In 2020, Georgia switched from Republican to Democratic and became one of the key building blocks of Joe Biden’s presidential victory. In 2022, Republicans are seeking to oust Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who narrowly won a runoff in January 2021 that enabled Democrats to seize Senate control.
Georgia’s primaries will be held on May 24. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, a run-off featuring the top two finishers will be held on June 21.
Warnock has no significant primary challengers and is considered a shoo-in for renomination. Meanwhile, the frontrunner in the GOP primary is former football star and first-time candidate Herschel Walker.
Most Republican officials have coalesced around Walker, including former President Donald Trump, a former owner of Walker’s pro football team who helped convince Walker to run. Crucially, Walker also has the blessing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after some initial reluctance. These endorsements have left other GOP primary candidates struggling.
The other candidates are state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, banking executive and former Navy Seal Latham Saddler, and businessman Kelvin King. “Black is a credible candidate who has won statewide office several times. But he’s not getting traction, much less anyone else in the Republican primary,” said Trey Hood, a University of Georgia political scientist.
The general election, by contrast, is expected to be far more competitive. In recent decades, Georgia has been a solidly Republican state, but growing demographic shifts in and around Atlanta began to boost Democratic candidates in the state over the past two election cycles.
That said, midterm elections are almost always difficult for the party that holds the White House, making Warnock’s reelection bid no better than a toss-up.
“We should anticipate a close race in the general election,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist.
The rhetoric so far, especially in the GOP primary, has focused less on policy and more on personal factors.
Walker’s candidacy relies heavily on his status as a celebrity, particularly among Georgia voters of a certain age. In his freshman year at the University of Georgia, Walker led the Bulldogs to the 1980 national football championship. He earned All-American honors in football and track and field and won the 1982 Heisman Trophy.
At a recent appearance with Trump at a rally in Commerce, Ga., Walker “got a very warm response, with lots of ‘woof woof’ cheers harkening back to his Georgia Bulldog days,” said Tom Baxter, a longtime Georgia political journalist who is currently a columnist with the Saporta Report. Walker “was the biggest University of Georgia star since World War II.”
Walker’s primary opponents aren’t hitting him on policy. Rather, they are focusing on past allegations of domestic violence made between 2001 and 2008. In the run-up to primary day, two groups supporting Walker’s Republican rivals are planning to spend millions of dollars in ads attacking Walker, Politico reported.
One hard-hitting ad sponsored by Black’s campaign was already posted to YouTube on March 16, along with a companion website that includes footnotes and links to police reports, court records and news articles.
“He threatened to kill women. He threatened to kill cops. After the violence, the abuse, the stalking, the death threats, Herschel Walker still has not been forthright with the people of Georgia, not about his violent behavior or the threats he has made against women and police,” the narrator in the ad says.
We have analyzed the ad’s claims, concluding that they are supported by police reports and court records. However, we also noted that Walker was never arrested or charged with a crime. Meanwhile, Walker wrote in a 2008 book that he had dissociative identity disorder, a mental disorder. His campaign said he has received treatment and apologized for his actions.
If he becomes the Republican nominee, Walker’s personal history could offer Democrats material to use against him. However, such attacks could pose risks, experts say.
“This information could punch holes in Walker’s armor, in a way that turns off moderates and independent voters,” Gillespie said. But in making these charges, Democrats “have to be careful,” she said. “Because it involves mental illness, it could be weaponized poorly and inspire a backlash.”
Separately, Walker has taken heat for his post-football record in business, which according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has included “a string of defaults, settlements and lawsuits alleging that Walker and his businesses owed millions of dollars in unpaid loans.” He’s faced questions about the academic credentials he’s claimed, including saying that he graduated in the top 1% of his class from the University of Georgia when he did not graduate from the university at all. And rivals have noted that Walker has lived out of state for much of his adult life.
Though most of the public attention in the race so far has focused on the Republican primary, some of Warnock’s personal issues have received notice as well.
Warnock’s ex-wife, Ouluye Ndoye, is seeking changes to their child custody arrangement, accusing the senator of being in “willful contempt” of an existing agreement. This is the latest chapter in their troubled relationship; in a March 2020 incident, which was publicized during his initial Senate run, Ndoye told the police that Warnock ran over her foot with his car during an argument. Warnock was not charged and has said the allegations “didn’t happen.”
If the general election turns out to put Walker against Warnock, the incumbent is expected to lean heavily on his rhetorical polish as a pastor, especially against a candidate who only recently entered electoral politics.
This contrast “could spell the difference between winning and losing,” Gillespie said. “It’s been a career requirement for Warnock to speak publicly at least once a week.”
PolitiFact plans to fact-check candidates for U.S. Senate in key states. We have so far assembled primers on the Ohio and Pennsylvania senate races. If you spot a claim in an ad, speech, debate or on social media that you think may warrant a fact-check, email us at [email protected]
The major candidates
Raphael Warnock: Campaign website
Biography: Warnock grew up in public housing in Savannah, Ga., the 11th of 12 children. Warnock received low-interest student loans and grants to attend Morehouse College, a historically Black school that Martin Luther King had attended. Warnock went on to earn a divinity degree and a Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary. He embarked on a career as a minister, eventually serving as senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King had been a member of the clergy. In the Senate, Warnock serves on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee; the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Core policies: Warnock has largely offered a positive message so far. “He’s been up a ton on Atlanta TV, with what you might call a ‘pastoral’ message,” Baxter said. “‘People are hurting,’ he says in one ad.”
Warnock’s list of issues mirrors those of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, calling climate change “a moral issue,” saying he’s a “proud ally of the LGBTQ+ community,” favoring an expansion of affordable access to health care such as a public option, and backing “reproductive justice for women.” Warnock is walking a fine line on criminal justice, supporting policies that curb disproportionate incarceration for racial minorities while “responsibly” funding the police. He has made voting rights a priority as well.
Warnock’s status as an incumbent has enabled him to tout some granular accomplishments as a senator, including securing nearly $260 million in funding for historically Black colleges and universities and $1.3 million for two health care centers in Macon-Bibb County, both included in Biden’s pandemic and economic recovery bill, the American Rescue Plan; and a $2 million federal grant for road and infrastructure improvements to create a new Inland Port in Hall County. He also has a special section on his website for bipartisan efforts, citing his work with Republican Sens. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, Mike Braun of Indiana, Ted Cruz of Texas, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Tim Scott of South Carolina on such issues as helping peanut farmers, railroad workers, children facing threats from lead poisoning, and historically Black colleges and universities.
Key backers: Essentially every Democratic official and progressive interest group who has made an endorsement in the race.
Herschel Walker: campaign website
Biography: Walker was raised in Wrightsville, Ga. As a high-schooler, he led his football and track teams to state championships. At the University of Georgia, he set 10 NCAA records before giving up his final year of eligibility to turn pro. He signed with the Trump-owned New Jersey Generals in the now-defunct U.S. Football League, and later played for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants. He also broke a world record in the 60-yard dash, represented the United States in the 1992 Winter Olympics in bobsledding, earned a fifth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and participated in mixed martial arts fighting. During Trump’s tenure in the White House, he named Walker chair of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition. Walker has been affiliated with a number of businesses, including in the food-supply sector. He wrote a memoir chronicling his battle with dissociative identity disorder.
Core policies: Walker’s campaign website emphasizes that he is “not a politician.” He urges making America energy independent; lowering taxes; easing regulations on businesses; and toughening immigration policy. “Crime is out of control in many of our major cities, including Atlanta, because politicians have demoralized, defunded, and undermined the good men and women in uniform who risk their lives every day so that we can be safe,” Walker says on his website.
Key backers: Walker has the support of many Republicans, including Trump, McConnell, a dozen other senators, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Fox News host Sean Hannity, and evangelist Franklin Graham.
Gary Black: campaign website
Biography: Black is currently Georgia’s secretary of agriculture, a statewide position he’s been elected to three times. Black began his career with the Georgia Farm Bureau and later spent 21 years as president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council. He’s a cattle farmer and received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education from the University of Georgia.
Core policies: Black’s policy agenda overlaps with Walker’s and the current Republican Party’s. He says “life begins at conception, period” and supports gun rights, tougher border policies and local control of education. Citing his background in agriculture, he pledges to protect farmers “from crushing regulations.” Black’s website criticizes “cancel culture,” the “defund the police” movement, and calls critical race theory “pure propaganda.” On foreign policy, he says “we must check China’s influence on every corner of the globe.” And on election administration, he takes a specific shot at Warnock and Democrats for wanting to “nationalize our elections.” “I’ll work to make our elections more secure, standing against any blue wave that tries to erode voter ID laws,” his website says.
Key backers: Former Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal; Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.; Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., and former Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.
Our fact checks
Herschel Walker: The presence of apes calls into question the concept of evolution. (False)
Sorting out the police reports highlighted in an ad attacking US Senate candidate Herschel Walker
CORRECTION, April 8, 2022: This version corrects the affiliation of Andra Gillespie, who is a political scientist at Emory University.