Former football star Herschel Walker, a first-time candidate endorsed by Donald Trump, appears to be lagging behind other Republicans in Georgia.
Walker, a sports legend, won the Republican nomination to run for the state Senate in May, defeating five other candidates. Republicans hoped that his popularity and name recognition would carry him to victory in what is expected to be a close race.
However, he has lagged behind Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock in most polls, his campaign rocked by repeated policy gaffes and a string of controversies about his past, including allegations of domestic violence.
Walker is one of a handful of Trump-backed first-time Republican Senate candidates, including TV personality Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and author J.D. Vance in Ohio, who even senior Republicans say are weighing the party’s chances of regaining control of the Senate.
Without naming individuals, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has cited “candidate quality” as a reason why Republicans may struggle to capture the Senate, putting his party’s chances of winning a Senate majority at 50-50.
Walker, according to analysts, has made himself an easy target for political attacks by making disparate comments on issues ranging from COVID-19 to climate. For example, on Sunday, he criticized the recently passed $430 billion climate and drug bill, claiming that a large portion of the funds are “going to trees” and asking, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Don’t we have enough trees around here?”
Republican Accountability, a political action committee run by anti-Trump Republicans, has attempted to bring domestic violence allegations to the forefront of the campaign. It aired a 30-second commercial in which Walker’s ex-wife, Cindy DeAngelis Grossman, says, “he held the gun to my temple and said he was going to blow my brains out.”
Walker responded with his own video, claiming that Grossman’s comments were taken out of context but that he was “glad they did this ad, because it gives me an opportunity to end the stigma around mental health.”
The Walker campaign and local Republican Party leaders claim the former athlete has been unfairly portrayed in the media, despite the fact that his interactions with voters at campaign events have been overwhelmingly successful.
Republicans need only a net one-seat gain to gain control of the Senate, which is currently split 50-50.
Georgia was Republican territory until Biden won it by a razor-thin margin in 2020, when Warnock and fellow Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff defeated two Republican incumbents in a run-off election in 2021.
Opinion polls show a very narrow margin between Walker and Warnock, with some putting Walker ahead. However, he is polling significantly lower than other Georgia Republicans, including Governor Brian Kemp, who is up for re-election this year. Analysts believe that some Republican voters who voted for Kemp may decide not to vote for a Senate candidate and instead support Warnock.
Before being elected to the Senate, Warnock was the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King once preached. According to strategists, this could appeal to Georgia’s sizable Christian electorate.
Warnock has also used recent Democratic legislative victories to bolster his voter appeal.
Democratic strategists anticipate Warnock will emphasize his policy message to counter Walker’s name recognition as a former NFL player who led the University of Georgia to its first national football championship in 1980.
Walker and Warnock are both black. Warnock, according to Atlanta-based Democratic strategist Fred Hicks, could improve his ground game against Walker by mobilizing Black male voters on policy issues such as jobs and healthcare.
Republicans, on the other hand, argue that the close poll numbers bode well for Walker, given the controversies and political attacks he has faced.
According to AdImpact, which forecasts $276 million in ad spending, the Georgia Senate race is already expected to be the most expensive in the country. If the Nov. 8 election is declared inconclusive and a Georgia run-off becomes the deciding factor for Senate control, spending could increase even more.