Dec 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Herschel Walker ups anti-transgender athlete messaging in the runoff

Herschel Walker (second from left) arrives at a campaign event in McDonough, Ga. alongside former swimmer Riley Gaines (left). Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Republican Herschel Walker’s closing argument against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) before the Dec. 6 runoff includes amplifying the GOP's attacks on transgender athletes.

Driving the news: While Warnock's closing message targets Walker's "character and competence" and split-ticket voters, one of Walker's final ads features former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gaines — an advocate for "fairness in women's sports" who has campaigned with Walker repeatedly.

Between the lines: A Walker campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity tells Axios the focus on the issue is due to its perceived ability to motivate GOP base and center or right-of-center voters who are unsure of or opposed to transgender athletes.

  • Republican strategists tell Axios that Walker's background as a former star athlete also gives him credibility on the issue after personal controversies and lack of political experience have hurt his reputation.

Be smart: Walker needs more moderate voters to beat Warnock in a runoff after falling 200,000 votes behind Gov. Brian Kemp in November.

Catch up quick: Walker has regularly raised the issue on the campaign trail throughout the year and broadly criticized Warnock for a voting record aligned with President Biden.

  • "His message is the same, and he hasn't changed. He's the same person, and so why would you change your message?" Georgia RNC committeewoman Ginger Howard told Axios.

What he's saying: "Men should not be in women's sports," Walker said at a recent McDonough, Ga. campaign stop with Gaines. "That's like asking me to compete against your daughter. You don't want that," he said to laughter and applause.

  • Walker also often criticizes Warnock regarding nonbinary gender identity and pronoun usage: "The definition of a woman is written in my Bible, and it says: man and woman," he added.
  • "I don't even know what a pronoun is. I'm sick and tired of this pronoun stuff," he said this week in Dalton, Ga.

The intrigue: "You want to energize your base in a runoff because you've got to start by assuming it's a 'base versus base' election. But it's also one of those issues where the middle thinks that the left is crazy," said Republican Georgia strategist Brian Robinson about why the campaign is emphasizing the issue.

Yes, but: Kemp hardly mentioned the subject after the primary. Tammy Greer, a political scientist at Clark Atlanta University, told Axios it is confusing why Walker would veer from Kemp’s playbook.

  • "Kemp said it's all about economics. You know that that's a win. So why are we moving away from the win?" she said.

The big picture: Targeting transgender athletes is a national Republican trend, and LGBTQ rights advocates say that the rhetoric is having widespread consequences for the safety and well-being of trans people — even as the issue is largely manufactured, given relatively low numbers of trans youth participating in organized sports.

  • Nearly 20 states including Georgia have passed legislation restricting trans athletes from sports that match their gender identities.

Reality check: Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, tells Axios the debate is driven by "misinformation." He knows of one transgender athlete who attends a private Georgia high school and pointed out that athletic regulation generally happens locally or with regulatory bodies like the NCAA.

  • "It's rhetoric and not really an issue. But just by the way [Walker is] characterizing it, it does harm to young people," he said.

By the numbers: 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth — and nearly two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth — said debates about anti-trans laws have negatively affected their mental health, according to a recent poll conducted on behalf of The Trevor Project.

  • The nonprofit's research found more than two-thirds of LGBTQ young people have never participated in school sports, citing fear of bullying and discrimination.
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