A December runoff will decide Georgia’s Senate race between Democratic incumbent Rev. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker, a former Dallas Cowboys star running back.
The December 6 runoff very well could decide which party controls the upper chamber as the midterm elections have turned into a dead heat.
Walker won a Heisman Trophy and helped steer the University of Georgia to a college football national championship four decades ago. His forcing a runoff is being called a comeback by some political pundits.
His performance at an October 14 debate may have propelled his return.
Walker, whose close friend Donald Trump encouraged him to run, was the underdog heading into the debate. He was behind in fundraising (Warnock raised $115 million to Walker’s $37 million), polls, and facing a slew of negative headlines.
Just 10 days before the debate, The Daily Beast alleged that Walker paid an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009, unsuccessfully tried to get her to have a second one, and displayed a pattern of abuse toward his ex-wife and son.
Walker, who has taken an anti-abortion stance, denied those allegations. However, he did acknowledge three additional children after media outlets reported on their existence.
But amid the turmoil, Walker stayed focused and delivered a performance that began to shift momentum in his favor, helping him land in a runoff that might decide control of the Senate.
“He looked at the debate like training,” Walker campaign strategist Gail Gitcho, who led his debate preparation, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Walker studied other political debates like game-day film in the leadup. The weekend before, he held a mock three-hour debate from a conference room in an Atlanta hotel.
The former football star’s preparation paid off as he not only landed some solid hits against the incumbent but also avoided significant missteps.
Walker spoke of his personal life story and mixed in criticisms of Warnock.
He railed against the senator’s belief of systemic racism in the United States and his votes for President Biden’s policies while blaming them for rising crime, inflation, and increased asylum seekers at the border.
“He went to Washington to represent Joe Biden,” Walker said of Warnock. “That’s the reason we’re in the mess we’re in today, because he represents Joe Biden and not the truth for Georgia.”
In the race’s closing weeks, Walker focused his time on rural parts of the state and stepped up his attacks on Warnock.
He labeled Warnock, the senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church who holds a doctorate in systematic theology, “a Marxist” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
In speeches filled with religious undertones, he railed against things such as transgender athletes and gender pronouns.
“I’m not a politician,” Walker repeatedly said on the campaign trail. “I’m a warrior for God.”
Walker’s performance in the final weeks before the midterms earned him a runoff berth. But some believe a less flawed candidate would have won outright.
“Herschel Walker has so many allegations and baggage that come along with him,” Avery Chappell, who split her ballot between Gov. Brian Kemp and Warnock, told the AJC. “Just because he is hand-picked by Trump and played football does not give him a rubber stamp for my vote.”
The Warnock campaign has highlighted that Walker fared worse than Trump across Georgia in rural, urban and suburban areas.
Since the runoff became official, Sen. Warnock has increased his attacks on Walker, repeating many allegations that have come out during the campaign.
“We’ve seen that Herschel Walker has a disturbing history pattern of violence against women, against his own family. And he takes and he refuses to take responsibility for that,” Warnock said Thursday. “And he refuses even to answer questions. So, the question right now is this: is that who we want representing Georgia?”
Warnock himself has faced accusations of violence against women, however, and his ex-wife has claimed that the pastor ran over her foot during a domestic altercation. “I’ve tried to keep the way that he acts under wraps for a long time, and today he crossed the line,” she suggested.
Warnock denied running over her foot, telling police officers, “I barely move, and all of a sudden she’s screaming that I ran over her foot. I don’t believe it.”
For Walker’s part, he is still standing despite the highly personal attacks from the better-funded Democratic opponent.
In the face of these allegations, Walker’s team successfully communicated his personal story of transformation and redemption through his life’s challenges.
“He’s a good person who has been put through the wringer and had everything in the kitchen sink thrown at him, and he’s still fighting for you,” former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Sunday while campaigning with Walker.
While some people who voted for Herschel are fans, some do not care about allegations or that he is a celebrity as long as he helps Republicans win control of the Senate.
“It could be Daffy Duck for all I care,” Georgia voter Ronald Thrush told the AJC. “Just get the Democrats out of Washington.”