Sep 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Two Black Georgia Senate rivals; two takes on racism

Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker
Sen. Raphael Warnock (left) and Herschel Walker. Photos: Anna Moneymaker; James Gilbert via Getty Images

In what's still a U.S. rarity — a statewide general election between two Black nominees — Georgia's Republican Senate hopeful Herschel Walker is accusing Democrats, and incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, of using racism "to divide us."

Why it matters: In a neck-and-neck race for a seat that could decide control of the Senate, every vote matters. Walker's strategy may be an appeal to white voters as much as — or more than — voters of color.

Driving the news: "Sen. Warnock believes America is a bad country full of racist people; I believe we’re a great country full of generous people," Walker declares in his latest ad.

  • Walker sought to turn the tables on Warnock on Twitter last week, with a reference to a famous line in the "I've been to the mountaintop" speech that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on the eve of his 1968 assassination.
  • Walker told Warnock "straighten your back — because Joe Biden is riding your back." Remember: In addition to his role as U.S. senator, Warnock is senior pastor at MLK's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Catch up quick: Walker has said that he's "dealt with racism almost my whole life." But in an April interview with Axios, he recalled that his parents "taught me when I was a little boy, there's no color in right and wrong."

  • Walker has spoken about how, four decades ago, during a time of racial unrest in his hometown in which the budding football star was urged to join civil rights protests, he ultimately decided not to engage.

The other side: Warnock has a long record of speaking openly about racism from his pulpit. But it’s more nuanced than Walker’s ad suggests.

  • In a 2018 speech on the 50th anniversary of King’s death, he compared the civil rights icon's lifelong campaign against racism to the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Warnock said of “the old sin” of racism: “We don’t like to talk about it in America. But you can’t heal a disease without a diagnosis. Without a diagnosis, there’s no prescription." Still, he urged: "Don’t give up on America."

Between the lines: Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who specializes in political mobilization and race, said Walker's new ad doesn't appear to be geared toward Black voters.

  • “If he hopes to over-perform the typical Republican candidate in the state amongst Black voters, this isn't the ad to do it," she told Axios. "Because most Blacks acknowledge racism, both structural and interpersonal."
  • Instead, the message appears to be geared toward white voters, she said — specifically to “independents who are fatigued about talking about race.” Its effectiveness, Gillespie said, remains unclear ahead of the election.
  • Partisanship aside, Gillespie said wins by Black politicians — from Warnock to Republican Sen. Tim Scott in South Carolina — point to change in the American South. “It's heartening to see that in states where 30% of the population is Black, that Black senators get elected," she said.
  • “The days are gone where you could just unilaterally assume that a Black candidate couldn’t win anything statewide," she said. "But race is still an element, and we have to talk about it."

The intrigue: A recent Emerson College poll showed Walker winning 25% of the Black vote, more than double former President Trump’s 11% vote share in 2020. But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in July pegged Walker's share of the Black vote at 9%, and a Survey USA poll around the same time placed it at 5%.

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