Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia couldn’t be more different from his Republican opponent, the former football player Herschel Walker—and news coverage of their campaigns in the past week is a perfect example.
Warnock didn’t generate a single juicy or humiliating headline. Articles about the Democratic incumbent dutifully describe his issue positions and his campaign strategies. Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reported recently that the staunchly anti-abortion challenger had paid for an abortion that the mother of one of his children underwent. That story prompted Walker’s son Christian to post a bitter rebuke of his father on Twitter.
Until this week, Christian had appeared to earnestly support Walker even after revelations that he had fathered two more children than he had publicly disclosed and that he had lied about working in law enforcement, his academic record at the University of Georgia, and his business success. Christian appeared at an early campaign event for his father even though his mother, Cindy Grossman, had told ABC News in 2008 that when she and Walker were married, he’d pointed a gun at her head.
Under different circumstances, a Senate race in the Deep South between two Black candidates would be something to celebrate. But Walker is so unqualified that the Georgia contest has become cringeworthy.
The GOP is running some familiar plays in nominating Walker, a University of Georgia legend who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982 and played professionally in the United States Football League and National Football League for 15 years. He’s a favorite of former President Donald Trump, who endorsed him in the Republican primary. Like Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn coach who represents neighboring Alabama in the Senate, Walker is counting on his football fame to win over voters. He has aligned himself with conservatives’ entire agenda—including their refusal to acknowledge that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election.
Walker has also shown on numerous occasions that he lacks any real grasp of policy issues. At a campaign event this summer, Walker blamed China for corrupting America’s air supply. “Do you know we don’t control this air?” Walker told the audience. “No matter how much money we put in controlling our air, it goes over to China or to somewhere else, and it messes it up. All of a sudden, it comes back over here. All we’re doing is spending money.”
Some of Walker’s completely unintelligible answers to basic questions would be amusing if the Georgia Senate race weren’t so important. His victory could help tip control of the Senate to Republicans, creating ripple effects across the country—potentially including legislation to ban abortion nationwide.
The Washington Post has reported that GOP operatives in Georgia—a traditionally conservative state that has grown more diverse in recent years—united behind Walker in part to offset Warnock’s status as Georgia’s first Black senator. They also saw Walker as a buffer against claims that the party is racist, making Walker the party’s official Black friend. “A lot of [conservatives] said, ‘He’s Black, and he agrees with us,’” an unnamed GOP strategist told the Post, “and I think that’s why people just gave him the benefit of the doubt.”
In theory, Georgia conservatives’ embrace of a Black Senate hopeful should be a sign of progress. Instead, Walker’s candidacy is extraordinarily uncomfortable for me to watch because, while bolstering his political standing by repeating right-wing stereotypes about irresponsible Black fathers, he plays right into those same stereotypes.
Walker’s disturbing history in no way reflects on other Black men. But I can’t help sensing some condescension in Republicans’ elevation of such a buffoonish candidate. Does Walker embody what they think Black men really are? Do they think that Black voters in Georgia are so gullible and hungry for representation that they would willingly overlook Walker’s obvious incompetence?
His candidacy is especially offensive in light of who he is running against. Unlike Walker—who has falsely claimed to have graduated in the top 1 percent of his college class, even though he left after his junior year to join the USFL—the incumbent has a real academic record. Warnock graduated cum laude from Morehouse College and earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary. As the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he preaches in the same pulpit that Martin Luther King Jr., preached in. His Senate victory two years ago made him a rising political star. In office, he has astutely focused on bread-and-butter issues and worked with Republicans where possible.
Republicans also haven’t wavered in their support of other candidates—such as Representative Lauren Boebert and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene—who are as unfit as Walker is for federal office. By nominating him, the GOP is jeopardizing a winnable Senate seat. A better candidate would probably be ahead in the race. The president’s party usually loses seats in midterm elections, and turbulent economic conditions only add to the Democrats’ difficulty. In recent months, polls showed Warnock and Walker in a dead heat. Yet the latest numbers suggest that Warnock has opened up a double-digit lead.
If Warnock wins, it would be a fitting punishment for Republicans, who are trying to play cynical racial politics by a new set of rules. But the message they’ve sent is that any old Black candidate will do—even one as flawed as Walker.