OPINION: Inside the world where Herschel Walker is winning

We had a caller to our Politically Georgia podcast recently, Fran from New Jersey, who was totally confounded by the possibility that Herschel Walker is in a close race against Raphael Warnock for U.S. Senate.

“Honestly, from completely neutral territory, is this candidate really serious?” she asked. " It just blows our minds up here.”

I thought about Fran from New Jersey Wednesday night when I was in Kennesaw, along with about 500 other people. So many had turned out for a “Women for Herschel” event that the fire marshal eventually cut off attendance.

There, at an indoor gun range, with Shania Twain on the loudspeakers and barbecue on the buffet, hundreds of well-heeled conservative women crowded in for what felt like a Baptist revival crossed with a Junior League lunch.

But the real draw, of course, was Walker, who has been a household name in Georgia since 1980, when he leapt over piles of players to score touchdowns and eventually deliver a national championship to the University of Georgia.

He is 60 now, no less famous to people like Ginger Howard, the RNC committeewoman who joined Walker on stage Wednesday for a roundtable discussion with Republican women.

She described watching the entire UGA stadium chant his name in the 1980′s, only for her young nephews this week to say they wished they could meet him, too. “They just think he is the greatest thing!” she said of Walker.

Beyond Walker’s sheer fame in the state where he grew up, he has also stepped into a political climate where culture warriors and true believers dominate the far right of the GOP. In Walker’s case, he’s both.

That he lived his entire adult life outside of Georgia until last December makes no difference to this group. Nor have the many news reports about his past domestic violence, unacknowledged children, or flubbed interview questions.

He believes in this crowd and these women believe in him.

“I need to always acknowledge my lord Jesus Christ as my savior,” Walker began, to cheers.

“The greater one lives in Herschel Walker!” Elizabeth Weatherby called out from the stage as she prayed for Walker at the beginning of the program.

“This is his time, Lord God,” Kim Walker called out next.

Also on stage later was Atlanta evangelist Alveda King, who told the women to put one hand over their hearts and lift another up to heaven for Walker.

“He loves America, he loves his family,” she said. “He’s a family man.”

Walker took it from there, part celebrity, part motivational speaker, and part Fox News talking head, calling for unity and forgiveness among Americans, while also accusing Warnock and Washington Democrats of lying to voters including the women in the room.

“They’re campaigning. They’re not telling you the truth,” Walker said. “They’re not misleading you — they’re lying to you.”

He warned that the Democrats’ recently passed climate, health care and tax bill will hurt people living paycheck-to-paycheck, although it caps drug costs for seniors and the tax increases in the bill are for corporations that make more than $1 billion annually.

Walker also praised police officers and members of the military, and at several points, mocked the idea that anyone can be transgender.

“We can’t let them think that they’re God, that you can tell a girl that she can be a boy tomorrow and a giraffe the next day and all of this stuff.”

More applause.

Curiously, other hot button issues never came up, including guns and abortion, which Alveda King only mentioned in passing.

Walker has said he supports abortion restrictions without exception and hasn’t given many details on his position on guns. But it wasn’t really about dissecting the issues for the women and Walker, who were ready to vote for him before he ever spoke.

Anita Powell had come with a group of 10 women from Clayton County south of Atlanta.

“He was like the average person wanting to do good for our state and for the country,” she said. “I like that he’s conservative and that he doesn’t mind speaking his mind about his beliefs and his faith in God.”

Joan Birrell said public safety is what she cares about most. “He’s for putting Americans first and protecting our families. What more can you ask for?”

Lisa Adkins, from Cobb County, said education is her top issue. “Making sure our children are taught facts and not opinions is so very important.”

They all liked what they heard, especially at the end.

“You guys here are my family and my father told me that you take care of your family,” he told them as he wrapped to loud applause. “And I’m going to take care of you guys.”

But he’ll need more than his family, literal or otherwise, to win the seat.

Although he’s polling close to Warnock, he’s never polled ahead of the senator.

The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed him 20 points behind Warnock among women, and 12 points behind among independent voters.

GOP focus group findings shared with the AJC suggest that Walker’s biggest struggle is with voter views of his ability to simply do the job.

A series of bizarre statements on everything from apes and evolution to a COVID mist he said would kill every COVID germ on your body make it harder to envision him holding his own on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

And speaking to crowds like the adoring women on Wednesday isn’t likely to change that.

Walker turned in a confident performance that might have helped undecided voters better picture him in Washington. But instead, he got a line of fans waiting for autographed jerseys and a standing ovation from women who are already voting for him.

So Fran from New Jersey, yes, Walker is a serious candidate.

But for him to win, he’ll need to convince more than the faithful fans and true believers that he’s up for the job.