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. The United States, he said, “is a good place,” adding that ”a way we make it better is by coming together.”
Yet the former football star who calls all Georgians “my family” has staked out familiar conservative ground on America’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. He says his opponent, Sen. Raphael Warnock, and the Democratic Party are the real purveyors of division. He insists that their “wokeness” on race, transgender rights and other issues threatens U.S. power and identity.
“Sen. Warnock believes America is a bad country full of racist people,” Walker says in one ad, making 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. 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 that 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. Walker, however, is betting that the conservative ground he has staked out will win over voters singularly focused on 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 younger, more urban, less white, and less native to Georgia than when Walker, 60, and Warnock, 53, grew up in the state.
Warnock, as minister of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, has long linked the civil rights icon’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 his paid advertising, 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 the 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 in Cumming. It was an apparent reference to the Pentagon allowing transgender persons 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.” His 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.
Walker rarely identifies the policies he opposes or explains counter proposals. He sticks 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.”