Herschel Walker ran away with the GOP Senate nod, but November challenge looms

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker walks into Sutton Middle School to vote on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker walks into Sutton Middle School to vote on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Shortly after Herschel Walker entered the U.S. Senate race, he received a call from a group of Washington Republicans who posed a question that felt insulting.

“I won’t say their names because I don’t want to embarrass them,” Walker said. “The first thing they asked me is, ‘Can you raise money?’ The second is, ‘Can you get people to change over?’ ”

Walker’s response, which he shared at a recent Cobb County campaign stop, illustrates both the confidence and audacity behind his celebrity-fueled bid for the U.S. Senate that could decide control of the chamber.

“My answer was, ‘I can raise more than you, and I’m Black.’ Because I’ve got family in Georgia who are Black and they’re going to change over,” he said.

For Georgia Republicans, Walker’s Senate bid offers the tantalizing promise of an outsider who can broaden the party’s reach and the threat of an unpredictable nominee whose campaign could buckle under the weight of a controversy-filled past and a present marred by blunders.

The front-runner even before he got in the race — just the specter of his candidacy forced many veteran politicians to the sidelines — Walker spent much of his Senate bid on cruise control with a focus on facing Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

He could afford to ignore his five Republican rivals thanks to soaring name recognition borne out of his legendary football career, an alliance forged with both Donald Trump and establishment figures such as Mitch McConnell, and strong fundraising.

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Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) speaks at the John and Lillian Lewis Foundation’s inaugural gala on May 17th, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) speaks at the John and Lillian Lewis Foundation’s inaugural gala on May 17th, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) speaks at the John and Lillian Lewis Foundation’s inaugural gala on May 17th, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

He also defied expectations from some senior Republicans that his bid would collapse amid stinging attacks by opponents, damaging revelations about his past and a string of missteps that have made national headlines.

Walker’s runaway victory in Tuesday’s primary validated a strategy that until recently involved tightly controlled appearances and a refusal to tangle with his GOP opponents. Even his allies, though, worry Walker’s hands-off approach leaves him untested in a general election campaign.

“The problem that Herschel Walker has is that he’s not going to be able to avoid Raphael Warnock once the general election starts. He’s not been tested, he’s not been pressed,” said Michael Steele, a former national GOP chair.

Warnock and his allies have the resources and infrastructure that Walker’s adversaries lacked, and they can use them to highlight a history of allegations of domestic violence that includes his ex-wife telling authorities that Walker pointed a gun at her and choked her.

Walker has falsely claimed he graduated from the University of Georgia, bungled the concept of evolution and issued confounding answers to questions about voting rights and infrastructure policy. A recent analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed a pattern of exaggerated claims about his business background.

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Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker

Credit: AJC

Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker

Credit: AJC

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Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Warnock’s campaign released a memo late Tuesday that laid out how the Democrat planned to highlight how Walker’s “pattern of lies, exaggerations and outright bizarre claims reveal he is not up for the job.”

The Democrat, meanwhile, has intensified his focus on capping the price of insulin, pursuing price-gougers and pressing the White House to take action to forgive student loan debt.

The Republican strategy to take on Warnock is also becoming clearer.

In 2020, then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her allies relentlessly branded him a “radical liberal,” an image the pastor undercut with personable TV ads.

Recent anti-Warnock ads have for now abandoned that strategy, framing him as an “inspirational” candidate who supports bad policies. Walker indicated he was taking the same approach.

“He’s absolutely incredible,” Walker said of Warnock. “But, you know, I’m incredible, too. I love fighting. I’ve been doing it all my life. I’m not worried about all that.”

Instead, Walker aims to make the race a referendum on President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings in Georgia and nationwide have plummeted amid rising energy prices and economic uncertainty.

“He’s little Biden. Because all of his votes, he just keeps voting for Biden. It’s just so sad,” Walker said. “Everyone sees it, but no one wants to mention it. I’m not afraid to mention it.”