- The Washington Times
Friday, September 16, 2022

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Herschel Walker cannot escape his outsized football stardom as he tours Georgia in a bid to win a Senate seat.

While the Heisman Trophy-winning running back and former NFL star autographs dozens of T-shirts, hats, helmets and other sports memorabilia at every campaign stop, his goal is to get the long line of people who wait hours for a photo with him to stop talking about the Georgia Bulldogs and instead hear about why he should be elected to Congress

“Everybody wants to talk about football, and looks at me as this football player,” Mr. Walker said during an interview aboard his tour bus. “But I’ve created a very successful business, I’ve visited military bases, over 400 of them. I’ve been all over the world. I sit on a publicly traded board. And people don’t even know about that.”

With only a few weeks left before the November midterm elections, Mr. Walker is fighting to pull ahead in a Senate race that is a statistical tie between two of the state’s most prominent Black men.

Mr. Walker, 60, a Republican who became a state legend playing football at the University of Georgia, is facing Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, 53, a senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used to preach. 

The Georgia Senate race is a pivotal midterm contest because it will help to determine which party will have control in the upper chamber. 

Several recent polls showed Mr. Walker ahead by as much as 3 points, but Mr. Warnock has raised far more money than the Walker campaign and has blanketed the state with ads that attempt to paint Mr. Walker as unfit and too uninformed to be a senator.

A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed Mr. Warnock up by 6 points. The race is considered a toss-up.

Mr. Warnock is getting help from outside political groups who want to keep the seat in Democratic hands and are running their own ads aimed at damaging Mr. Walker. 

Mr. Walker, who received a coveted endorsement from former President Donald Trump, also is facing fire from an anti-Trump political action committee. The Republican Accountability PAC released a 30-second spot last month featuring a 2008 interview with Mr. Walker’s ex-wife. She accused him of holding a gun to her head and threatening to kill her in 2005.

Mr. Walker has faced a tsunami of negative news coverage since jumping into the race this year. The vast majority of mainstream news articles and TV news segments portray the Walker campaign as a stumbling and him as someone with little knowledge of the issues. They also call into question Mr. Walker’s intelligence and mental stability. 

“They’ve spent $57 million against me, and the race is tied,” Mr. Walker told The Washington Times. “What I’ve got to do is get out and meet the people, like I’m doing today. And that’s what I’ve been doing, going around the state. When I decided to run, I said, I’m gonna go to all 159 counties and talk to the people.”

Mr. Walker’s bus began rolling across Georgia after Labor Day and will stay on the road through October. 

On the bus tour, he has talked to crowds of roughly 200 people, laying out in a smooth, 15-minute stump speech why he should replace Mr. Warnock, who won his seat in a special election in January 2021. 

The surge in illegal immigration along the southern border, high crime, soaring prices, and allowing transgender athletes to compete in women’s sports are all part of a Democratic agenda that needs to be defeated, Mr. Walker told the crowd of people in Brunswick, a town on the state’s southeast coast.

Mr. Warnock, he said, has been a rubber stamp for President Biden’s agenda, which increased spending to historical levels and pushed far-left social policies while ignoring an unsecured border and unsafe streets.

“They want to get your vote so they can change this world,” Mr. Walker said to a crowd gathered outside the Exchange Club of Brunswick. “So come November, we better wake up. We better put the right people in office who are not afraid to stand up to what is going on.”

Mr. Walker said he rejects racially divisive language and “woke-ism in our schools” that is embraced by the left. 

“They want to tell you can’t make it here in this country, and this is the greatest country in the world,” he told the clapping crowd.

The two candidates have agreed to debate in Savannah on Oct. 14. Mr. Walker is eager to defy predictions that he’ll be outperformed by the more polished incumbent.

“He’s slick and he’s a smooth talker,” Mr. Walker said. “I’m not the politician they usually have. I’m the guy who’s going to fight for them, fight for this country, fight for Georgia. I’m not going to let this country go down the drain like they are doing right now.”

He has faced intense criticism from the Black community for embracing Republican politics, but he told The Times he’s never viewed the world through a racial lens.

The attacks leveled at him as a Black conservative are weaved into his stump speech, with humor. 

Recently, someone called him an anti-Black slur.

“They didn’t realize I’m from the country,” Mr. Walker, a native of rural Wrightsville, Georgia, told the crowd with a smile. “The coon is one of the smartest animals out there. So they didn’t hurt my feelings.”

Mr. Walker’s political fate hinges on GOP voter turnout. 

Georgia’s electorate, once deep red, has been increasingly infiltrated by Democrats who over the past decade migrated from northern states to Atlanta and its suburbs.

The political shift was enough to carry Mr. Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff to victory in the state’s dual special Senate elections in 2021.

Their victories were partly blamed on too few Republicans showing up at the polls. 

To win back the seat for the GOP in November, Mr. Walker knows he has to energize Republican voters by introducing himself to them as a candidate, not just a sports star. 

He’s making those connections to the base, county by county, on his bus tour.

Steve and Flo Radke, who came to the rally, want to elect more Republicans to the Senate but said they know very little about Mr. Walker outside of his football career. The two said they have watched Democratic attack ads about him with concern. 

“I don’t like the negative ads, and I don’t hear anybody saying anything to combat them,” said Mr. Radke, a retired building mechanic. “I want to find out more about him, and what experience does he have, at this point, [for] the Senate.”

Mr. Walker’s campaign temporarily suspended advertising in Georgia in mid-July, telling supporters in a campaign email the candidate lacked the money to keep advertising on the air.

His campaign has raised considerable sums. But the Georgia race, one of the closest in the country, has been bombarded by out-of-state spending. Much of the money has gone to Mr. Warnock, who has been building his campaign war chest since running for office in 2021.  

Mr. Warnock had $22 million in cash on hand at the end of June, compared to Mr. Walker’s sum of less than $7 million. 

Mr. Walker was back on the air after Labor Day with an ad accusing Democrats, including Mr. Warnock, of using race to divide people. He pledged to bring people together in the ad. 

He’s also responded to the attack ads against him, acknowledging the incident recounted by his ex-wife and blaming the episode on mental health problems he said he has worked to resolve. Mr. Walker, who said he remains close friends with his ex-wife, referred to Mr. Warnock’s marital problems, which he highlighted in his own attack ad.

Mr. Warnock’s ex-wife accused him of neglecting their children and running over her foot with his car in 2020.

“It’s amazing to me, a man that is a pastor, don’t understand redemption, don’t understand forgiveness,” Mr. Walker said. “And yet I say he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Mr. Walker said his image has been distorted in the news since he became a Republican candidate. Sitting beside his 1982 Heisman Trophy in the back of the campaign bus, he marveled at the shift away from the glowing coverage he enjoyed as a famous football star. 

“They used to love Herschel Walker,” he said. “Now, you don’t see anything that they have to say that is the truth. The media is not my friend.”

Georgians love Mr. Walker, even as they weigh whether they want to send him to Congress.

After an hour of handshakes and autographing T-shirts, Mr. Walker’s tour bus remained in the parking lot in Brunswick so he could sign even more items for his fans. 

Staff carried stacks of boxed footballs, hats and shirts onto the bus, where Mr. Walker retreated after the rally to eat lunch with his wife, Julie, and campaign workers. 

Sheriff’s deputies providing security at the event stood in the blazing September sun, waiting for the bus to leave. 

One middle-aged officer, watching the piles of autographed items get carried back off the bus, reflected on Mr. Walker’s enduring status as a state legend, decades after he led the beloved Bulldogs to a national championship. 

“You talking about Georgia? You mention Herschel,” the deputy said. “They used to call him Superman.”

A woman stepped out of the bus and handed the deputy a signed hat.

• Susan Ferrechio can be reached at sferrechio@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.