife, revelations he had three more children than he had publicly disclosed and an accusation he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion despite his staunch opposition to the procedure.
At the campaign event in Gwinnett, he told familiar campaign stories and lamented a “woke” military and open borders, while reiterating that he knew the difference between a man and a woman — key Republican talking points.
He quoted Maya Angelou and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. but never mentioned the name of his chief supporter, Donald Trump.
He blamed President Joe Biden and Warnock, for inflation, high gas prices and violent crime.
“Warnock is supposed to represent Georgia. He went to Washington to represent Joe Biden,” Walker said. “He voted for Biden 96% of the time.”
But other than zingers and platitudes, Walker — as he has been throughout the whole campaign ― was vague on what he would actually do to fight the problems he outlined.
The mostly white crowd hardly noticed or didn’t care. Walker had them wrapped around his finger. And he is going to need them.
As a Democrat and the pastor of King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock has a lock on most Black voters. Walker is depending on white Republicans, especially white evangelical voters who make up the GOP base and who have rarely, if ever, voted for a Black candidate — to put him in office.
Since he was at least a freshman at the University of Georgia, where he became the school’s greatest football hero, Walker has had a way of electrifying and charming crowds.
Riding that popularity, he used name recognition to breeze through a Republican primary as easily as he destroyed linebackers to secure the party’s nomination in May.
“Herschel Walker is a native son candidate,” Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie said. “Donald Trump correctly bet on the fact that Walker was going to have wide appeal and that was going to override experience.”
Surrea Ivy, who is supporting Walker, said it is hypocritical to look at political candidates and forget that they are human.
“I like his story,” Ivy said. “I had the great fortune of catching him outside of the political arena and talking to him about the accusations. And he did something I have never seen a politician do — he told the truth. He told me: ‘I was a bad man and I get embarrassed by that man. But I don’t live there anymore.’ I am a believer.”
But heading into the final stretch of perhaps the nation’s most important senatorial race, Walker’s campaign was reeling after reports surfaced that in 2009 he paid a woman to get an abortion. After the revelation, his son Christian Walker, a conservative influencer, attacked his father on social media, calling him an abusive hypocrite who is “not a family man.”
Herschel Walker says he opposes abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. Warnock supports abortion rights.
Walker’s team did not make him available for comment for this story.
Questions of race
Walker’s views on race are unusual among Black politicians.
While Warnock discusses systemic racism and outlines how federal policy decisions impact African Americans, Walker says that while problems remain in race relations, continuing to dwell on them is divisive.
In a historic campaign, Walker has attacked Warnock for bringing color into the picture.
“Sen. Warnock believes America is a bad country full of racist people,” Walker says in one campaign ad. “I believe we’re a great country full of generous people.”.
Walker stresses his pro-police views, but he also listed a woman who was arrested in March on charges of participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol as one of his “county captains.” He rarely addresses police violence against Black men.
He has called for prosecutions of voter fraud, but he offered no evidence of rampant abuse or addressed voter suppression.
In his book, Walker described an incident during his junior year at Johnson County High School when an African American classmate clashed with the school’s white principal.
Walker refused to side with Black students who said the principal had belittled the student with a racially charged remark.
Credit: Kenneth Walker/AJC
Credit: Kenneth Walker/AJC
“I could never really be fully accepted by white students and the African-American students either resented me or distrusted me for what they perceived as my failure to stand united with them — regardless of whether they were right or wrong,” he wrote. “That separation would continue throughout my life with only the reasons for it differing from situation to situation.”
He later added: “I never really liked the idea that I was to represent my people.”
Back at the Cuban restaurant, the candidate attempted to put the race issue to bed by addressing it head-on.
He got one of his loudest applauses when he reminded the crowd, “Herschel Walker don’t dance and sing for nobody.”
Walker told the crowd that Democrats, liberals and some Black people wanted to “separate us and call us names.”
He paused when he reflected that one of the names that he is constantly called is “coon,” a Reconstruction-era racial stereotype portraying Black men as “a lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, buffoon.”
As he has done his whole life, he turned it around.
“They don’t know I am from the country,” Walker said. “A coon is one of the smartest animals out there. Call me something that will hurt my feelings.”
“What hurt my feelings is the crime out on the streets. What hurt my feelings is the economy is terrible. What hurt my feelings is you bringing wokeness to our military and schools. That police don’t have anybody who has their back. But I have their back,” Walker said. “It is time for us to quit separating people.”
Walker’s current wife, seated next to a reporter, pointed to his pad and told him to make sure he wrote down everything that her husband was saying. A woman walked up behind her to tell her that Walker was hitting his stride as a campaign speaker.
She paid no attention as she gazed at her husband.
“I want my child to have an education. I want lower taxes. I want this border to be protected,” Walker said as he wound up his speech. “I love America. And if you don’t love it, you can leave.”
About Herschel Walker
Job: Business owner, motivational speaker, influencer and advocate for mental health
- Opposes abortions even in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
- Calls for prosecutions of voter fraud, although he offers no evidence of rampant abuse or addresses voter suppression.
- Talks about troubles with the economy, including inflation, although he is vague about how he would fix those problems.
About our coverage
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is committed to ensuring that Georgians are fully educated about the candidates for senator and others who seek public office. It is critical that voters know where each candidate stands on important issues, what moneyed interests might influence them and whether the candidates have behaved ethically. Today’s focus is on Republican Herschel Walker.
The newspaper will, over the course of this election cycle, focus on each of the candidates. The AJC newsroom will:
- Conduct deep background investigations with an eye toward past behavior and any potential conflicts that might raise questions on or provide insight into how a candidate might perform.
- Publish profiles of each candidate aimed at understanding each candidate’s personal life, background, influences and qualifications.
- Attend forums and debates throughout the election cycle so you know how the candidates are staking out their positions and answering urgent questions. To access the newspaper’s ongoing coverage of politics, visit ajc.com/politics