Herschel Walker, one of the most recognized and beloved figures in Georgia, is headed for an easy victory in the state’s Senate Republican primary on Tuesday, but then the hard work begins.
Defeating Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in the November election is far less assured.
A former star NFL running back and legendary University of Georgia Bulldog who won a key endorsement from former President Donald Trump, Mr. Walker holds an average 55-point lead over a field of five other candidates in the Republican primary, according to RealClearPolitics.
The race will grow much more competitive Wednesday, when Mr. Walker is poised to enter the general election contest against Mr. Warnock, who won the Senate seat in a January 2021 runoff.
A Survey USA poll conducted in late April showed Mr. Warnock leading Mr. Walker by 5 percentage points, even though voters in the same poll picked incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp over presumptive Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams by 5 points.
A Hill/Emerson poll taken early this month had Mr. Walker ahead of Mr. Warnock by 4 points.
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The mixed poll results underscore how Democrats have diluted Georgia’s once solidly red electorate and ended Republican dominance in statewide elections.
“I think Georgia is now in what I’d call a purple enough place that outcomes can depend more on how an individual candidate is perceived than simply what letter comes after their name,” SurveyUSA President Ken Alper told The Washington Times.
Democrats are desperate for Mr. Warnock to win reelection and help the party maintain control of the Senate.
The Georgia race is one of several highly competitive contests that will determine the Senate majority. Other closely watched Senate races are in Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
Senate Republicans need a net gain of one seat in November to take over the chamber.
The Democratic Party and outside groups are expected to pour millions of dollars into Georgia to help Mr. Warnock win reelection. More than $830 million was spent on the runoff that yielded Mr. Warnock’s win over Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler last year and Democrat Jon Ossoff’s victory over Republican incumbent David Perdue.
Now running for his first full term, Mr. Warnock raised $13.6 million in the first three months of the year, adding to the $9.8 million he raised in the final quarter of last year.
Mr. Warnock significantly outraised Mr. Walker, who took in $5.5 million in the first three months of this year, adding to the $5.4 million he raised in the final quarter of last year.
Georgia political analysts and pollsters say money isn’t the only challenge the Republican Party is facing in the Senate race.
Mr. Walker is untested in debating the issues. In contrast, Mr. Warnock is polished and politically experienced after serving for years as senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church before joining the Senate.
“Herschel Walker is the best-known political candidate probably in the history of Georgia,” political analyst and pollster Matt Towery said. “And the question is: Will Walker be able to come above being a Heisman Trophy winner, the greatest beloved Bulldog in the history of the state, and move to a level where he is viewed as being Warnock‘s equal in being able to discuss the issues? That is the seminal issue we’ve got in this race.”
Mr. Walker is also facing questions in the media about his role in promoting a veterans mental health support group that the Justice Department has accused of defrauding the government.
The former football star was also caught embellishing his resume. He told supporters that he graduated at the top of his class at the University of Georgia when, in fact, he did not graduate, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution confirmed.
Mr. Walker’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats are eager to highlight Mr. Walker’s vulnerabilities in what is expected to be one of the closest Senate matchups this year.
“Every scandal that emerges about Herschel Walker reinforces why he has no place in the Senate,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Amanda Sherman-Baity said. “For voters, the conclusion will be simple: Walker is not who he says he is, not up for the job, and shouldn’t be representing Georgians in the Senate.”
Mr. Walker, who like Mr. Warnock is Black, is in a position to win double-digit support from Black voters, perhaps as much as 20%, Mr. Towery said.
Polls show voters are dissatisfied with the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress, who have pushed a liberal agenda amid high inflation, empty shelves and skyrocketing gasoline prices.
A Morning Consult poll in late April found Mr. Biden’s net approval rating had dropped 33 points since last year among independents, who make up nearly one-fifth of Georgia’s voters. Overall, Mr. Biden’s net approval rating in the state was underwater by 11 points.
“The problem that Warnock has is that he‘s going to have to carry a voting record that is very much in line with Joe Biden’s,” Mr. Towery said. “His votes have been for the most part in lockstep with the president, so he has feet of clay in that regard.”