EMERSON, Ga. (AP) — Herschel Walker pitches himself as a politician who can bridge America’s racial and cultural divides because he loves everyone and overlooks differences.
“I don’t care what color you are,” Georgia’s Republican Senate nominee, who is Black, told an overwhelmingly white crowd recently in Bartow County, north of Atlanta. “This is a good place,” Walker said of the United States, “and a way we make it better is by coming together.”
Yet the former University of Georgia football star who calls all Georgians “my family” has staked out familiar conservative ground on the nation’s most glaring societal fissures, seemingly contradicting his promises of unity. Walker says those who do not share his vision of the country can leave and he blasts his opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock, and the Democratic Party as the real purveyors of division.
Their “wokeness” on race, transgender rights and other issues, Walker insists, threatens U.S. power and identity.
“Sen. Warnock believes America is a bad country full of racist people,” Walker says in one ad. It’s a claim based on the fact that Warnock, who is also Black, has acknowledged institutional racism during his sermons as a Baptist minister. “I believe we’re a great country full of generous people,” Walker concludes.
That approach is not surprising in a state controlled for most of its history by white cultural conservatives and it aligns Walker with many high-profile Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. But Walker’s arguments make for a striking contrast in a Senate contest featuring two Black men born in the Deep South during or immediately following the civil rights movement.
The strategy will face its fiercest test in the closing weeks of the campaign as Walker vehemently denies reports from The Daily Beast that he encouraged and paid for a woman’s 2009 abortion and later fathered a child with her. The New York Times reported Friday that he urged her to have a second abortion, a request she refused. The Daily Beast also published new details provided by the woman about Walker’s lack of involvement with their child.
Such developments would typically sink a Republican candidate, but Walker is betting the conservative ground he has staked out throughout the campaign will ultimately win over voters who are singularly interested in flipping a Democratic seat and retaking the Senate majority.
His advisers believe Walker’s rhetoric reflects the views of many Georgians, at least most who will vote this fall. Most specifically, it is an appeal to whites, including moderates who may be wary of the first-time candidate yet believe Democrats push too much social change. The outcome could turn on how Walker’s pitch lands in an electorate that’s gotten younger, more urban, less white and less native to Georgia since Walker, 60, and Warnock, 53, grew up in the state.
Mark Rountree, a Republican pollster, said a narrow but solid majority of Georgia voters “responds favorably to Republican messaging broadly,” including socially conservative rhetoric.
“I don’t know that they all use that ‘wokeness’ terminology but they’re not completely happy with all the cultural changes that have gone on in America,” he said, stressing that group includes metro Atlanta white voters who helped President Joe Biden win Georgia in 2020.
Warnock, as minister of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, has long linked the civil rights leader’s vision of a “beloved community” to 21st century discussions of diversity and justice, including religious pluralism, LGBTQ rights, ballot access, racial equity, law enforcement and other issues.
But in Warnock’s paid advertising, where most of the state’s 7 million-plus registered voters encounter the candidates, the pastor-politician casts himself mostly as a hardworking senator who has delivered results and federal money for Georgia.
Walker saves his hottest rhetoric for campaign events, where crowds are measured in dozens or hundreds, rather than the thousands and millions watching carefully cultivated ads.
In one such ad, a smiling Walker talks of unity after a string of Democrats — Warnock, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — are heard discussing racism.
Addressing fellow Republicans, Walker maintains the smile but goes harder at the left, especially on transgender rights.
“They’re bringing wokeness in our military,” Walker said during a stop in Cumming, part of the critical northern suburbs of metro Atlanta. It was an apparent reference to the Pentagon allowing transgender people to serve and have access to medical care.
“The greatest fighting force ever assembled before God (and) they’re talking about pronouns,” Walker said. “Are you serious? How do you identify? I can promise you right now China ain’t talking about how you can identify. They’re talking about war.”
Walker sometimes presents his mores as humor.
“Y’all see it. They telling you what is a woman. Think about it,” he said in Bartow County, drawing laughter from voters. “That’s right,” he continued with a broad smile. “They’re telling you a man can get pregnant. Hey, I’m gone tell you right now, a man can’t get pregnant.”
Warnock, Walker says, “wants men in women’s sports.” Walker’s campaign aides point separately to a Senate vote on a Republican amendment that would have limited federal money for any educational institutions “that permit any student whose biological sex is male to participate in an athletic program or activity designated for women or girls.” The amendment failed on a party-line vote.
“That’s sort of like saying you want Herschel Walker to compete against your daughters,” Walker said in Norcross, eliciting more laughs.
Children, Walker argued in Emerson, are especially vulnerable: “Our kids are behind because they want to be woke. What about teaching them how to write? … How to read? … How to spell?”
Walker rarely identifies the policies he opposes or explains counterproposals. He sticks instead with broader cultural branding, and in perhaps the most direct contradiction of his unity messaging, recommends that those with a different vision for America consider moving. “If you don’t like the rules under our roof, you can go somewhere else,” he said in Bartow County, after recalling a similar message his father once delivered to him.
Warnock seems reluctant to answer Walker’s broadsides directly. “My job is to represent all the people of Georgia across racial and ethnic and religious line, and all corner of this state,” he told reporters last week.
Asked specifically about Walker’s emphasis on transgender politics, Warnock said: “People love their children and they want to make sure that their children are safe from hatred and bigotry. So, you know, I will remain focused on all our young people and, at the same time, creating opportunities for young people.”
Geoff Wetrosky, campaign director at the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights, said Walker is recycling the well-worn political strategy of scaring voters using a marginalized minority.
“He is spreading propaganda and creating more stigma, discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people,” Wetrosky said. “Their rhetoric is not about keeping kids safe, it’s about riling up a small number of base voters while interfering with the rights of parents of LGBT kids to provide stable, happy and healthy homes for the kids.”
Walker does not link every cultural complaint to Warnock but comes at the incumbent aggressively on race and racism, even invoking King to suggest Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator is subservient to a white president.
“Martin Luther King, he said when your back is bent, people can ride your back. Straighten up and quit letting people ride your back,” Walker said in Cumming, loosely quoting Warnock’s iconic predecessor at Ebenezer. “That’s what (Warnock) been doing all the time, 96% of the time he voted with Joe Biden.”
After a recent campaign stop in suburban Atlanta, Walker told reporters “institutional racism still exists because you continue to talk about it.” He added, “It always exists (but) things have changed from years ago.”
Pressed on whether government should combat racism and other discrimination, Walker insisted the Constitution already does. “If you do what it says on the paper, that means every man would be treated fair,” he said without elaborating. “Do we need to get better? Yes,” he allowed. “But right now we’re talking about separation. … You have to bring together.”
Walker’s methods, especially trying to use King against Warnock, rankle the senator’s aides and allies. Campaign manager Quentin Fulks said Warnock has “brought people together from the pulpit and in the U.S. Senate to get things done,” adding that Walker has “no vision” for Georgians. That’s a twist on a line from Warnock’s standard campaign speech: “People who have no vision traffic in division.”
At the Human Rights Campaign, Wetrosky argues that sweeping attacks on “wokeness” will not sway the middle of the electorate and could ultimately backfire.
“We see this as a desperate attempt by politicians to either hold on to the power that they have or gain power by trying to rile up extremists in their base,” he said.
Nonetheless, Walker’s rhetoric solidifies strong support from voters such as Roy Taylor, a Canton resident who came to hear the GOP nominee speak in Cumming. Taylor said his opposition to “huge, massive government” drives his support for Walker. But his loyalties are intensified because he is “tired of Democrats trying to make Republicans out … like we’re all bigots.
“That,” Taylor said, “is just not true.”
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This story has been corrected to show the last name of the Human Rights Campaign official is Wetrosky, not Wetrovsky.