After weeks of slipping in the polls and struggling to raise money, retired football star and now rookie Republican political candidate Herschel Walker — a friend of Donald Trump and Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones — is on the rise in a key U.S. Senate race in Georgia.
A new poll of likely voters released Tuesday by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed the race virtually deadlocked with Walker at 46% and Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock at 44%. That’s within the poll’s margin of error. An additional 3% of voters indicated they’ll back Libertarian Chase Oliver, while 7% are undecided.
The closeness of the Nov. 8 election underscores the possibility that it could go into overtime, because under Georgia election law, a candidate must top 50% to win without a runoff, even in a general election. Other recent polls found that Warnock had taken a lead of up to 6 percentage points and indicated the Democrat was within striking distance of victory without a runoff.
It also reflects ongoing concerns from some in the state’s Republican base over Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Georgia who has a history of violent behavior and a propensity toward gaffes, lies and exaggerations on the campaign trail.
Meanwhile, Warnock’s approval rating hasn’t budged amid a torrent of spending from his campaign promoting his maverick streak and GOP outside groups seeking to paint him as a Biden lackey. His approval has held at 47% since the AJC’s July poll.
“The way that Warnock has run, I disagree with the spending that he and all the Democrats have done,” said Cal Roach, a Georgia agricultural consultant who said he’s supporting the GOP ticket because of the “ridiculous” financial policies of the Democrats. “They’ve just opened up the floodgates.”
That concern, amplified by rising interest rates and inflation, is reflected in the finding that just 37% approve of President Joe Biden’s performance in office, statistically unchanged since the last AJC poll in July. While Biden’s approval rating is rebounding in some other battleground states, he remains underwater in Georgia.
The poll was conducted Sept. 5-16 and has a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points. It’s one of the first public polls in Georgia since Biden signed a federal tax and health care measure and announced his plan to forgive student college debt.
It’s also the first poll released since Walker made a strategy shift to lower voter expectations in his performance as the first-time candidate prepares for an Oct. 14 debate with Warnock.
‘I’m not that smart’
The Republican retired football great said he’s just a bumpkin who wouldn’t have a chance of out-talking the erudite Warnock when they spar face to face on Oct. 14.
“I’m a country boy. I’m not that smart. He’s a preacher. (Warnock) is smart and wears these nice suits. So, he is going to show up and embarrass me at the debate Oct. 14th, and I’m just waiting to show up and I will do my best,” Walker told reporters last week.
Walker, who starred for the University of Georgia and in the National Football League, warned supporters not to expect much from him when the pair face off.
Nonetheless, Walker added he remains confident he’ll win. “The race is neck and neck,” he said. “And what I have to do is continue to get out and meet people ... I’m more than just a football player. What I’m doing now is moving forward by talking to the voters, because that’s what really counts and let them know what I stand for. I was a great football player, but I will be a better senator because I represent the people.”
After a strong start fueled by support from Trump, Walker, who grew up in rural Wrightsville, Ga., had fallen behind in most polls to Warnock, who also is the pastor of Atlanta’s iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
Experts expect the Walker-Warnock race is likely to remain close as the two parties are evenly matched in the Peach State.
The race has outsized national importance because it will help determine control of the Senate, which pundits currently consider likely to remain under razor-thin control of Democrats.
Georgia is now considered a battleground state after Biden beat Trump there in 2020, despite possibly illegal attempts by the Republican and supporters to interfere in the 2020 general election there. Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., who is not up for reelection, won their seats last year, becoming the first Democrats in decades to win statewide office in the state.
More than $270 million has been spent or reserved for TV and radio ads ahead of the November election, smashing state records for political spending during a midterm.
In declaring victory in May’s Republican primary, Walker declared it’s time for the GOP to reclaim control of Washington from the Democrats. “They don’t even like this country,” he said, adding that “it’s time for us to wake up from this nightmare, time for us to get up, get back on track.”
A former Dallasite, Walker grew up playing football, basketball, and competing in track and field in Georgia. After high school, Walker led the Georgia Bulldogs to a national championship and is still considered as one of the best college football players of all time.
In 1983, ineligible for the NFL because it did not allow underclassmen to play at the time, Walker was signed by the New Jersey Generals in the United States Football League (USFL). Originally owned by oil tycoon J. Walter Duncan, the team sold in 1983 to Trump.
Walker played for the Generals until the Dallas Cowboys acquired his NFL rights in the 1985 draft.
He also competed in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Alberta, Canada, on the United States’ bobsled team. He even performed with the Fort Worth Ballet for a performance during his time on the Cowboys. Later, he also tried his hand as a professional mixed-martial arts fighter, going 2-0.
Assistant political editor John Gravois contributed to this story, which includes material from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Daily News, the Savannah Morning News and The Associated Press.