ATLANTA (AP) — Republican Herschel Walker has five challengers in Tuesday’s primary, but he is already looking ahead to the general election as the GOP tries to take back the seat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock won last year, helping Democrats squeak out a congressional majority.
Republicans looking to regain control of the Senate have targeted the Georgia race, with former President Donald Trump throwing his heft behind Walker, a former college football celebrity with huge name recognition. Five candidates hope to get Walker below the 50% mark needed to avoid a runoff, however.
On the Democratic side, Warnock is looking to defend the seat he narrowly won in a special election in 2021. He easily defeated beauty industry professional Tamara Johnson-Shealey in Tuesday's primary.
A general election matchup between Warnock and Walker would mark the first time that two major party candidates for U.S. Senate in Georgia were Black.
Warnock is the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. He became the first Black senator elected from Georgia when he defeated appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in 2021 weeks after Democrats won the state's presidential election for the first time since 1992.
As a senator, Warnock has derided Republicans’ push for tighter voting rules, calling them “Jim Crow in new clothes;" stressed his work in bringing home funding for health care, national security research and other projects; and highlighted his efforts to try to cap the cost of insulin and temporarily suspend the federal gasoline tax.
Walker — a political newcomer — has nearly unmatched name recognition in Georgia from his days as a college football running back. He led the University of Georgia football team to a national title during the 1980 season and won the Heisman Trophy in 1982. He counts Trump as a close friend.
The Trump endorsement was the chief reason Pam Leonard said she voted for Walker. But the 71-year-old said Tuesday outside of a polling place in Woodstock that she remembers those football days, too.
“I know his story,” Leonard said. “Especially when he was a child, he was bullied and he built himself up by running against trains. That takes a lot of gumption.”
But some of his Republican opponents have questioned Walker's electability. Walker has a history of violence against women and has made multiple gaffes on the campaign trail. He also skipped the primary debates. He has been open about his long struggle with mental illness and acknowledged violent urges.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has made the sharpest attacks on Walker, saying he can’t win in November because of domestic violence allegations and other past problems. Former Trump administration official and Navy veteran Latham Saddler has questioned Walker's preparation for a potential debate with Warnock.
The other GOP primary candidates are: retired brigadier general Jon McColumn; contractor and Air Force veteran Kelvin King and former state Rep. Josh Clark.
David Butler didn't vote for Walker.
“I think he’s probably going to get the nomination, but I don’t think he deserves it,” Butler said after voting in Woodstock. “I think he’s getting it because of his name, because he played football at Georgia.”
Associated Press writer Jeff Martin in Woodstock, Georgia, contributed to this report.