WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — Ads featuring the contestants’ ex-wives. Screams of the “liar” flying in both directions. Stories about a run-down apartment building and abortions under pressure. Questioning an opponent’s independence. his intellect. His mental stability. his religious beliefs.
The extended Georgia Senate campaign between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, soccer legend Herschel Walker, is growing bitter as their Dec. 6 runoff draws nearer. With Democrats already assured of a Senate majority, this is a striking contrast to two years ago, when the state’s two runoff elections focused primarily on which party would control the Washington chamber.
“Herschel Walker is not serious,” Warnock recently told supporters in central Georgia, saying that Walker “specializes in lies” and fiddles with the fundamentals of public policy. “But the election is very serious. Don’t confuse these two things.”
Walker calls Warnock, the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, a “hypocrite” and subservient to President Joe Biden. Walker underscores the insult by calling the incumbent “Scooby-Doo,” complete with an impression of the cartoon dog’s gibberish.
The broadsides reflect furious pressure from candidates in the four weeks between the November 8 general election and the runoff to persuade their core supporters to cast another ballot. For Walker, it also means attracting more independents and moderates to his campaign after beating another Republican, Gov. Brian Kemp, by 200,000 votes.
Warnock led Walker by 37,000 votes out of nearly 4 million votes cast in the first round, but the senator missed the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
In many ways, the move from his first runoff is exactly what Warnock wanted: a direct election between two candidates. Two years ago, then-President Donald Trump, fresh from his defeat, and then-President-elect Biden made several trips to Georgia for the national stakes of the races between Warnock and Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler and between Democrat Jon Ossoff and the Republican illuminate Senator David Perdue as control of the Senate hung in the balance.
Trump eventually angered his own supporters and many moderates with his false claims of a rigged presidential election in 2020. Warnock and Ossoff’s victories resulted in a 50-50 split in the Senate, with Democrats winning thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tied vote gained control. Warnock also became Georgia’s first black Senator.
This year, as Warnock is vying for a full six-year term after winning the 2021 special election, Democrats have already guaranteed control of the Senate by flipping a seat in Pennsylvania. A Warnock win would give the Democrats an outright majority 51-49, meaning the parties would not need to negotiate a power-sharing agreement.
Warnock’s preferred focus for most of his re-election bid has been his deal-making in Washington and the personal values he brings to the job. It wasn’t until the final stages of the campaign — only after two women accused Walker, an anti-abortion rights opponent, of promoting and paying for their abortions — that the senator escalated his attacks, arguing Walker was “unprepared” and “unfit” for it the work.
“My opponent lies about everything,” Warnock said at a recent campaign halt, reciting a litany of Walker’s repeated untruths and exaggerations. “He said he was a cop. He is not. He said he works for the FBI. He did not. He said he graduated from the University of Georgia. He did not. Said he was top of his class in his class. He was not. … He said he had another company with 800 employees. It has eight.”
Walker, on the other hand, has been enjoying the tournament since winning the GOP nomination in the spring.
“Herschel is a competitor. He’s very comfortable with Mano a Mano,” said Scott Paradise, Walker’s campaign manager, noting the candidate’s athletic abilities as a football running back, kick boxer and Olympic bobsledder.
In fact, Walker directs his attacks at Warnock’s strengths as pastor of the famous church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Walker has criticized Warnock over an Atlanta apartment building owned by a Warnock church foundation, where residents have complained to The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative media outlet, about eviction notices and poor conditions.
“What he’s doing in this apartment building in Columbia Towers isn’t right,” Walker said at a recent campaign stop in a suburb of Atlanta. “You shouldn’t put the name of Jesus on what you do to people, and you shouldn’t put the name of Martin Luther King on it. …You are not Jesus, and you are not Dr. Kings.”
Warnock, who says no residents of Columbia Tower were evicted, adds Walker’s attacks to the challenger’s list of documented exaggerations and untruths. “What kind of man lies upon the church?” Warnock said in Macon. “This is not the first time people have attacked the Ebenezer Baptist Church. They attacked Martin Luther King Jr. I am in good company.”
However, when asked if he had reconsidered his church’s management of Columbia Towers, Warnock dodged: “I’ve already answered the question. I am proud of what my church does to feed and shelter the hungry and homeless each week.”
Walker also accuses Warnock of “getting rich” as a senator, a nod to the pastor’s $7,500 monthly housing allowance from the church. The payments do not constitute a violation of Senate ethics rules, which limit senators’ external income.
At least once during the runoff, Walker has hinted that Warnock is a neglectful father. Warnock told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the comment “crossed a line.” At the start of the campaign, Walker publicly acknowledged three of his children for the first time, and only after The Daily Beast reported their existence. Warnock did not mention these children in any of his reviews of Walker.
Walker, meanwhile, has not answered questions from reporters at an open campaign rally since late October, when a second accuser came forward to say he urged her to have an abortion – a contradiction to his endorsement as a candidate for a national ban on all abortions. Walker has denied the women’s claims.
Both candidates’ ex-wives also feature in the campaign, although the two men avoid the topic themselves, leaving most of the discussion of their marriages to paid advertising. In a complaint, Warnock’s ex-wife tells Atlanta police that he ran over her foot. The Republican ad fails to mention that a police report says officers found no physical evidence to support their claim. A Democratic ad features an interview with Walker’s first wife detailing how he threatened her with violence, circumstances Walker has confirmed in an autobiography.
Ever since the two men met for their lonely debate on Oct. 14, Warnock Walker has hammered at a lack of political detail and at times what politics he is discussing.
Warnock is promoting his new state law capping insulin costs for Medicare beneficiaries, noting that Walker said diabetics can manage their health through “proper nutrition,” a practice that is not enough for insulin-dependent diabetics.
“Maybe he should apply to be a nutritionist. I’m running for the United States Senate,” Warnock said in Macon.
He pounced when Walker declared the United States was “not ready” for climate action and should “keep having these gas-guzzling cars,” which he said already had “good emissions standards.” Warnock added cheerful mockery when Walker recently introduced a reference to vampires in a campaign speech.
“I mean, who says something like that?” Warnock asked supporters.
Warnock’s advisers say the personal arguments are helping to persuade core Democrats they shouldn’t sit out the runoff, while also swaying the potentially crucial middle of voters in the senator’s favour. “Herschel Walker remained bogged down by his pattern of lying and troubling behavior, all of which led to him underperforming in the first round,” Warnock campaign manager Quentin Fulks said in a statement.
From Walker’s camp, Paradise insisted that Republicans’ best argument remains Warnock’s alignment with Democrats on economic policy. Still, he admits the campaign’s tone has darkened.
“We will certainly continue to aggressively pursue the case against Warnock,” he said, “and I suspect they will do the same.”