Herschel Walker: the ex-football star running for Senate in Trump’s shadow

·8 min read
<span>Photograph: Hyosub Shin/AP</span>
Photograph: Hyosub Shin/AP

A sign on the town square in the Johnson county seat of Wrightsville pays homage to the county’s namesake, Herschel Vespasian Johnson, Georgia’s 41st governor. A relative rarity for his time, Johnson was one of 89 men who voted against secession in 1861 against more than 200 of their peers.

But Herschel Johnson is a historical footnote here. Now, the only Herschel that most people know around here is Herschel Walker, a former football star and political novice running for US Senate. Like Johnson, Walker represents a relatively rare political being: he is a Black Republican who supports Donald Trump.

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Crisscross the backroads of Johnson and its neighboring counties and you’ll find plenty of signs for Walker, with their logo of football laces arching over the candidate’s name. You just won’t find many of them in front of the homes of African Americans; Walker’s support, at times, seems to come entirely from white conservatives.

“I love where he’s come from and what he’s done,” said Sheree Manley, a 52-year-old Black woman sitting in front of her nutritional store in nearby Emanuel county. “But how can he forget where he came from?”

Talk to Black voters in and around Wrightsville and Manley’s complaint is a common refrain: Walker left Wrightsville and never looked back. Talk to white voters, though, and they will laud him for his involvement with the community. There’s the park he helped with, and the youth sports programs he holds in the summer, a white voter says. You mean the park that was built when he graduated high school in 1980 and the one time a few years ago he held a summer sports program, a Black voter will retort.

Walker takes a selfie with a woman during Trump’s ‘Save America’ rally in Commerce, Georgia, on 26 March.
Walker takes a selfie with a woman during Trump’s ‘Save America’ rally in Commerce, Georgia, on 26 March. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

African Americans are hesitant to say anything bad about Walker, but they are certainly not jumping at the chance to praise him. Whites, meanwhile, speak of Walker as the personification of the American Dream: he came from nothing, and now he’s something. Both sides note that he and his family are good, church-going people.

“He’s just a good, Christian guy,” says Kevin Price, owner of a downtown antique store, summing up his support for Walker with one of the two C’s that matter most in places like Johnson county. “He’s conservative,” two men in the barber shop across the street agree is one of Walker’s best attributes.

There is little question that Walker will win the Republican primary on Tuesday – he heads into election day with an almost 60-point lead over his nearest rival – but questions about his actual policies abound. At a rare press gaggle on Thursday, he went straight to immigration when asked by the Guardian what specific policy areas he would focus on as senator, then defended his community involvement in Wrightsville and Johnson county.

“I bet in Wrightsville I’m gonna get 90% of their votes, probably even more,” Walker said, adding that claims that Black voters had questioned his involvement in the community were “a lie”, and eventually pivoting to immigration issues at the border, about 1,300 miles away.

“Other countries have walls around them; it’s OK for us to have a wall,” Walker told the Guardian.

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A self-described “runner” with enough power to run over opponents on the football field and enough grace to go around them, Walker passed up offers from around the country to play for his home state’s University of Georgia Bulldogs. He led the team to a national championship in 1982, taking the sport’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy. A semi-successful NFL career followed, after which came a brief stint in an upstart football league partly owned by Donald Trump, then some time as a mixed martial arts fighter. After leaving sports, Walker became a businessman, running food supply and service industry companies that may not have been as profitable as he has claimed.

Living in Texas in recent years, Walker became an immediate Republican frontrunner when he announced his candidacy last year. Since then, he has held few large events beyond a March rally helmed by Trump, has taken almost no questions from the press other than friendly, far-right news outlets, and has refused to participate in debates with any of his five opponents on Tuesday’s ticket.

Walker and Trump embrace at a ‘Save America’ rally in Perry, Georgia, on 25 September 2021.
Walker and Trump embrace at a ‘Save America’ rally in Perry, Georgia, on 25 September 2021. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Beyond the myriad questions on specific policies, his ability to hold forth in any setting where he might face tough questions, and his questionable claims of business acumen, Walker has faced scrutiny for past claims of domestic violence. His ex-wife has claimed he threatened to kill her multiple times, incidents that Walker and his campaign have said were the result of a mental health condition most commonly known as multiple personality disorder. For voters, TV and radio advertisements tout Walker’s issues as something of a redemption story, and one of relatability for anyone who has struggled with mental health.

Walker sidestepped the issue when pressed by a local reporter on it on Thursday, instead pivoting to an attack on one of his opponents, Gary Black, who has said he won’t vote for Walker until he addresses the allegations of domestic violence that have been levied against him. “God bless Gary,” Walker said with a smile. “I’m going to win and he knows it.”

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Johnson county and its voters are just a small factor in what it will take to push Walker past his primary opponents – almost a statistical given – and his eventual opponent in November, Senator Raphael Warnock. A political newcomer himself, Warnock ran alongside fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff in 2020. With neither candidate gaining more than 51% of the vote, both were forced into a runoff election in January 2021. Ossoff beat the former senator David Perdue – now running for Georgia governor on a Trumpian election denier platform – and Warnock narrowly defeated Trump-backed Kelly Loeffler. Not only did the dual victories result in Georgia’s first Black senator in Warnock and its first Jewish senator in Ossoff, but the wins helped Democrats take control of the Senate.

Already a statewide hero thanks to his performance on the football field during the Bulldogs’ national championship run, Walker has the type of name recognition most politicians could only dream of.

“In the primary, I’m voting for him because he’s Herschel, and because he knows what it’s like to come from a little podunk town,” Loran Powell, who runs Yates Insurance on Wrightsville’s downtown square, said.

Just being Herschel, a devoted Christian and a self-described conservative, will probably be enough for Walker’s chances on Tuesday. But for many African-Americans, Walker’s proximity to Trump will be a problem if and when he faces Warnock, former pastor at Martin Luther King Jr’s Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, in November. Trump has never fared well with Black voters in Georgia and across the country. In 2020, 90% of African Americans voted for Joe Biden, according to one poll.

But the rise of Trump brought back memories of an ugly past, Manley said. Those prone to prejudice and poor treatment of Blacks were “emboldened” by Trump, according to the single mother, a retired corrections officer. Trump is an outright racist, others said.

“I do know Donald Trump, and I don’t think he’s a racist,” Walker told the Guardian last week. “And right now racism has been brought in so much to separate people, which is kind of crazy, because we’re a good country. There’s other countries that are not as good as America. We’re a new country; we’ve come a long ways. I think if you continue to bring racism in, you’re trying to take us back.”

Walker takes the stage at a ‘Save America’ rally in Perry, Georgia, on 25 September 2021.
Walker takes the stage at a ‘Save America’ rally in Perry, Georgia, on 25 September 2021. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/EPA

For Manley and other African Americans, it was Trump that took the country back. “He divided the country, and we already didn’t need somebody to divide it,” she said. “These white supremacists weren’t out like the way they are now, after Trump.”

For Powell, who said he was a Republican but not a “staunch” one, Walker’s chances of becoming just the second Black senator in Georgia history depend on the two great motivators of any election.

“There’s two ways to get somebody to vote for you: make them love you, or make them hate your opponent,” Powell said behind the reception desk of his small insurance business in Wrightsville last week. After Tuesday’s expected win for Walker, the main question will be whether Republicans’ love for him and Trump outweighs Democrats’ appreciation of Warnock – and their animosity toward the former president, according to Powell.

If Walker is to stand a chance in November, he will have to do something other than just be Herschel Walker.

“I don’t know if he can win if he doesn’t come out and say, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I stand for,’” Powell said.

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