In Georgia, a Heated Senate Race Stirs Mixed Emotions in Black Voters
"The contest might have been a showcase of Black political power in the Deep South. But many Black voters say Herschel Walker’s turbulent campaign has marred the moment.
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ATLANTA — The line of voters circled around the East Point Library on a recent Thursday evening, giving Dacia Davis, a 45-year-old human resources coordinator braced against the chill, plenty of time to contemplate the historic significance of the ballot waiting for her inside.
Two African American men — Herschel Walker, a Republican, and Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent — are vying for a Senate seat in the Deep South, in a runoff contest, a process designed decades ago to thwart Black candidates. The winner in Tuesday’s election will serve in an institution that has been overwhelmingly white throughout its history: Nearly 2,000 people have served in the U.S. Senate, and only 11 of them have been Black.
But a race that may seem like a triumph for Black political power has stirred a complicated mix of emotions for Ms. Davis and many other Black Georgians. Mr. Walker’s troubled candidacy has clouded their pride with suspicions, dismay, offense and even embarrassment.
In conversations with more than two dozen Black voters across Georgia, many said they did not see Mr. Walker, who has taken a conciliatory approach to matters of race, as representing the interests of Black people. Far more than a victory for racial representation, they cast the election in terms of now-familiar political stakes: a chance to keep a Republican backed by Donald Trump from gaining power and working to reverse policies they care about.
“It is a very historic moment,” said Ms. Davis, a supporter of Mr. Warnock. “But it is sort of like a bittersweet moment.” Sure, two Black men are running for Senate, she added, but many Black voters disagree with how Mr. Walker “views the nation and also other African American people.”
Polls suggest Ms. Davis’s views are widely held. A CNN poll released on Friday found Mr. Walker winning just 3 percent of Black voters, who make up about one-third of Georgia’s electorate. That is less support than Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, won when he defeated Stacey Abrams in the governor’s race last month, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of Georgia voters.
Those numbers do not spell the end of Mr. Walker’s bid. Mr. Warnock led Mr. Walker only narrowly among all voters in the CNN survey. A strong turnout among white Republicans across the state could lift Mr. Walker to victory.
Still, Republicans had hoped Mr. Walker would make inroads with Black Georgians. Encouraged by signs that Black voters, particularly Black men, have been softening to Republican messages in recent years, the party has made attempts to speak more directly to Black voters and recruit Black candidates. Mr. Walker looked to some like the best possible shot of taking back a seat Mr. Warnock won in a stunning Democratic surge just two years ago.
It became a matchup layered with meaning: Mr. Walker and Mr. Warnock both earned acclaim by succeeding in fields central to Southern Black culture. They represent what were, for the longest time, two of the few paths for Black men to gain social status and financial security in America: religion and athletics. Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon.
Senator Warnock is the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, preaching from the same pulpit Martin Luther King Jr. once occupied.
In the 1980s, Mr. Walker led the University of Georgia football team to a national championship and won the Heisman Trophy before embarking on a professional football career.
But skepticism of Mr. Walker — and the motives of those, including Mr. Trump, who backed his bid — seemed to override the power of football fandom, even in Georgia.
Timothy Woodson, a 69-year-old veteran and financial manager in Columbus, Ga., a city west of Atlanta near the Alabama border, was among those who were quick to praise Mr. Walker as a player, recounting Mr. Walker’s prowess on the field.
But as Mr. Woodson, a Democrat, stood on the front steps of his home in his majority Black, middle-class neighborhood, he said he saw Mr. Walker’s candidacy as a political ploy engineered by Mr. Trump in an attempt to win Black voters.
“I saw through all the politics,” he said. “I know why Herschel was picked. And I know who picked him, and I’m not with that.”
“Insulting” was the word Deron Simmons, a 44-year-old social worker, used as he left a polling center in College Park, a suburb just outside Atlanta.
“As a man, he is who he is, like everybody has their issues — mental health issues, life circumstances — I am not going to call him an embarrassment,” said Mr. Simmons, an independent who has voted for both Republicans and Democrats. “But he’s definitely not someone who should be representing, in the political field, my vote or anybody else’s vote.”
Mr. Walker has repeatedly been hit with damaging news reports about past accusations of domestic violence and erratic behavior tied to a history of mental illness. He was found to have exaggerated his business acumen and fabricated his past as a law enforcement officer. Two former girlfriends said he had urged them to end pregnancies even though he supports a ban on abortion. (He denied both claims.) After news reports, he acknowledged children that he fathered out of wedlock and had not mentioned during the campaign.
On Thursday, a woman said that in 2005, Mr. Walker had put his hands on her throat and chest and had swung his fist at her as she ducked out of the way after she had caught him with another woman. The Walker campaign did not comment on the claim.
For many of his Black supporters, Mr. Walker’s history represents an appealing story of redemption. They frequently mention his Christian beliefs and his rise to fame from small-town Georgia. They are more likely to refer to the history being made. Georgia has never had two Black major-party nominees compete for the Senate, according to Charles S. Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.
(Georgia’s runoff rule, requiring another election when no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, was created in the 1960s to keep Black politicians from winning in crowded races.)
Vivian Childs, 70, a minister and a Republican who ran for a House seat in a largely rural district in southwestern Georgia, said she thought Mr. Walker’s bid challenged everyone who had ever told her that the color of her skin limited her opportunities.
“This race right here proves it,” she said. “You have two Black men running for one of the highest seats in office — don’t dare let anyone tell you that where you are today is where you are going to land tomorrow.”
Vanessa Torres, 36, an Atlanta business manager who voted for Mr. Walker, said she believed Mr. Walker had been discriminated against because of his history of mental health issues. But Mr. Walker overcame them, she added.
“That says a lot to me — it says that you can come back from anything,” she said after she had cast her ballot at a library in suburban Atlanta.
Both candidates have at some point in their campaigns tailored their messaging to Black voters. Mr. Warnock has directly reached out to Black communities, underlining his ties to them. Mr. Walker has aimed to downplay the role of race in American life, often saying to his crowds of mostly white supporters, “We’re all mutts.”
Neither Mr. Walker’s nor Mr. Warnock’s campaigns provided comment for this article.
Mr. Walker has made the argument that Mr. Warnock is a “slick” preacher, a hypocrite who preaches grace and forgiveness but refuses to extend it to his political opponents. The Walker campaign frequently highlights Mr. Warnock’s custody dispute with his ex-wife.
Watching two prominent Black men air personal attacks under a national spotlight has been difficult for some Black Georgians, mindful that racial and ethnic groups are often judged by their most prominent members, and negative images could reflect poorly on the whole.
“We’ve come too far for us to be fighting in public,” said Roselyn Duncan, 60, a Brooklyn native who moved to Georgia in 2004. “You keep certain things at home. You fight behind closed doors.”
It was particularly difficult to watch one contentious stretch of the campaign, as accusations of absentee parenting dominated headlines and elevated a host of negative stereotypes about Black men and fatherhood, said Fred Hicks, who runs Black Men Decide, a nonpartisan group in Atlanta that aims to increase political involvement among Black men.
“It hit us hard, right,” Mr. Hicks said. “I think every Black man who was handling his business and involved with his kids felt a little bit of shame.”
The race has prompted other sensitive conversations about class, religion and education in Black communities that have changed rapidly amid Georgia’s population growth. Mr. Warnock, though raised in public housing, now carries the markers of Atlanta’s Black elite: a degree from Morehouse College, a private, historically Black college, and membership in Alpha Phi Alpha, an exclusive Black fraternity. His oratorical skills have been refined over years of sermons at Ebenezer.
Mr. Walker did not graduate from college; he left early to pursue professional football. He made millions as a player before retiring and parlaying his celebrity into ownership of a food-distribution company.
Mr. Walker has endured harsh criticism for his freewheeling campaign style. His sentences often take a circuitous route before reaching an endpoint, sometimes baffling audiences. He has waxed poetic about the relative merits of werewolves versus vampires. His thick, rural Georgia accent can be difficult for transplants to decipher.
Kimberlyn Carter, a Democratic operative in Georgia, said she often felt that debates about the race were tinged with classism that could backfire against her party.
“We want to be careful about making sure that in some of our conversations, that we’re not leaning into a type of Black elitism that says that a person who holds degrees is better than a person who’s maybe held a football,” she said.
For many Black voters, bread-and-butter policy issues outweighed all the complicated subtext. They did not believe Mr. Walker would protect their interests.
Geneva McKelvey, 65, voted for Mr. Warnock on Monday at the Columbus municipal center, across the street from the library where she works. She said health care policies for seniors and education were two issues that mattered most to her. She wanted to see Georgia’s next senator do more to reduce crime rates in cities like Columbus, by offering more programs for young Black people.
Waple Griffin, 61, a clinician at the Fulton County Board of Education in Atlanta, said she was tired of Republicans’ campaigning on crime in what she saw as an attempt to split Black and Hispanic voters.
“We need to come together and make it right for everybody,” said Ms. Griffin, an independent.
She said she had voted for Mr. Warnock because he had experience working with Republicans.
Despite Mr. Walker’s challenges, some voters still feel pride in watching two Black candidates compete for such a lofty office.
As he waited, Ladell Fortune, 42, a music teacher, was thumbing through sheet music for “A Joyous Carol of the Bells.” His class had a Christmas concert coming up.
It was his second time attempting to vote while facing long lines, he said, but that had not deterred him from participating.
“It is definitely historic and something that my eyes have never seen in my lifetime,” he said of the race. “It’s a proud moment to be able to stand in the cold knowing the sacrifices that were made by my people, so that I could have this opportunity.”