Herschel Walker has lied about graduating from college, and about launching a breaded-chicken empire. He has allegedly threatened to kill his ex-wife (which he claims to have no memory of, but has not denied), and he has fathered three children with women to whom he was not married. In a memoir, Walker claimed to have dissociative identity disorder and to have pointed a loaded gun at his own head. Walker often struggles to speak in coherent sentences; he seems to believe that the state of Georgia has too many trees.
Herschel Walker may well be elected a US senator.
It seems inexplicable, even in modern American politics—not just that Walker could win, but that his race against the incumbent, Raphael Warnock, is even a close contest. “Well, let’s say this. It’s Georgia. So yeah, I believe it’s close,” he says Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster and strategist who worked on both of Barack Obama‘s winning presidential campaigns. Belcher is not being condescending or simplistic. Quite the opposite. He is acknowledging that Georgia has become one of the country’s most politically complex and least predictable states. It remains to the right of center but went, crucially, for Joe Biden against Donald Trump in 2020. The state is a fascinating mix of urban and rural—with one of the largest percentages of Black residents nationally—whose demographics are being continually scrambled by an influx of new residents, many of them from the North.
“Georgia remains a partisan state, even with two Democratic senators and a Republican governor, and the margins are always going to be close,” says Warnock’s campaign manager. Quentin Fulks. “We know that. What the outside world sees of Herschel Walker is a lot different from the people who grew up watching him play football. The only way to combat that is to accept it.”
Walker, despite his multiple flaws as a first-time candidate, was ahead in several late-summer polls, buoyed in particular by three factors. Conditions have changed somewhat recently, especially after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, but 2022 remains a tough midterm environment for Democrats, with Biden’s unpopularity a drag on races across the country. Far more locally, Walker is a college football legend. “This race has been going on forever, and the big question is, why hasn’t Walker tanked?” says: Doug Heil, a Democratic strategist who has worked on multiple Georgia statewide campaigns. “Don’t underestimate University of Georgia football voters. There is a perception of him as a hero that is hard to shake.” Walker wore red as a Bulldogs running back; it’s his current red Republican jersey that’s more powerful, however. “Tribalism is the only thing he’s got going,” Belcher says. “He is a terrible candidate, but so was Donald Trump. Regardless of how incompetent Walker is, how unprepared for the job, those MAGA Republicans are going to look at him and go, ‘He’s for our tribe.'”
LaTosha Brown chooses a different image. “Herschel Walker could be Kermit the Frog and this would be a close race,” she says. Brown is a cofounder of the Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter Fund; she and the organization played a significant role in Warnock being elected to the Senate in the first place, in a 2020 special election that dragged into a January 2021 runoff. “You’ve got a Black guy affirming the Republican anti-everything agenda. Ultimately, this is really not about the improvement of Georgia. It’s about a few of the white elite that seek to control a state that is increasingly more diverse and younger. So they’re using Herschel Walker to try to create division in the community.”
Georgia’s communities—of race, of income, of geography—are hardly monolithic, and there is a sizable, key percentage that’s up for grabs. “The swing in Georgia is by and large white, north Atlanta suburban voters, predominantly women, many of them northern transplants,” says Kendra-Sue Derby, a veteran Georgia Democratic consultant. “Plus progressive whites in the Black Belt, places like Macon and Columbus.” Warnock doesn’t necessarily need to win over all those voters—but he does need them to at least skip voting for Walker, even if they pull the lever for incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp in his rematch against Stacey Abrams. Her presence on the ballot adds yet another complicating factor. If Abrams expands the electorate, as she did in 2018, it could add a couple of points to Warnock’s numbers.
Years of leading Baptist congregations—including from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church—have honed Warnock’s speaking and relating skills. He has been traveling the state extensively, intent on making his pitch outside of major cities, emphasizing kitchen-table issues like prescription drug costs as well as his efforts at bipartisanship, including working with Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz on a highway-funding amendment to an infrastructure bill. Warnock has also raised a boatload of campaign money and poured it into ads highlighting his affability and Walker’s eccentricities. The most recent polling has shown the strategy paying off, with Warnock ahead by six points. “Two years ago, Senator Warnock outperformed President Biden in 122 of 159 counties in Georgia, and a lot of Republican counties,” Fulks says. “I’m eyes wide open—we may lose these counties, but if it’s 60-40, that’s better than 80-20. If we pull that off in 12 counties, that’s a big difference.”