A pastor, a football star, and the battle for a key Senate seat

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
GOP Senate candidate and former football star Herschel Walker campaigns in Jasper, Georgia, on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. “In Georgia, there’s God, Jesus, and Herschel Walker,” says one rally attendee.
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The Rev. Raphael Warnock and former football star Herschel Walker both grew up in modest, Christian homes, just over 100 miles apart in Georgia. Both harnessed an unusual drive to achieve success.

Now they’re facing off in one of the most important Senate races in the country. 

Why We Wrote This

Georgia is a growing economic powerhouse that represents, in many ways, America’s multiracial future. Its historic Senate race between two Black men offers contrasting visions, especially on matters of identity and division.

The incumbent Democratic senator and erudite pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Senator Warnock casts his politics as an extension of his ministry, advocating for people who are hungry or imprisoned. He’s seeking to re-create the coalition of Black voters and white progressives who last year propelled his win and gave Democrats control of the Senate.  

Mr. Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner turned businessman who has been endorsed by Donald Trump, advocates dropping identity politics to heal a house divided and focus on national security and prosperity. He’s drawing support mainly from white conservatives. Despite Mr. Walker being outspent and facing a series of scandalous allegations, polls show him in a dead heat with Mr. Warnock. 

In a nation grappling with past and present injustices, these candidates offer starkly different ideas about how best to address America’s inequities and divisions. That makes this face-off between two Black men, in a former Confederate state that recently became majority nonwhite, both historic and a potential harbinger. 

When Raphael Warnock was six years old, his mother discovered him preaching his heart out in his room, huffing and puffing as he tried to imitate the soaring cadences of revival preachers he’d heard at church in Savannah, Georgia.

Some 115 miles inland, a young Herschel Walker was also gasping for breath, sprinting down the railroad tracks near his house as he embarked on a rigorous solo training regime that would transform him and his life.   

Raised in modest, Christian homes, both men harnessed an unusual drive and talent to achieve pinnacles of success – encountering hardship, losses, and racism along the way. Now, they’re facing off in one of the most important Senate races in the country. 

Why We Wrote This

Georgia is a growing economic powerhouse that represents, in many ways, America’s multiracial future. Its historic Senate race between two Black men offers contrasting visions, especially on matters of identity and division.

That’s about where the similarities end. 

Senator Warnock, whose narrow 2021 win unexpectedly flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats, is hoping to once again assemble a winning coalition of Black voters and white progressives who have dramatically shifted Georgia’s politics in recent years. As the senior pastor of the influential Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he returns every weekend, he casts politics in moral terms, as the proving ground for his work in the pulpit. 

Mr. Walker, a former University of Georgia football star endorsed by Donald Trump, has pulled into a dead heat with Mr. Warnock, despite facing a series of damaging personal allegations in the campaign. Most prominently, two women have accused Mr. Walker, who opposes abortion rights, of encouraging them to terminate pregnancies and paying for the procedure – charges he denies. 

The Heisman Trophy winner turned businessman is drawing support mainly from white conservatives, including many evangelical voters who say they are willing to forgive past sins. “In Georgia, there’s God, Jesus, and Herschel Walker – that’s our holy trinity,” says one rally attendee who declined to give his name.      

The outcome could once again determine which party will control the U.S. Senate. Beyond that, the face-off between two Black men, in a former Confederate state that recently became majority nonwhite, is both historic and a harbinger for U.S. politics. At a time when the nation is grappling with past and present injustices, these candidates represent competing sets of values and ideals – and  different ideas about how best to address America’s inequities, divisions, and domestic and foreign policy challenges. 

Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Incumbent Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock takes a selfie with supporters at a Latino voter rally in Atlanta, Oct 19, 2021. His narrow 2021 win flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats.

“Of all the races I’ve watched, this one has captivated my mind,” says Karen Owen, a political scientist at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, who is writing a book about this Georgia Senate race. “It is their story. It is the historical moment they are providing for a state that has not had beautiful days in history, that has struggled to make a change. They are representing the change that we have here.”

A lifelong ministry

The youngest son of two Pentecostal preachers, growing up in public housing, Raphael Warnock loved science. But after a failed fifth-grade attempt to hit the jackpot with a new pesticide, he began focusing on preaching, giving his first public sermon around the same time.

As a high schooler, he would visit the local library and listen to LPs of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, drawn to the idea of getting the church to “pray with its feet” by fighting racial injustice and oppression in society. The young Raphael followed the civil rights icon’s path, attending his alma mater and, at 35, becoming the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church – one of the most influential Black churches in America, where Reverend King, his father, and grandfather once preached. 

Along the way, Reverend Warnock extended his ministry through social activism. He advocated for his brother, a Gulf War veteran and rookie police officer with no previous criminal record who was sentenced to life in prison after being caught in an FBI drug sting, and was released after 22 years. He unsuccessfully tried to stay the execution of another man, convicted of killing a white off-duty police officer, after several witnesses recanted their testimony. Such experiences deepened Reverend Warnock’s resolve to address racial bias in the criminal justice system. 

“In an area like this, people wonder why ministers run for office,” says Erric Michael Bostic, a rural carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Swainsboro, while awaiting Senator Warnock’s arrival for a campaign rally. “I think he’s fitted for it because of his background, not in spite of his background.”

Inside the darkened Swainsboro City Auditorium, the mic goes in and out as Mayor Pro Tem Bobbie Collins introduces the most high-profile Democrat anyone here can remember visiting this city of 7,500. Though Swainsboro’s population is majority Black, chronically low turnout means white Republicans tend to win most of the races here. Local activists persuaded the reverend to come – in part by telling him his opponent, who grew up in nearby Wrightsville, had already visited several times. 

When Senator Warnock takes the podium in jeans, collared shirt, and a down vest, he thanks the crowd for being part of the multiracial “coalition of conscience” that sent him and fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff to the U.S. Senate last year.  

“People didn’t see Georgia coming. But Georgia saved the whole country,” he says to cheers. 

The serious demeanor Reverend Warnock displays when striding through the U.S. Capitol in Washington, where he is one of only three Black senators, is replaced here by a pastoral warmth. 

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Voters at a fish fry in Augusta, Georgia, cheer when Sen. Raphael Warnock mentions enshrining a women's right to choose an abortion, on Oct. 26, 2022. This race, one of the closest in the country, could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.

“We been on this journey for a while now,” he says, adding: “It may feel like we just did this.” The senator was elected in January 2021 to fill out the remaining two years of his predecessor’s term and is now running for a full six-year term. 

As he ticks off some of what Democrats have accomplished with control of the Senate, from providing benefits for veterans who worked near toxic burn pits to reducing the cost of prescription drugs, the audience engages in a kind of call-and-response that feels more church than campaign trail. 

“I wrote the provision–”

“All right!” says the crowd.

“– to cap the cost of prescription drugs [for] seniors,” he says. 

“Yeah, thank you!” the voters respond.

He adds that he also wrote another provision to cap the cost of insulin. The senator’s efforts to expand health care coverage are a strong selling point for Salena Williams, who sometimes attends Reverend Warnock’s church when she’s in Atlanta. 

“I saw the compassion that he had for people,” says Ms. Williams, who was burned in a kitchen grease fire and lost her health benefits when she took a job with greater flexibility to care for her mom. “He’s doing the work, not just talking about it.”

Senator Warnock has raised more money than any other Senate candidate in the country, and has spent $76 million on the race, more than twice what Mr. Walker has spent. Still, Democrats appear worried that the the football star is gaining ground

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was caught on a hot mic telling President Joe Biden, “The state where we’re going downhill is Georgia.”

“It’s hard to believe that they will go for Herschel Walker,” the New York Democrat added. 

Overcoming obstacles

Mr. Walker knows something about people not believing in him. As a child, he endured taunts brought on by both a stutter and chubbiness. 

Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Herschel Walker speaks to supporters on his "United Georgia" campaign bus tour in Carrollton, on Oct. 11, 2022.

“Herschel is a gggirl-schel,” the kids would yell. He was so desperate for friends that when his parents could spare a nickel or dime, he would sometimes offer it to another child on the playground in exchange for a few minutes of conversation, according to his book, “Breaking Free.” Thanks to a strict regime of running and calisthenics, slotted in between school and chores, he went on to become the most highly sought-after high school football player in the country and led Georgia to a national championship. 

A fierce self-reliance led him down unorthodox paths at times – ramming his way through obstacles just as he did on the football field. He insisted his dentist remove his wisdom teeth without anesthesia, refused to lift weights, took ballet, and dropped out of college to play pro football, according to his book. The veracity of some of his claims, however – such as having been valedictorian of his high school class – has been questioned. Neither Johnson County High School nor the local board of education would confirm to the Monitor whether he was valedictorian; a CNN review was only able to determine that he had been an ‘A’ student.

Along the way, Mr. Walker met Donald Trump, who owned the first pro team he played on and became a mentor. The former president’s endorsement last fall allowed Mr. Walker to sail through the GOP primary. 

On the trail, Mr. Walker has maintained an “I’m just a country boy” posture, in contrast to Reverend Warnock, who holds a Ph.D. and leans into his erudition. In the run-up to the candidates’ only debate, the former football star tried to lower expectations, telling reporters: “I’m not that smart,” but adding, “I will do my best.”

He frequently describes himself as a Christian man, starting each rally by acknowledging Jesus Christ as his Lord and accusing Reverend Warnock of cherry-picking from the Bible to justify his politics – including the senator’s support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion. “If you read the Bible more, God said, ‘Choose life,’ ” Mr. Walker said in the debate.

Critics – including Mr. Walker’s own son – have denounced his anti-abortion stance as hypocritical. The campaign has been rocked by allegations from two separate women accusing him of encouraging them to get abortions after getting them pregnant. Both women chose to remain anonymous, but this week one gave an on-camera interview with ABC News. “He was very clear that he did not want me to have the child,” she said. “He said that because of his wife’s family and powerful people around him, that I would not be safe and that the child would not be safe.”

Mr. Walker has flatly denied the allegations. “This was a lie a week ago, and it is a lie today,” he said. Republicans also note that Senator Warnock has been dogged by personal allegations of his own. His ex-wife accused him of running over her foot with his car and, in a police body cam recording obtained by Fox News, calls him a “great actor.”

Still, Mr. Walker has owned up to some past mistakes, including an affair. His ex-wife has said he tried to choke her and once held a gun up to her temple, which he told an interviewer he did not recall. In his memoir, he acknowledges having been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, but in a campaign ad says he has overcome his mental health challenges through God’s grace. 

“He has some problems, and I just hope he has a handle on it, for his own sake,” says John Garner, a white retired mining engineer who lives outside Mr. Walker’s hometown of Wrightsville and has a Herschel sign in his front yard. “But he’s not a man you can count out.” 

The politics of race

Emerging from his campaign bus in Dalton, Georgia, wearing a white polo shirt, Mr. Walker hugs a local GOP chairwoman decked out in knee-high sparkly red boots and then does a few hip circles as if warming up for a game.

On stage he uses humor and everyday metaphors to illustrate where he believes Washington is going wrong. 

“I love to spend someone else’s credit card, don’t you?” he asks, poking fun at Democrats’ spending habits. 

He criticizes his Democratic opponent as a magician for touting his role in securing $400 billion in student debt relief while not addressing where that money will come from.

“He wanted you to look at this hand,” waving above his head, “as he’s stealing from you with this hand,” he adds, motioning near his pant pocket. “Because what he’s doing is raising your taxes. So don’t think he’s giving you anything.”

Some of his biggest applause lines come when he criticizes Democrats’ support for transgender children, athletes, and soldiers. “Iran, Russia, and China aren’t talking about pronouns,” he says. “They’re talking about war.” 

“What he says makes sense. He’s down to earth,” says Shirley Henson, a GOP precinct captain and substitute high school teacher who – like nearly everyone at this rally – is white. She particularly appreciates Mr. Walker’s support for law enforcement and his call to stop the influx across the southwest border of fentanyl – a potent drug that was found in her daughter’s body after she died suddenly.  

An hour east through the mountains in Jasper, Mr. Walker speaks in front of a gun shop to another group of largely white supporters, some of whom have holsters on their hip. Connie, a former Democrat who doesn’t want to give her last name, says she likes what he has to say about inflation and the economy. She isn’t bothered by the various scandals that have hit his campaign, most of which she thinks are lies. 

“I know Herschel had problems in the past,” she says. “But I’m a believer in redemption.”

Part of the calculus for Republicans in this formerly deep-red state is that Mr. Walker can win among white conservatives but also potentially peel off a number of Black voters. Indeed, Corey Bruno, a Black independent voter in Atlanta who is a “huge fan” of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, says he is considering voting for Mr. Walker.

“Warnock is alright,” he shrugs, but raises concerns about having a pastor involved so directly in politics. Mr. Bruno says he knows about the accusations against Mr. Walker, but is intrigued by the idea of sending someone he regards as a folk hero to Washington.

Other Black voters, however, are scornful of what they see as a cynical ploy by the GOP to win their votes. “I don’t care about race, I care about having qualified people in Washington,” says Latasha Glass, a Democrat from Atlanta.

Warnock supporter Shayna Boston, a Black entrepreneur in Swainsboro, says Mr. Walker doesn’t even appear to be trying to reach out to the Black community there. “He’s talking to people that don’t look like us,” she says. 

Mr. Walker rejects identity politics and criticizes his opponent’s focus on race, invoking Dr. King’s hope that people would come to be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Critics say he’s allowing white Republicans to avoid grappling with racial injustice.

It’s a familiar criticism, going back to high school, when he did not stand in solidarity with his Black peers after the white principal made a racially charged comment toward a student, igniting protests. 

“I never really liked the idea that I was to represent my people,” Mr. Walker later wrote about the incident in his book. “My parents raised me to believe that I represented humanity.” 

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the name of the university where Prof. Owen teaches. 

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