STATESBORO, Georgia — When Georgia Senate candidate Gary Black stopped by for an event at the Bulloch County GOP office on Wednesday, he convinced 100% of voters there to drop their support for Herschel Walker and support him instead.
Unfortunately for Black, 100 percent of the voters there that weekday afternoon consisted of Chuck Chatraw, a retiree wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” t-shirt.
Chatraw showed up at the party office to hear from Black, but had expected he would vote in the May 24 primary for Walker, the Georgia soccer legend becoming a Georgia Senate candidate with the enthusiastic backing of Donald Trump.
Black’s tone changed his mind, however. He delivered a clinical case against Walker, shredding him for everything from his recent move to Georgia from Texas, to his absence from the campaign trail, to detailing the serious allegations of violence and abuse he several women have filed against him, recorded in legal documents.
Black concluded with a stern warning: If Republicans give Walker a pass on that record, Democrats won’t — and poll-holder Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) could very well “come back.” straight to Washington for six more years.
When Black left, Chatraw was sold.
“I wish people knew what his background is,” he said of Walker. He also noted that many of his friends were still supportive of Walker – and how he feared they would find out about his record “too late”.
The scene that unfolded here, just weeks before the primary, was a distillation of the larger problem facing all the GOP candidates aimed at preventing Walker from doing what every poll shows him: run away with party nomination.
Walker’s GOP rivals are betting voters won’t really like Herschel Walker once they get to know him – after the version they saw in the early 1980s leading the backfield of the University of Georgia. And they’re sounding the alarm now, before Democrats pour tens of millions of dollars into attacks that just one GOP candidate is currently waging.
If they can just reach enough Republican voters, these candidates are confident they can convince them that Walker is an unqualified candidate, building on his heroic reputation in the state, who will lose a general election showdown with Warnock.
The problem for them is actually reaching enough primary voters to undercut the benefits of Walker’s near-universal name recognition, decades of adoration as a football hero, his close association with Trump, and his massive campaign.
If that sounds like a difficult task, it is.
Walker’s challengers don’t need to overtake him. They only have to drop it below 50% of the vote in the May election to force a runoff with the second in June.
But no public poll has shown Walker falling below that threshold. Although its numbers have decreased, it is still in a strong position. There aren’t many Georgia Republican insiders who are confident that Walker will be nearly 50% down, even as more questionable aspects of his record continue to emerge, such as his dishonesty on his business record.
“You can’t underestimate the extent to which most Georgians consider Herschel somewhere between a beloved family member and a saint,” said a Republican agent from Georgia. “These attacks just don’t land on Herschel like they do on a typical politician because we feel like we know him and he’s one of us.”
The question of how to stop Walker — and whether that means trying to get primary voters to care about his past — is contentious among his GOP rivals. And how they handle it can reverberate far beyond the primary.
Warnock, fresh off his 2020 win, is raising historic sums of money and already using it to build his brand by funding TV ads across the state. But facing a brutal domestic midterm environment in 2022, Democrats need every possible break in Georgia, a sharply divided state that has hosted some of the nation’s most intense campaigns in recent years.
One of the few bright spots for Democrats has been GOP infighting and the willingness of some Republicans to shout Walker’s most explosive weaknesses from the rooftops.
Black, a seasoned Republican politician serving as the state’s agriculture commissioner, is outspoken in his belief that the only way to defeat Walker and, in his opinion, preserve the GOP’s chances in November, is to become nuclear.
His campaign has set up a website – called the “Real Herschel” – that’s the entire kitchen sink of opposition research on Walker. He once cut a commercial, which he said elicited audible gasps from people who saw it, mercilessly bashing Walker over his domestic abuse allegations. With few changes, Democrats could run in the general election.
Black said he’s been a “huge fan” of Walker since his days at the University of Georgia. “But it’s not a game,” Black said in an interview. “The future of the country, conservative control of the US Senate, is no joke. But they treat it like a joke.
The other primary candidates were happy to let Black play hitman, focusing their pitches on less controversial ground.
Latham Saddler, a former Trump administration official and Navy SEAL, said he decided from day one not to attack Walker for his personal conduct.
Instead, Saddler plans to spend his money — he raised nearly $4 million last year — on TV ads featuring and pursuing Walker’s absence from the campaign trail, which he has called the “Biden basement strategy.”
“I don’t focus on his past,” Saddler said of Walker. “I focus on what he does and doesn’t do now.”
Kelvin King, a businessman and Air Force veteran in the race, issued an almost identical note.
“I don’t focus so much on Mr. Walker’s past, but I focus on his present and the future of Georgia,” he said in an interview after a campaign forum in Statesboro on Wednesday night. (He and Black were the only candidates present.)
Walker’s camp, meanwhile, dismissed their rivals’ strategies as hopeless ploys by candidates with no chance of victory.
Mallory Blount, spokesperson for Walker, said “Black’s campaign is completely lifeless, which is why he has no choice but to focus obsessively on Herschel.”
“Herschel Walker is the only candidate capable of uniting the party and defeating Raphael Warnock in November,” Blount said. “Herschel leads the Republican primary in both fundraising and polling. He will be the next US senator from Georgia.
Walker, who has long been close to the Trump family, entered the Senate race in August after much public cajoling from the former president. He instantly became a leader and fundraising powerhouse, bringing in $5.4 million in the last three months of 2021 alone.
While his rivals crisscrossed the state staging events – King says he did 300 – Walker was a rare presence on the campaign trail, preferring Fox News hits to local press interviews and events private rather than public events.
Still, most public polls in the primary showed Walker sizable advantages over his rivals, even as his share of support slipped from the exorbitant margins he enjoyed near the start of the race.
An April survey from Emerson College found Walker leading the pack by a huge margin. But with 57% support, he was just outside the poll’s margin of error from the all-important 50% threshold to avoid a runoff. Blacks were a distant second with 13%.
Among grassroots Republicans, affection for Walker runs high, and not just because he is perhaps the holiest figure in the state’s unofficial college football religion.
Brant Kennedy, a cabinet minister, had stopped in the small eastern Georgia town of Sandersville to see Gov. Brian Kemp, one of Trump’s top public enemies, during a campaign stop on Thursday . He said he supports Walker “100%” and believes he is the only candidate capable of beating Warnock.
“Gary Black is a good guy,” Kennedy said, “but he can’t win.”
There is not a small amount of disbelief in the rest of the GOP primary field that Walker is seen as the candidate who can winning, not just by grassroots voters, but also by figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who blessed his campaign.
In an interview during his stopover in Statesboro, Black reviewed the top Republicans in Washington who enthusiastically backed Walker, despite his baggage.
“You would think they did their homework first,” Black said. “I would like them to work on solving the border crisis and inflation and get rid of Georgian politics. I know how to win a race here.
Saddler, who notes he’s a Georgia Bulldog “through and through,” said Walker’s position is a reflection of fame and nothing else.
“These are incredibly serious times for the country, and celebrities won’t get us out of this mess,” Saddler said. “We have to do the job ourselves, and it’s going to take serious leaders to do it.”
Each candidate gives a version of this pitch, and they insist that when they give it to voters who weren’t tuned into the race — or who were Walker supporters — they become enthusiastic converts. who carry placards with them.
In a way, Walker’s rivals trust a GOP electorate that may no longer exist. Everyone recognizes the powerful role of stardom in making him the front-runner in the primary, but his critics treat stardom as if it were a liability in the party that made Donald Trump its two-time nominee.
“Coming back from Texas and expecting to get a seat in the United States Senate because you’re a celebrity — when I shine the spotlight on that, voters disagree,” Saddler said.
In an earlier version of the GOP, Saddler (a national security expert) and Black (a statewide official who can talk on the spot about the intricacies of the pecan trade) might be the top recruits. level to represent that state.
In this election, however, their best-case scenario is a runoff with a Trump-backed soccer star who hadn’t voted in an election or lived in Georgia until 2020. It’s easy to see how this state of affairs could frustrate high-achievers who find themselves also-rans over a candidate who is, in effect, a roll of the dice for the GOP.
It could. But they have no choice but to smile and bear it.
“It never frustrates me to talk to people, spread my message and share my results,” said King, who, like Walker, has his own inspiring story of success as a black man in America.
“So,” King said, “in our formula, that’s a win.”