The winner of Tuesday’s midterm election runoff for one of Georgia’s two seats in the US Senate will make history.
Raphael Warnock became the first Black senator from Georgia when he won the 2020 presidential election runoff that helped tip the upper chamber into Democratic control, boosting the party in its capture of the House, the Senate and the White House.
Now, as Georgia heads for the last day of voting in the latest runoff, Warnock hopes to add another distinction – winning a full six-year term in the Senate.
Standing in the way is another Black man, Republican challenger Herschel Walker. And whoever wins will be the first Black person elected from Georgia to a full Senate term.
Black voters there say the choice is stark: Warnock, the senior minister of Martin Luther King’s Atlanta church, echoes traditional liberal notions of the Black experience; and Walker, a University of Georgia football icon, speaks the language of white cultural conservatism and mocks Warnock’s interpretations of King, among other matters.
“Republicans seem to have thought they could put up Herschel Walker and confuse Black folks,” said Bryce Berry, president of Georgia’s Young Democrats chapter and a senior at Morehouse College, a historically Black campus from which both King and Warnock graduated.
Standing beneath a campus statue of King, Berry continued: “We are not confused.”
Other Black voters raised questions about Walker’s past – his false claims about his business and professional accomplishments, violence against his ex-wife, reports alleging that he paid for women to have abortions while now campaigning to ban the procedure – and the way he stumbles over some public policy discussions as a candidate.
Some said they believe GOP leaders are taking advantage of Walker’s fame as a football star.
“How can you let yourself be used that way as a Black person?” asked Angela Heard, a state employee from Jonesboro. “I think you should be better in touch with your people instead of being a crony for someone.”
Even some Black conservatives who back Walker lament his candidacy as a missed opportunity to expand Republicans’ reach to a key part of the electorate that remains overwhelmingly Democratic.
“I don’t think Herschel Walker has enough relatable life experience to the average Black American for them to identify with him,” said Avion Abreu, a 34-year-old realtor who lives in Marietta and has supported Walker since the GOP primary campaign.
Warnock narrowly led Walker in the November general election, but neither crossed the 50% threshold, sending the race to a runoff on 6 December.
AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,200 voters in the state, showed that Warnock won 90% of Black voters. Walker, meanwhile, won 68% of white voters.
VoteCast data in the runoff from the 2020 election, which took place in early January 2021, suggested that Black voters helped fuel Warnock’s victory over then Senator Kelly Loeffler, comprising almost a third of that electorate, slightly more than the Black share of the 2020 general electorate.
The senator’s campaign has said since then that he would have to assemble a multiracial coalition, including many moderate white voters, to win re-election in a midterm election year. But it has not disputed that a strong Black turnout would be necessary regardless.
The Republican National Committee has answered with its own uptick in Black voter outreach, opening community centers in several heavily Black areas of the state.
Walker and Warnock share their stories as Black men quite differently.
Warnock doesn’t often use phrases like “the Black church” or “the Black experience”, but infuses those institutions and ideas into his arguments.
The senator sometimes notes that others “like to introduce me and say I’m the first Black senator from Georgia.” He says Georgia voters “did an amazing thing” in 2021 but adds that it’s more about the policy results from a Democratic Senate.
Born in 1969, he calls himself a “son of the civil rights movement” and talks about how policy affects Black Georgians. Walker, alternately, often uses humor to talk about his race to his audiences on the campaign trail that are often nearly all-white, with jovial lines such as: “You may have noticed I’m Black.”
He then goes on to undermine discussions on race and racism and recast Warnock’s messaging.
“My opponent says America ought to apologize for its whiteness,” Walker says in most campaign speeches, a claim based on some of Warnock’s sermons referencing institutional racism.
Doyal Siddell, a 66-year-old Black retiree from Douglasville, said Walker’s pitch is disconnected from many Black voters. “Just because you’re from the community doesn’t mean you understand the community,” he said.
At Morehouse, Berry said Walker could find some Black conservatives and nonpartisans but “has not even been to our campus”.
He added: “He’s not running a campaign that suggests he wants to represent all Georgians.”