May 24 marked another milestone night for the state of Georgia and the nation at large for a number of notable reasons that Herschel Walker doesn’t want to dwell on.
It was the night Walker — the 60-year-old Heisman Trophy-winning University of Georgia college football legend from Wrightsville — became the first Black candidate in the state’s history to secure the GOP nomination for a U.S. Senate seat.
It was also the night Democratic U.S. Senate incumbent Raphael Warnock won a landslide victory over his own primary opponent. Those wins confirmed two major-party, Black contenders would compete for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia for the first time ever.
A general election U.S. Senate matchup between two Black candidates has happened only once before in U.S. history. Conservative pundit Alan Keyes and Barack Obama did it first back in 2004, the year Obama went on to become just the second Black person ever to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate. (Carol Moseley Braun, a Black woman, became the first in 1993).
More than 1,300 people have served in the U.S. Senate since the nation was founded. Only 11 have been Black.
Walker has a strong chance to join their elite ranks in November, but the GOP hopeful has distanced himself from the historical significance of his primary win.
“It shouldn’t matter what color I am when I take this seat back for Georgia. I’m an American,” he told Capital B Atlanta via email in early May ahead of his Primary Day victory. “Democrats want to focus on race because it divides people. I’m focused on unity and bringing people together. The only history I am concerned with is winning this seat back for the people of Georgia and continuing to work hard to ensure the voice of every Georgian is heard.”
Walker’s stiff-arm approach to overt racial politics may put him at odds with Black voters in Georgia, whose support he likely needs to win in November.
A Pew Research study released in April found race to be at least somewhat central to the identity of nearly all Black Americans. Early voting data in Georgia has shown a dramatic increase in Black voter participation so far this election cycle, according to Black Voters Matter and the Georgia Republican Party.
Black Georgians make up about a third of the state’s population and constituted 29% of its voters in 2020, when Georgia elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate for the first time in two decades.
But this year, just 10.5% of Black registered voters surveyed in January said they would cast ballots for Walker over Warnock, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/University of Georgia poll.
Warnock secured 92% of the Black vote during his historic January 2021 runoff election victory over former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, but Walker has spent most of the year polling ahead of Warnock despite multiple gaffes, avoiding most media interviews during his primary campaign run, skipping out on debates, and appearing to have little support from Black Georgians.
The most recent WXIA-TV/SurveyUSA poll conducted in April had Warnock up 5 points over Walker. But four out of the five preceding polls had Walker leading Warnock by a slim margin of less than 5%, according to Real Clear Politics. The political news site’s polling average currently has Walker up by half a percentage point, meaning the race is a dead heat right now.
Walker’s polling success isn’t surprising to William Boone, associate professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University. Boone said Walker’s name recognition is a huge factor, but GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, who have been combating the anti-Black racism label of their policy proposals since the Civil Rights Movement, may also benefit from having another Black Senator willing to vote the way they want in Congress.
“No Democrat, other than [U.S. Sen. Jon] Ossoff and Warnock, at this point, has been tested statewide,” Boone said. “The whole question of race in the minds of some folks has, to some extent, been minimized because you already have Warnock.”
Winning Warnock’s Senate seat without gaining more Black support is possible, but not likely for Walker, according to University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock III.
“He doesn’t have to come anywhere close to winning a majority of Black support, but he probably has to do just a little bit better than most Republican politicians have done,” Bullock said. “I don’t think it’s that [Black voters] are necessarily against him. It’s that Black voters are generally against Republicans, and he is a Republican. I’ve seen many instances in which a Black Republican faces off against a white Democrat, and Black people will vote overwhelmingly for the white Democrat.”
Walker’s general election appeal to Black voters got off to a rough start when video of his recent conversation with Atlanta hip-hop legend Michael “Killer Mike” Render hit the internet. The 27-minute chat took place on the latest season of the PBS and Revolt TV show “Love & Respect with Killer Mike.”
Render, who endorsed Bernie Sanders during his 2016 White House run and supported Warnock and Jon Ossoff in 2020, was praised by some on Twitter for being open-minded enough to bring Walker on his show.
But the Run The Jewels lyricist was maligned by many, in part, for lending his platform to a Black candidate some view as being anti-Black.
Walker and the Republican Party have taken opposing stances on several policy positions most Black people support, including voting rights, the reparations movement and Democrats’ Build Back Better plan.
“Killer Mike & Diddy giving Herschel Walker a platform is why rooting for everybody Black is conditional,” one Twitter user said.
“Killer Mike really is out here trying to sell Herschel Walker as some kind of viable candidate,” another tweeted.
Render defended his decision to have Walker on the show in a series of subsequent tweets, though the blowback seemed to catch the rapper off guard.
“If Walker didn’t have them worried, they wouldn’t be attacking him and wouldn’t have attacked me for the interview,” Killer Mike told Capital B Atlanta. “I honestly didn’t think he had a chance of winning until I saw this shit. So obviously they’re scared.”
Indeed, Warnock helped Democrats secure a fragile U.S. Senate majority when he was elected more than a year ago. As of May 4, he’s raised more than $73.2 million in campaign funds, far more than any other U.S. Senate candidate in the country.
On the campaign trail, Walker’s football fame, common touch, and sincerely held Christian beliefs have made him a hit with white conservatives and at least some Black folks.
“Since launching my campaign, I’ve gone all around Georgia — from Bankhead to Clayton County to Augusta to Macon to Albany — places that Republican campaigns don’t typically visit,” Walker said. “I’ve met with thousands of Georgians from all neighborhoods to hear what they face. What I’ve been hearing is that everyone is concerned about expensive gas prices, dangerous streets, and improving our schools. Every person’s voice deserves to be heard and represented, no matter where they come from or who they usually vote for.”
The Republican National Committee says it has invested millions into Black outreach in Georgia, a fresh battleground state where demographic diversity and voter participation among Black residents have increased notably in recent years.
The RNC says it has opened two community centers in the state, including a Black American Community Center in College Park.
“Through its community center, the Republican National Committee is looking forward to working with Herschel Walker and our other nominees to foster lasting relationships and deliver a message of growth and opportunity to the Black community,” Georgia Republican Party spokesperson Garrison Douglas said.
Bartow County School Board District 2 candidate Darnell Jackson Jr. was one of the only Black people in the room during a Walker campaign event in Cartersville on April 23.
Jackson lost his May 24 primary race to Darla Branton Williams by a wide margin. He said he’s not a registered Republican, but ran on the GOP ticket. He also said he believes Walker has the chance to win over Black Georgians like him.
“After hearing him speak today, he had some valid points that definitely resonated with me,” Jackson said. “I haven’t been pleased with the Democratic Party as of recent — over the last few years, as a matter of fact. I feel like they haven’t been doing anything, holding up their end of the bargain when it comes to Black and brown communities.”
Polls show support for President Joe Biden has slipped notably this year amid rising inflation and an uptick in violent crime. The latter placed first among important issues cited by Black Americans who participated in the aforementioned Pew Research study.
Black voters’ apparent disenchantment with Democrats in Congress is something Walker and his supporters have seized on.
“Right now the Democratic Party has let the Black and brown people down a lot,” Walker said at his Cartersville campaign event in April. “Not just let the Black and brown people down, but they’ve let Georgians and America down.”
Inflation, including the rising cost of gasoline, is an issue that disproportionately affects Black Americans. Over the weekend, staffers for a pro-Walker super PAC, were seen giving out $4,000 worth of gasoline vouchers to Black motorists at a Chevron gas station south of downtown Atlanta.
The move angered Democrats and Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown, who accused the committee of breaking the law. That isn’t technically true, according to some legal experts.
Trump loyalist and failed 2020 GOP congressional candidate Angela Stanton-King, who is Black, said the gas giveaway was Walker’s idea.
“Herschel Walker decided, ‘You know what? We’re going to do this free gas giveaway for the community. I want them to know I care. I’m coming with free gas vouchers for everyone,’” she said during a video shared Saturday on Twitter.
A spokesperson told the AJC that Walker didn’t direct or help plan the gas giveaway and that Stanton-King is a volunteer who doesn’t have a formal role with the super PAC.
Walker’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to Capital B Atlanta’s request for comment.
Looking ahead to November, Bullock points out Walker’s party opposes policies most Black people support.
“As Black voters become more aware of where Herschel is on a number of policies, I think you’re going to find that he’s quite conservative on most of those,” Bullock said. “They’re not going to find that to be attractive.”
Boone acknowledged inflation and crime are issues Republicans could exploit to make gains with Black voters, but he expressed doubt that Walker is the best candidate to do it.
“Whoever is going to win, it’s going to be because of turnout,” Boone said. “If Walker consents to a couple of debates, he’s toast.”